Your whole life you’ve been told to set goals and try to achieve them. The old tropes come to mind
Reach for the stars and land on the moon
or one I believed in for a long time
Dreams are just goals without a plan
but the more I work in different systems (big corporate, small corporate, startup, and freelance) I found that chasing after goals can be your undoing. In other words
Goals are Bullshit
Without going to down the endless list of bad stuff people did to achieve a goal let me propose just one example from a team I worked with that was trying to improve search on their site.
The basic idea was good; let’s improve the search experience on our site. From there the team, being data-driven needed a measure to figure out if their efforts were helping or hurting. So they chose the number of searches on the site as an excellent way to measure if the new version improved the experience.
They did their work and switched from an industry standard search platform to a commercial proprietary one that promised great things. The team completed the integration, tested it worked, and completely changed the UI.
From there they opened it up to beta testers than to everyone else. Here is what followed:
- I get a call from the product manager asking to test
- I fire up the site and search for a common term
- The results were completely wrong, and I was confused by what I was seeing (imagine searching for “New Tesla” and all the results were about new Nike shoes that just came out that day or Nikola Tesla)
- I typed in a more direct example, following our example let’s say “Tesla Model Y” and this time again I received seemingly random results.
- Even entering search string qualifiers like quotes didn’t give me what I wanted
- I eventually found what I was looking for after about 10 search queries for specific terms.
I told the product manager it sucked, and they should not release it. He was frustrated because all the data they had showed people were using search more than ever and when surveyed loved the new UI. So if they’re using it more and love it, how could it be wrong?
The problem was they didn’t have a clear direction, which should be to reduce the number of search queries, delivering users the results they want faster. Product teams often set short-sighted goals and deploy changes which frustrate users but give them a “success” against their goals.
How should you do it?
Goals are the results of progress. Progress comes from advancements in a direction. This direction should be towards the heart of your product, service, or even life goal. If your path is clear, you’ll achieve many goals along the way, but will never be finished.
I believe this to be the recipe for success in life and business.
If a specific goal is all you are working towards when you achieve that goal progress will stop. To find success you also need a healthy environment where good things can happen.
Alexander Flemming was studying bacteria at St Mary’s in London in 1928. He was notoriously messy and even though he had been working on different strands of bacteria for years, one day ended up discovering something that changed medicine as we know it.
As he famously wrote “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic that has since saved millions of people. This discovery came as an accident of sorts due to his messy environment.
My point is that you cannot just write up a plan for success and follow it step by step and expect to win. You need to create an environment that allows these seemingly random events to occur. Who knows, had Alexander Flemming not believed in accidental discoveries like this you might not be here today (unless you were alive already in 1928 in which case, congrats on making it this far)
If you find out what you want in life (congrats) set a path in that direction, develop a good environment, and don’t get distracted by short term goals.
This is what I was lucky enough to figure out early in my career, 18 years later I’m practically retired. I hope this helps you in your journey, wherever it may take you.