Avoiding The Wrong Goals

Tom Morris

I love urging people on to new adventures, to the setting of new goals and the pursuing of new possibilities. But I never want to encourage anyone to launch into a disaster. So many of the success books of the past century have focused on the importance of setting and maintaining goals that stretch us, and many have stressed both dreaming big and aiming high, but few have said very much about the even more vital importance of having appropriate goals - proper goals, goals that are really deeply right for us. In the wake of all the dot-com failures of the recent past, and in view of the extraordinarily exciting time we face as we move forward, a time that is so full of promise and danger, this is a topic we need to address. I want to share just a few thoughts with you today about avoiding the wrong goals.

Life often involves a juxtaposition of opposites. For both adventurous and appropriate goal setting, we need to be both bold and cautious - bold enough to launch out into unknown terrain when we feel we hear the call to go forth, yet cautious enough to resist the siren song of goals that might look good from a distance, but ultimately would not be right for us to pursue. Avoiding the wrong goals can be every bit as important as embracing the right ones. And we all have one power that can make this sometimes difficult to do.

One of the strongest forces in human life is the power of self-deception. The wisest among us can at times somehow manage to fool ourselves into thinking that something we know deep down to be wrong is actually perfectly permissible, and even advantageous for us to pursue in the circumstances.

"The worst of all deceptions is self-deception."
- Socrates (c.469-399 BC)

Sometimes, you can get so excited by the promise of a new adventure, by an opportunity or prospect of something new, that you become strongly disinclined to listen to that little voice deep within whose whisperings might otherwise prompt you to reconsider your course. Whether understood as the voice of conscience, the guidance of God, the protection of a guardian spirit, or the uncanny survival instincts naturally provided by our evolutionary past, this inner sense of warning has been reported since the time of Socrates. The great philosopher himself claimed that, throughout the course of his life, whenever he was about to do something wrong, a voice within warned him away from that line of action. Self-deception can prevent us from listening to this voice that Socrates thought it so important to heed.

Self-deception operates through selective attention and rationalization. It acts to license behavior that is in some way self-defeating or self-destructive. We can deceive ourselves into believing that we ought to pursue something which we know deep down to be wrong. And it's important to beware of this tendency.

"Nothing is as easy as deceiving yourself, for what you wish you readily believe."
- Demosthenes (384-322 BC)

Unfortunately, there is no magic philosophical immunization against self-deception. But I can share some warning signs. When considering a possible new goal, or launching into a new line of action, it's best to be on the lookout for a few standard leading indicators that self-deception may play a role in your deliberations.

The rules for detecting the likelihood of self-deception are pretty much what they always have been. Little things do matter. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. In most other ways, things are rarely what they at first seem. When you're the only one who stands to benefit from a project, no one really stands to benefit. People's feelings matter. Time does fly. No enterprise is worth your energy for external results alone. And money isn't everything. Whenever you're tempted to think otherwise and flout any of these basic truths, beware of self-deception.

Alerted to the possibility of self-deception, you can be on guard, and thus less likely be deluded into pursuing a false course that will be self-defeating in the long run. Self-deception is such a powerful force in our lives that we cannot guarantee, even if we do spot it in operation, that we will be able to recognize it as such and overturn its recommendations. But we can be watchful, and, understanding its pervasiveness in human thought, we can at least be less vulnerable to its depredations.

Anyone who is not omniscient will occasionally set wrong goals. And not just because of self-deception, since simple erroneous judgment, false information, and incomplete perspectives can result in goals that aren't right for us. The next best thing to avoiding the wrong goals is having the ability to realize when we have gotten on the wrong path, make a correction of course, and take action to veer off in a better direction instead. We should never let pridefulness, fear of embarrassment, or inertia keep us on a course that we begin to discern is wrong for us. It's the very nature of an adventure to present new twists and turns, unexpected developments, and even occasional reversals of direction. The best adventures are led by instinct, intuition, and inspiration, that little voice that warns, and that calling that goads us forward to choose the right goals and make corrections as they are needed along the way.

"Adversity is the midwife of genius."
- Napoleon (1769-1821)

An additional point is important to make here. We should never allow ourselves to wallow in regret about any inappropriate goals we may have been pursuing. We need to just learn and move on. As preferable as it is to avoid it in the first place, the wrong path can often show us where the right road lies. Sometimes the problems, difficulties, and even disasters that result from seeking the wrong things can wake us up powerfully to what we really do need.

It's not just setting goals that is so important. It's setting the proper goals. Learn from your mistakes. This is part of the inner art of goal conception. Then do what you can to go and sin no more.

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