Goals or Systems: Which is for Losers and which is for Winners?

“You know, some people have no brains, no willpower, no vision. They just drift through life like lumps of crap.” – Veronica Vaughn – in Billy Madison

It is widely believed that goals are fundamental to human advancement. This notion is deeply ingrained in contemporary culture at virtually all levels. 

Many people believe that without goals, a person is effectively lost in an unfocused maze, where they will soon drift off into an abyss. At least, this is the fear.

Without the directive force of goals, life becomes an unfocused and less meaningful existence. “Goals are for winners,” many argue.

A Bright Cloud

It is true that with too little direction and too much mindless drifting, you can easily become a loser. But if you take long-term ambition, well-constructed SMART goals, and sprinkle in some discipline, you will become a winner. Yay. Enjoy the sunshine (while it lasts).

It is widely thought that opportunity is ours if we just stay disciplined and focused on our goals. First, we must define them.

Define That Goal

In the movie Billy Madison, there was a clear path to success. It came prepackaged and defined by others. First, Billy needed to graduate from grade school. Second, his father’s company would be his. It was a ridiculous premise, of course, but the goal fell into his lap and had a clear outcome.

Unfortunately, outside of the movie screen, things are never so simple. Our goals must be defined on our own terms. This is true of all successful efforts. We must focus intrinsically on what we want, rather than what others want for us.

Mr. Madison is the exception, not the norm.

The Aura of Goals

Have you noticed that ambitious people often tout the goals they seek? They may do this for a variety of reasons but this also has practical usefulness.

On a first date, you want your potential lover to say positive things about you to her friends. Sharing a bit about your goals or ambitions can help make a positive first impression. 

When we meet someone who has well-defined goals, we tend to view them as successful. If her friends know how “goal-oriented” you are, this is probably a good thing. The desire to signal that we have a bright future is understandable. Even useful.

The joy of goals.

We all want to be winners. No one wants to be a loser. So, if goals are for winners then… Well, we must find ourselves some goals. If you are having a hard time creating goals for yourself, you better get on that! Pick up a book. Try something. Or you might just drift through life like a lump of crap. 👀

But are we really being honest with ourselves when we add the burden of goals to our probably busy lives? Is a strong set of SMART goals and vivid visuals of our esteemed and illustrious future all we need? When we have these things in mind, they do encourage hope and other positive feelings, but the dark side of goals often goes unexamined.

A Dark Cloud

Lurking in the shadows are naysayers and skeptics like myself. You could say we are like the dangerous creatures who reside in the depths of the ocean blue, waiting to expose your pursuit of goals with a brutal dose of reality. But we are only here to help.

Some might refer to us as “haters.” I won’t disavow the title. Sometimes it fits – I have been told. We are here to unleash dark clouds and heavy rains on this ‘goals-at-all-cost’ parade. 

One deep sea-dweller who has ‘hated on’ the concept of goals in a best selling book is Scott Adams, the creator of the famous Dilbert comic strip. Adams says bluntly that “goals are for losers.”1 🤷‍♂️

Goals vs. systems

You may feel that this overstates things a bit but it likely has your attention, so let’s explore further. How could anyone say that goals are for losers? To answer this, we must more closely examine the distinction between goals and systems.

→ Goal: “A specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future.”

→ System: “Something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”

Problems with Goals

The pursuit of a goal does help direct focus but there are three major downsides. 

  1. The Failure Monster

First, there is a heightened risk of failure in the land of goal attainment. Failure or fear of failure can easily result in a loss of motivation. You may think your steadfast desire to achieve will pull you through all the way to the end. But people who have tried to “10x” their way to success, reach lofty goals, or rely on willpower alone, tend to struggle.

Ultimately, without tasting progress along the way, people will lose motivation. It is a law of nature, much like gravity.

When we strive for anything, a monster known as self-doubt is always lurking. He can unleash his sinister cycle of discouragement, thereby polluting the process of achievement. Nothing unleashes this detrimental force like falling short on an inappropriately assigned goal. Beware, on this path, the loss of motivation will not announce itself but it will likely find you.

Under the rubric that governs goals, you either achieve it, or fall short. The stakes are high like a poker game. It can be an emotional roller coaster and depending on how much pressure you inflict onto yourself, it can take you for quite a ride.

  1. Misdirected Focus

A second major downside of goals is the other side of what makes them useful. While they direct focus, if that focus is on something too specific, or irrelevant to your interests, it can be easy to miss important inputs of information. Opportunities for fulfillment that exist within the bigger picture will go unseen.

Setting unnecessary or premature goals stifles the the creative process. This inhibits learning and growth. A blurry picture emerges.

Goals blur the process of progress.

Goals keep you accountable but they also take the fun out of what you are doing. As much as they direct your focus, they are just as likely to misdirect it toward something that takes you away from your deepest values.

  1. What Comes Next?

Even when a goal is achieved, if there is no system in place, the accomplishment can lose nearly all of its meaning. The third major downside, if you do not have a system, is the dead-end that awaits once a goal is achieved. This is often an empty, unexpected feeling that will an strike even if you did everything perfectly.

What comes next?

Our culture promotes characters in movies and TV shows who magically seem to have things figured out. 

This is not how things work in real life. Instead, it takes work and time. Every time.

Systems are for Winners

The cost of choosing a goal before you have discovered what it takes to achieve success within a system can be extremely high. A system can generate future success the way an engine makes a car move.

Scott Adams argues that goals often lead to failure because they do not activate a system that can endure. In his view, only the implementation of systems can unleash a process that is everlasting. He explains:

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.” 

— Scott Adams

Instead of pursuing a sexy or glamorous goal that you can tell your friends about, why not try a system first?

In contrast to goals, systems are flexible and easy to accomplish. They are energizing because they minimize the risk of failure. How about that? A system comprised of a curious and creative approach, free from the constrains of goals may actually create immunity to failure. Not bad.

Engaging in a system that you personally created and enjoy provides a wellspring of energy. To tap into these robust energy reserves, all you need to do is return to your system.

If you do the action, you win. Since systems make action both simple and easy, an inability to engage with your system likely just means that you are not as interested as you thought you were. This is important feedback that would have been missed if a high percentage of your focus was directed on a lofty, or poorly defined goal.

Thinking about goals should come after a system is constructed. It is similarly important to gather feedback from people who know more than you about what you want to pursue.

‘Knowledge is power’ but knowledge is the foundation, not premature goals.

A Final Word

“You say you’re not a loser Billy Madison, so win.” Veronica Vaughn (again)

How many people do you know who want to have financial security, yet they drive an expensive car? People may emphasize their desire to spend time with family but choose to work all the time. If you are not living life in accordance with what you actually care about most, goals and systems cannot save you.

But a system can at least allow your creative energy to grow and relieve the self-imposed pressure of goals. You may be getting the systems-goals order of operations wrong, or not fully correct. If this is the case, it is time to change right now.

The cultural forces that give a constant green light for the promiscuous use of goal-setting lead to an emphasis on the goal over the system. Do not be one of the people who makes this fundamental mistake.

Although those who pursue goals before a system is established may not all be losers, these self-imposed barriers do cause them to lose more often than they win.

Further Reading

1See Chapter 6 of Scott Adams ultra-successful best seller “How to fail at almost everything and still win big: Kind of the story of my life” for a thoughtful and entertaining analysis of goals versus systems, including the definitions of each term as outlined in this article.

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