Sometimes, Actually Pursuing a Goal is the Worst Way to Achieve It

general zen

There’s a strange phenomenon I’ve discovered in business and in life: I call them “Counter-Goals”.

So what’s a Counter-Goal? Well, it’s a goal which is achieved best by not pursuing it in the first place. Huh?

Okay, an example. When I was in my first year at Wharton Undergrad, I took a class called Management 100. The concept of the course was (and probably still is) quite novel. I was a member of a group of 12 other freshmen, and as a group we were tasked with completing some kind of major project. One group had to build a playground. Another group had to hold a major fundraising event. Our goal happened to be teaching the basics of economics to sixth graders.

So, the purpose of the class was for a bunch of us Type-A personalities to figure out a way to work together to make that goal happen. Along the way, we’d read management literature and grill each other about our group work habits.

I learned some fascinating things — for example, I had a habit of making a lot of jokes in group activities. People laughed at them, sure, but I discovered that those jokes actually eroded my credibility for more serious matters. By establishing myself as “the guy that tells the jokes to break the tension” I was expressly not established as “the guy with really good ideas.” So, thank you, Management 100, I now hold off on jokes until the serious stuff is out of the way.

Anyways, this is all a huge digression. So how is this an example of a Counter-Goal? Well, at one point in our group meetings, the Teaching Assistant went around the room and asked each of us what our goal for the class was. It quickly became apparent that people had one of two answers:

  1. To learn, or
  2. To get an ‘A’

Well, here’s the interesting part. I took notes on who endeavoured to learn versus who endeavoured to get an ‘A’ and at the end of the semester I asked people what grade they got (not everyone said, but hey I was doing research here!). Anyways, there was a clear inverse correlation: The people whose main goal was to get an ‘A’ usually got a ‘B’ or lower, while the people whose main goal was to learn generally got a high ‘B’ or low ‘A’.

I could not reconcile that paradox for the longest time. But then last week I was watching “American Made” (CNBC show about the country’s most successful entrepreneurs; suffice it to say that show is a Tivo Season Pass), and they profiled John Mackey, CEO and Founder of Whole Foods, the health-food grocery store.

Mackey said something very interesting: “Profit maximization,” he said, “is a paradox. The stated goal of a business is to maximize profit, but you can’t focus solely on profit. You have to focus on building a great company and offering a great service and the rest will take care of itself.”

I’m paraphrasing here, so I may have not gotten the quote verbatim, but the concept is the exact same as the people going around the room in Management 100 saying they wanted to maximize their GPA!

I’ve seen this “paradox” in so many other spheres, too. People who say they want to make as much money as possible tend to be unhappy (how impassioned can you be when your sole goal is just to make a lot of money?), leading them to perform poorly at what they do, inhibiting their stated goal of maximizing wealth. Or if your goal is to become friends with someone you just met, you can’t aggressively approach them and ask them to start being friends with you; it would put an unnatural pressure on the friendship.

So, I generalize all these phenomena into the concept of a “Counter-Goal” — a goal which is best achieved by not even pursuing it.

For me, the value of recognizing this is pretty cool, because it means that just because I want to achieve something, I have to be open the idea that maybe the best way to achieve it is to forget about it a little bit.


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