We spend a large part of our adult lives believing that setting and achieving goals is the very definition of success. We have this approach to life drummed into us from a young age. As we come to the end of our childhood, we’re taught to put our dreams to one side and begin the path to adulthood - one where realistic expectations are set for our lives and careers.
That way we won’t be disappointed by failure.
We are then taught to organise these expectations using goals. One of the most common ways in which we are taught to structure our goals is through using the SMART methodology - making sure they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.
But there’s a problem with this, and it causes us to prioritise the achievement of goals over our happiness.
It’s not because goals are wrong or bad. It’s simply that we are using them in the wrong way.
The truth is that nothing profound or exceptional ever happens when a SMART goal is used as a guiding light. So when we set up our measure of success in this way, the results will be mediocre at best.
So what if instead of striving to achieve goals, we strived to achieve happiness and congruence with our most powerful desires and ideals?
I believe this to be the true definition of success. The problem is that, at first, this new way of thinking goes against our need for specificity - for classification and categorisation of the world and our place within it.
We love to label things because it makes us feel secure. It helps us to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world. Seeing the world in black and white enables us to understand things clearly. In most cases, this is a good thing, as it allows us to navigate the world quickly and effectively. But in the case of our dreams and aspirations, it can cause significant damage.
When we assign labels to our dreams it makes them appear unrealistic.
But what if we were to instead broaden our dreams, rather than lower our expectations?
Most of us dream of becoming “something” as a child. It might be a princess, or a superhero, or president of the world. At this point in our lives, nothing seems impossible. Then we learn about the world, and understand that the probability of becoming a princess, superhero or president is pretty minimal. Over time we become fearful of failure, so we gradually lower our expectations.
As we enter our teens and early twenties we continue to dream big, although our dreams are a little more refined and ‘realistic’ by this point. Maybe we dream of owning our own business, or becoming a wildly successful lawyer. Either way, we give our dreams specificity, with a clear endgame in sight.
So there are two issues at play here. The first is the specificity we give to our dreams, and the second is our attempt to make them SMART.
Let me explain using an example from my own life.
For years I dreamt of owning my own business. I started working as a waitress at the age of 14, and I loved it from the very first day. I thought I would be pretty good at running a cafe, so in my early twenties I went about the process of building a plan for starting my own. I created a 60 page business plan, with very specific metrics for success.
The enormity of the risk I would be taking soon set it. I was following the rules of the game, making SMART goals, but overwhelm and fear defeated me, so I gave up on the dream.
Instead I threw myself into a corporate career, where I had no aspiration other than to learn as much as possible and earn enough money to live. I had nothing to lose because I didn’t feel invested in the job. I was still waiting for the moment when I could strike out on my own again. In this safe environment, I did things differently - instead of targeting specific job titles, I put myself in front of as many opportunities as I could and took the ones I felt had merit. I found myself in a succession of roles leading teams through change initiatives. I quickly climbed the ranks, and was excelling without the trace of a SMART goal or career plan.
Without realising it, I had rejected the idea of being led by SMART goals and specificity. I had instead followed my instinctive need to work in innovative environments where I could use my skills as a leader to support people through change. Without restricting my path with labels, I was free to chase opportunities that allowed me to grow.
These experiences helped me to uncover my true inner desires and skills. I found I enjoyed helping other people to succeed, and that I am good at it. I discovered I have a knack for working with complex problems. I find communication fascinating, and use words as my art form.
What I realised is that by evaluating opportunities based on their merits within the context of my own desires and skills, I was able to thrive. If I had created a SMART goal for my career, I wouldn’t have been half as successful.
This is not to say I rejected the use of SMART goals outright. In fact, they played a big part in my everyday work. I used them to scope my projects, and mould my actions. But I did not allow them to play a central role in my decision making. They were enablers, not the star of the show.
Using everything I had learned from this unintended experiment, I was able to start forming a picture of what truly drives me. This picture was the beginning of my blueprint for happiness.
I knew from my career to date that innovation, coaching and communication inspire my best work. But I also had a continued longing to start my own business.
I needed to understand what was driving this longing, so that I could finalise my blueprint. I knew that the corporate 9-5 didn’t fulfil me. I longed to be my own boss - to be answerable to myself alone. I wanted the freedom to work when and where I wanted, on projects that inspired me.
So with this in mind, I had formed a comprehensive picture of my ideal working life. It wasn’t a job title, or a rigid business plan - it was a framework. I knew that I needed freedom and innovation. I knew that I wanted to help other people succeed through change. I knew that I was a good coach, and a good communicator. I knew that being in the corporate world 5 days a week wasn’t making me happy, and that when an opportunity to strike out on my own appeared I needed to take it (and when it did, I grabbed it with both hands).
So fast forward to now, and each day I strive to bring these qualities into my working world. I don’t set myself long term SMART goals, I instead use the concept to shape my actions over shorter periods of time (each day, each week, each month). I know how much money I need to earn to be comfortable, how many hours I want to work each day, and the type of work that excites me.
But I no longer dream in labels, I instead choose to dream about the nature and characteristics of my everyday life - or in other words, my happiness.
By widening my net, I’ve opened myself up to infinite opportunities. And I can confidently analyse the merit of these opportunities because I have absolute clarity about my needs.
And by scaling back goals into bite-sized, often day-sized chunks, I succeed little and often. The little achievements soon add up to big ones, and so long as I continue to be guided by happiness instead of goals, I know that I’ll continue to grow and thrive.
Here are 4 ideas for how you can start prioritising happiness over goals:
- Be clear about what makes you happy. In order to cultivate the enduring motivation that is required in order to prioritise your happiness, you need to have absolute clarity about what happiness truly means to you. You need to create a vision that can be called upon in difficult times - that can give you the energy to drive through obstacles and continue what you started. Start by asking yourself about times in the past where you have felt real happiness and contentment - what was happening? Who was there? Can you pinpoint what it was about the situation that felt so good? By exploring these questions, you will begin to form a pattern that will enable your happiness blueprint to unveil itself to you.
- Be clear about what lights you up. Each of us has an individual set of gifts and talents that enable us to offer value to the world. Understanding and exploring these skills can help you to uncover the work and pursuits that will provide you will enduring happiness for a lifetime. When we work on something that we are really good at and enjoy, we find ourselves in a state of ‘flow’ - or in other words, we are ‘in the zone’. As this study shows, when we find meaning, pleasure and feel thoroughly engaged in activities, we find greater life satisfaction and, therefore, happiness.
- Be open to new opportunities. As Woody Allen once famously said, 80% of success is showing up. We might be tempted to stick to things we are comfortable with, because it can be scary to leap into the unknown. But when we open ourselves up to new experiences, we uncover a world of opportunities that we didn’t even know existed. These opportunities can open doors that could change our life for the better. Even if they don't work out, they provide us with the chance to learn something about ourselves.
- Know your ‘must haves’. There are certain things in life that we need to survive and thrive. They are our ‘must haves’ - the fundamentals that must be met in order for us to have a satisfactory existence. If we lose them, they become our sole focus, ensuring growth and development in other areas of life comes to a sudden halt. Theses things can, for example, be related to finance (how much money do I need to survive?), geography (do I live in a certain place to be close to work or family?), health (what food do I need to eat to nourish my body?) or safety (what do I need to feel safe in my home?). Knowing our must haves - our deal breakers - is important. Once you have the basics in place, you can spend your time and energy reaching for happiness.
SMART Goals: The path to success, or the killer of dreams?
The answer to this question is not straightforward. SMART goals can support your path to success, if used in the correct way. And equally, they can kill your dreams if you allow them to stifle your freedom and imagination.
If you take one thing from this article, let it be this. Allow happiness to become your definition of success - your guiding light as you strive for a better way of living. And remember, happiness cannot be reasoned with or bound by SMART goals - happiness is a by-product of a life lived true.