What If The Future Is A Disappointment?

“But where is man to go? Something awkward, at any rate, can be noticed in him each time he achieves some such goal. Achieving he likes, but having achieved he does not quite like, and that, of course, is terribly funny. In short, man is comically arranged; there is apparently a joke in all this.”

You will have seen by now that Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic gymnastics team and individual all-around events earlier this week. Biles is unequivocally the greatest gymnast ever, regardless of the outcome of this Olympics, so it’s difficult to imagine how heavy a decision that must have been for her. The story serves as a poignant reminder that nothing is guaranteed, and that inherent in an uncertain future is an irreducible possibility of disappointment (of course, the flipside to this is that there is an irreducible possibility for joy, but we’ll set that aside for today’s Brief…). You may fail to reach your goals, no matter how hard you work. Or, perhaps worse, you may reach your goals and find them unfulfilling. As Dostoevsky ironically remarks through his character above in Notes from Underground, “there is apparently a joke in all this.” 

But if that’s all true, it begs the question, what are goals for? I have some thoughts!

  1. You are not your goals. If you let your goals become a proxy for your self—who you are, the community you’re part of, the ethics you live—then the disappointment I referenced above will be crippling and potentially interminable. An example of this is the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement, which has a rabid following of folks who sometimes craft their whole lives around the idea of retiring at the age of 40 (or some other very young age). Well, what happens if you don’t meet that goal and you’ve cultivated an entire existence around it? Or what if you do meet that goal and realize that in fact you don’t want to be retired at 40 at all? If you allow goals to become you, then any disappointment related to them is likely to feel existential.
  2. Your goals are your goals. My wife Amy loves to play fast-paced card games like Speed and Nertz, but I hate these types of games. They are one of the few things in life that give me real anxiety. Well, so what if your neighbors travel to Europe every other year? If you like to stay within a three hour drive of home, don’t make European travel your goal. That would be miserable. Or maybe you like living a very simple life, and don’t need to work the stressful hours that your peers do, don’t work the stressful hours that your peers do.
  3. Goals are a great beginning, but a terrible end. Goals are nothing more and nothing less than the starting point in a conversation about preparing for an uncertain future today. The next step is determining whether the goals are realistic, and then moving toward the development of healthy, sustainable habits and processes. At the extremes, two things can happen if we leave the conversation at the goal level: One is that there is insufficient habit-building today, such that the goal becomes unattainable. Perhaps you have an ambitious goal to retire at 55, but you haven’t committed to the saving and spending habits required today to make that goal a reality in the future. The other extreme is unsustainable habit-building. Like the dieting/weight-loss roller coasters that people often get on, a goal might generate enough initial excitement to create a new habit, but without proper care that habit may actually lead to burnout and the self-sabotaging of the goal. I see a lot of this in high-earning, high-stress environments where people say that they will work and save really hard and then retire early, but end up doing so at the expense of their physical, mental, and relational well-being.
  4. Like a bad book, the sooner you recognize a bad goal and put it away, the better. I used to be the type of reader who had to finish any book I started. Now, I try to do a better job of realizing that I owe nothing to the book, and any time spent with a bad book is a sunk cost that won’t be recouped by sinking more into it. It’s the same with goals. Maybe they were bad to begin with, or maybe we simply outgrow them. Either way, it’s okay and even healthy to set them aside when they no longer serve their purpose. For example, I have a goal to someday buy a beat-up old German sports car and drive it around town, but the Wall Street Journal tells me that used car prices are up 34% so far this year, so I am holding that goal extremely loosely and may let it go…

So keep setting goals! Just remember that your self-worth isn’t wrapped in the achievement of them, they don’t need to make sense to anyone else, they should lead to deeper conversation about sustainable habits, and you shouldn’t be afraid to throw the bad ones out. We help clients through this iterative cycle every day, and hopefully the end product is the ability to greet the joys and disappointments of life with grace. Until next time!

Jared Korver
[email protected]

A product of small-town North Carolina (Carthage, to be exact), I’m proudly married to my best friend and co-adventurer, Amy. Together, we have two sons–Miles and Charlie–and could more or less start a library from our home. I love being outside, can’t read enough, am in the habit of writing haikus, and find food and coffee to be among life’s greatest treasures.