Use Active Goal-Setting to Improve Your Odds of Success
On the difference between active and passive goals, the “goal” of goal-setting, and meeting reality on its own terms.
Here’s a question that might sound dumb: why do we set goals?
The short answer is that setting goals is the best way to make sure you keep on growing. The longer answer (and the more important one) is that goals provide us with the building blocks of a fulfilling life. If you set the right goals, stay engaged, and see them through, chances are good that you’ll live a fulfilling life.
But a word of caution here: you need set the right kind of goals. Because setting the wrong kind of goals can actually be detrimental in two significant ways. First, the wrong kind of goals can derail you from seeing goals through. Secondly, even if you do achieve the goals, the wrong kind of goal can leave you feeling disillusioned or burned out. Either way, the wrong kind of goal can make you feel sour about the whole enterprise of goal-setting.
Whether you write your goals down or not, whether you create a vision board, chant affirmations, or do exercises imagining yourself succeeding — ensuring that you think about and embrace goals in the right way can make all the difference.
The Two Types of Goals
The first (and most common) kind of goals are passive. They come out of a way of thinking that centers around what you would like to have, be, or receive. These kinds of goals are more common — especially for those who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the process of adopting goals.
The second (and less common) kind of goals are active. They come out of a way of thinking that centers around what you would like to be doing, or what activities you’d like to be engaged in. The reason these types of goals are less common is because they tend not to revolved around thoughts of completion or resolution and passive enjoyment (like their passive counterparts). Rather, active goals involve effort, problems, trade-offs, and other things that we tend to try to avoid when thinking about how we would like things to do be in the future.
This piece of writing is intended to lay out the difference between the two kinds of goals and the ways to formulate them. My hope is that, at the very least, the kind of goals you adopt will be changed ever-so-slightly. We set ourselves up for disappointment when we throw ourselves at the mercy of a worldview that doesn’t jibe with how reality is. In the case of goals, we nearly guarantee disappointment and disillusionment when we formulate our goals in a way that ignores both our psychology and the steady march of time and events.
For lack of a better descriptor, we’ll call the wrong way to formulate goals passive goal formulation. It centers around achievement — meaning obtaining something — which sounds just fine on the surface. But hidden in the words of such goals is a problem.
Many of us set goals for ourselves based on where we want to be or what we want to have in the future. That’s the language of achievement we’re used to. The key words here are the verbs: be and have. As verbs go, those are essentially passive. There is no action involved in either being or having. There is no activity, no work, no problems, no struggle.
A goal that centers around either being or doing carries with it an implicit hope — which is then made explicit: it’s the hope to be passive. This is the wrong way to formulate goals, because it sets your sights on passivity — on being or having. If goals are supposed to continuously motivate you to action, you’re essentially using the hope of passivity to motivate you to activity. Now how weird is that?
Specifically, the issue is the desire for passive enjoyment. Passive goal-setting relies on the desire to find fulfillment in being some way or having something. The problem with this approach is that one of two things happens:
- Passive goals fail to properly motivate you for any significant length of time
- Passive goals — once achieved — fail to fulfill you.
We’re probably most familiar with the first outcome, and it’s probably why you’re reading about goal-setting right now. We have all set goals where— after a while — we lose steam. We fall short, and feel a bit deflated. Then it’s on to the next goal, and perhaps we learned a little something along the way.
Less common is the second outcome: you achieve your goal, but it fails to provide the expected fulfillment. This problem — while arguably more rare — is more dangerous than the first. It’s dangerous because when we achieve a passive goal, we feel the urge to quickly move onto the next thing — the next goal. We feel strangely unfulfilled by having climbed that particular mountain, so we find a new one — a taller one. The problem with this is that life then becomes a serious of mountains. We’re forever climbing — which would be fine — but in many cases, we’re not enjoying the climb itself.
Goals built on wishes to be or to have tend lead down a road of disillusionment or abandonment. So what can replace them? Active goal-setting.
Active goal-setting is the opposite of passive goal-setting. Rather than building goals on the passive verbs to be or to have, you construct goals using active verbs. Instead of conceiving of success or accomplishment as being free from effort, problems, and trade-offs, active goals assume that those things will happen almost without exception. And so they build that acceptance into the picture of success and accomplishment. That is part of what makes active goals so much more effective; they’re more realistic.
To get an idea of what this looks like, you can ask yourself a simple question to help produce an active goal. Ask yourself a few questions, and build the answers into a goal:
- What activities do I wish to be engaged in 6 months from now?
A year from now?
3 years from now?
- What problems would I like to have?
- What trade-offs would I be happy to be making?
When we’re formulating goals, we tend not to think of these things, because they sound negative. We don’t tend to think of goals as active things because we envision achievement as something we receive. But as I hope I’ve illustrated above, we’re not after achievement — we’re after fulfillment. And there is a large body of thought and research telling us that fulfillment isn’t the result of having things, but the result of doing things (i.e., activity).
The Link Between Activity and Fulfillment
Aristotle wrote that the aim of a good human life was not achievement — though achievements can certainly help build one. Rather, it is in the use of our uniquely human functions that we find fulfillment. It’s not the completion of the project — where we sit back and reap the passively accepted benefits — that we find that thing that makes it all worth while. Instead, it is the use of our reason, creativity, and human spirit that we find fulfillment. And what could engage those things more than being knee-deep in a challenging project?
At the end of the day, those who are actively doing things are most likely to feel fulfilled. It’s that simple. You can certainly enjoy sitting and doing nothing for a few hours or days, if you’re resting or recuperating. But after much longer, the enjoyment fades. That’s because we need to be involved in activity to get that sense of fulfillment. It’s what rouses that most crucial part of our human spirit, human nature — or whatever you want to call it.
The point is simply this: set goals, but set active goals. Set the kind of goals that aren’t rooted in a wish to simply enjoy completion and achievement. Set the kind of goals that acknowledge the never-complete, always challenging nature of reality. Set goals that involve doing more work, dealing with more problems, and being active. It’s a lot less likely you’ll be frustrated our disappointed that way. And it’s all because you refused to form unrealistic expectations — and because you embraced what fulfillment actually means.