I’ve been talking to Graham Clark (Moneystepper.com), a 30 year old CPA blogger in the UK over twitter recently. On one of my other blogs, Blogetization, I wrote a review of his site focusing on his podcasts and how he sets up his blog and content. I made the comment in my review that I like most of his views on things, except for goals. He was interested in hearing more about why I’m down on goals, which was the motivation for this post.
My thesis, both from my own life experience and from multiple authors I’ll cite later in this post, is that focusing on systems, your craft or what you need to get done – how you do things – rather than a grand “dream” is a more productive way to accomplish what you want in life. It’s possible that Graham and I are in “violent agreement” and that this post closely agrees with what he means as a goal. Hopefully he’ll clarify a bit more when he talks about goals in the future if that is the case.
Years ago I went on a single date with a woman. Early in the date she told me that she wanted to go back to school and get a degree, get married and start a family, develop her artwork and gain renown for it and start a business. “I’m very ambitious” she said. I asked her what she was doing to work towards all those different objectives and the date turned quite chilly and came to a close shortly afterwards.
Her definition of ambition (or goals) was to have her wishes ready in case she ever discovered a genie. Fine for what it is, I guess, but given that genies don’t exist it all seemed like a waste of time and energy to me. I don’t know anyone who could accomplish the wide range of things she seemed to be after – almost every one was a full time job in itself.
In his “about the site“, Graham writes:
I believe that everyone should have a financial dream that they are working towards. It should be a visual image that will help motivate you to make the best financial decisions even though they may hurt a little in the short term. Mine is related to the actual image above. It is to be financially secure enough in my early 40s that I can spend my days on my balcony of my paid for home in the South of France, enjoying great steak and fine wine with family and great friends.
Let me know what your financial dream is – I’d love to hear all about it.
This is fine for what it is, but my view is that the “make the best financial decisions even though they may hurt a little in the short term” is the important part, NOT having “a visual image that will help motivate you“.
As an aside, years ago “The Secret” was a popular self-help, mystical philosophy. The idea was that just by visualizing what you wanted, the universe would deliver whatever you wanted without any work on your part. I’m positive that Graham would agree with me that this is complete nonsense and isn’t at all what he’s advocating.
In “Succeeding” John T. Reed talks about how goals are a “to do list”. They are things that you’re going to break down into steps to accomplish and will probably be spending massive amounts of time, money and energy on. Given this, it’s vitally important that you’re pursing the RIGHT things, which is a big part of what he talks about in this book.
From this perspective, Graham’s idea of living a life of leisure in the South of France is great. The first step is for him to think about that lifestyle and make sure he’d actually enjoy it. Will he be ok living away from friends and family in England? Will he be ok adapting to French culture? Is he able to function in a different culture? He takes trips to the South of France, so I think he’s on track to make sure he’s picked the right “goal” from a to-do perspective instead of a “desirable vision” view.
Breaking this down, what will be required for this lifestyle? He should be able to figure out what this will cost annually. Using the 4% rule (or another approach he prefers), he can estimate a lump sum he’ll need to invest to support this. Subtracting what he currently has in his investment portfolio and the length of time he has remaining (10 years) tells him how much he’ll have to grow this portfolio by each year to achieve this goal. He also needs to understand how to construct an appropriate investment portfolio, which from what I’ve read he already knows how to do. He now has a finer grain todo list – rather than some “vision” he has a concrete road map about what he needs to accomplish each year for the next decade. Is his blog the best way to get there? I don’t know. Maybe he should go back to a 9-5 or consulting in a different way to achieve his needed portfolio gains. Maybe not. Would he be willing to continue operating his blog while living in France? Would he be willing to work part-time in France, maybe as an accountant or financial planner to local ex-pats? Either of these would reduce the needed portfolio, since it would provide a monthly income. These are important decisions which he now has the data to consider.
In “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” Scott Adams titles his third chapter “Passion is Bullshit” and denounces goals. The argument is that with goals you fail constantly except for a brief moment where you achieve what you set out to do, then it’s over. It’s very disheartening from a psychological perspective. We see this with people trying to lose weight. Telling yourself that you want to weigh 70 lbs less every day makes you feel bad. Instead, Adams endorses systems. A system is eating under a certain number of calories every day or maintaining a set level of physical activity. These are chosen to help move you towards the weight you want to be at, but instead of focusing on the vision, you focus on the steps. If you ate less than your allocated calories in a day, that’s a success and you should feel good about it. Keep it up and eventually you’ll be the weight you want to be at – after having daily successes all the way there.
A slightly different take on this, which Scott Adams talks about in a recent podcast with Maureen Anderson (jump to 20:23 for this bit), is that goals used to work. In simpler times it was worthwhile to focus on a concrete goal and pursue it at the cost of all else. In modern times, things change so quickly that it’s better to stay flexible and keep looking for better opportunities that may (will?) present themselves. Maybe within the next 10 years Spain will be looking better than France?
In “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport addresses a similar idea from a career perspective. He talks about the “passion hypothesis” that suggests everyone will be happy if they figure out what their dream job is (their goal), then go do it. He demolishes this idea showing that the people who endorse this idea, such as Steve Jobs, *DID NOT* do this in their own careers. He interviews people who pursued or achieved what they thought would make them happy, then they weren’t. His argument is that there are characteristics of a good career that are worth pursuing, and if we develop expertise in what we’re working on – even if we don’t love doing it – we can exchange this expertise (he calls it “career capital”) for a job and lifestyle that will make us happy. The idea behind this might be that, rather than focusing on the vision of his goal, Graham should develop an in demand skill set (perhaps financial which he already has, or content marketing / blogging which he’s well on the way to mastering) which will allow him to work on his own schedule where he wants (in the South of France, taking a day off for steaks and drinks with his friends whenever he feels like it perhaps). His career capital can be exchanged for the lifestyle he wants. Again, the focus here isn’t on motivation from your vision, but simply developing expertise, getting better at whatever skills you’re currently using, with the idea that you will be able to exchange this expertise for a desirable lifestyle down the road.
Sometimes these arguments come down to “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” – semantic nonsense that doesn’t get you anywhere. I feel that, pragmatically, there’s something important going on here beyond such a debate. My point, hopefully conveyed in this post, is that the vision of a goal isn’t worthwhile in and of itself. It is worthwhile as something to verify that you’re moving in the right direction and working towards something you really want, but beyond that focusing on your day-to-day tasks is FAR more valuable than reminding yourself of the goal constantly.
AS AN IMPORTANT REMINDER – I’M NOT SAYING GRAHAM CLARK IS A “BAD GUY” OR DENOUNCING HIS SITE IN THIS POST. I AGREE WITH ABOUT 98% OF WHAT I’VE READ ON HIS SITE. THIS IS THE *TINY* PART OF HIS SITE I DISAGREE WITH, WHICH IS WHY I FELT IT WAS WORTHWHILE TO POST.
What do you think? Are goals worthwhile? Is passion bullshit?