The Dangers of Goal Setting

Understanding the systems of desire that influence what we want

​We hear a lot about goal setting, but hardly anything about why we are so obsessed with goal setting in the first place. Many of us relentlessly pursue goals — which we take for granted as good — without pausing to ask ourselves whether we should.

​There’s a meta dimension to goal setting. What are the circumstances and environments out of which certain kinds of goals emerge? Where, or who, do we adopt our goals from in the first place?

It turns out that there are systems of desire behind nearly every goal — from education to investing to social media — which generate and shape the goals of the people within the systems. And the systems I’m referring to are systems of desire.

​We should spend a lot more time thinking about these systems — even mapping them out and understanding our place within them — and less time talking about how to achieve the many socially derived goals that emerge from them.

If we see the systems, we gain the ability to see goals that lie outside them.

Moving Goalposts

Author James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones that “we don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.” From the standpoint of desire, our goals are the product of our systems. We can’t want something that is outside the system of desire we occupy.

The obsession with goal setting is misguided, even counterproductive. Setting goals isn’t bad. But when the focus is on how to set goals rather than how to choose them in the first place, goals can easily turn into instruments of self-flagellation.

Most people aren’t fully responsible for choosing their own goals. People pursue the goals that are on offer to them in their system of desire. Goals are often chosen for us, by models. And that means the goalposts are always moving.

Some trends in goal setting: don’t make goals vague, grandiose, or trivial; make sure they’re SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based); make them FAST (another acronym: frequent, ambitious, specific, and transparent); have good OKRs (objectives and key results); put them in writing; share them with others for accountability. Goal setting has become very complicated. If someone tried to take all the latest tactics into account, it would be a wonder if they managed to set any goals at all.

Don’t get me wrong: some of these tactics may be helpful. If I want to lose weight, it would help to set goals that are specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based. But it’s not immediately apparent that losing weight is a good goal for me to begin with. Why do I want to lose weight? What if I am at an ideal weight and I want to lose weight simply to look more like someone I saw on Instagram?

People set goals and make plans to arrive at a future point called “progress.” But will it be progress? How can we be so sure? The French chef Sébastien Bras set a goal to maintain his restaurant’s three Michelin stars, and he pursued it vigilantly. Then one day he realized the pursuit was killing him. He told the Michelin Guide to take back their stars and not to come back. Some goals — even good ones — overstay their welcome.

Have you noticed that goals have an irreproachable and unimpeachable status? You want to run an ultramarathon? People will applaud your determination. Run for city office? You have their support. Sell your home and move into the back of a van? Cool, essentialism is in. Nobody will question your goals.

But it’s worth asking where goals come from in the first place. Every goal is embedded within a system.

Mimetic desire — the phenomenon of our wanting what other people want because they want it — is the unwritten, unacknowledged system behind visible goals. The more we bring that system to light, the less likely it is that we’ll pick and pursue the wrong goals.

Mimetic Systems

First, let’s look at a few more examples of what I call mimetic systems of desire — places, where the desire to achieve certain things are to be a certain kind of person, are heavily influenced by what other people desire or have desired in the past.

These systems are mimetic (which is another word for imitation) because everyone is unconsciously imitating the desires of the people around them or those who came before them. Few stop to ask whether pursuing the goals they have been conditioned to pursue are even in their best interest.

The U.S. education system, the venture capital industry, the “publish or perish” racket for academics and social media, are examples of mimetic systems: mimetic desire sustains them.

In U.S. secondary schools, most students organize their energy around college application builders such as their grade point average, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. Many high schools have the goal of 100 percent “college placement,” even though many university students feel they are no longer getting value for their money and wind up crushed by debt.

Students have lost sight of the teleology, or final purpose, of the education system. When you’re in fifth grade, you know clearly that your goal is to get to sixth grade — and it goes like that up through twelfth grade, at which point you’ve spent the past four years of your life preparing for something called “college” along carefully defined lines (you probably even had a college advisor who advised you as to which schools you should apply for, based on your data).

College is where the teleology grows even less clear. Is the goal to get a good job? To get into grad school? To be a well-rounded person who is able to think critically? To be a good citizen? When I started at the Stern School of Business as an undergrad, I had no idea. So what did I do? I looked around to see what everyone else was doing — what everyone else seemed to want. There was a clear object of desire: Wall Street. So I fought for it, and I got what I thought I wanted. And that’s when I began my miserable fifteen-month career in Advanced Excel and PowerPoint.

Traditional venture capital (VC) funds operate in a mimetic system. They need extraordinary returns on their investments to justify the risks they take. Many only fund companies that have the potential to return ten times the value of their investment within five to seven years. Because of their investment timeline, VCs favor technology companies that can scale quickly — not foodservice companies that might grow steadily but only incrementally over twenty or thirty years. They’re looking for instant ramen, not risotto.

The VC demand for quick-hitting investments increases the attractiveness of tech start-ups to entrepreneurs. A mimetic system takes shape. It is driven not only by economic incentives and financial returns — which no doubt factor in — but also the prestige and validation that come with being financed by the right VC. They award Michelin stars in the form of investment checks. And for VCs: the benefits of having invested in sexy companies and headline-grabbing CEOs.

Social media platforms thrive on mimesis. Twitter encourages and measures imitation by showing how many times each post has been retweeted. People are more likely to use Facebook the more they are engaged with mimetic models, rivals whose posts they can track and comment on.

The greater the mimetic forces on a social media platform, the more people want to use it. If social media companies were to build in more friction or braking mechanisms for mimetic behavior, they would decrease user engagement and ultimately revenue; they have strong financial incentives to accelerate mimetic behavior. If two people argue on a social media platform, drawing others into the feud, it’s not hard to see who wins: the platform.

Systems of desire, both positive and negative, are everywhere. Prisons, monasteries, families, schools, and friend groups operate as systems of desire. And when a strong mimetic system is in place, it remains in place until it’s disrupted by a stronger one.

(Below, the inner ring of C.S. Lewis: don’t get pulled into it.)

So What Can We Do?

​The first step toward freeing ourselves from the degrading slavery of being merely a child of our age (to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton) is to get the lay of the land — to step back, create distance from the systems of desire that we’re part of, and to try to see them for what they are.​

Stepping back and taking a high-level view of a system of desire is like flying over the country in a plane and seeing the fields and rivers and valleys below. It’s the best way to spot petty rivalries, small-spirited ambitions, and the emptiness of certain accolades or achievements.

​If we want to go beyond the status quo or routines, we’ll need to gain perspective. So caught up are many of us with self-preservation and identity reevaluation brought on by the pandemic — Am I a Mask Wearer or Not? Am I a Risk-Taker or Safety Maximalist? Will I Be a Work-From-Homer or an Office Guy? (and other false binaries) — that we’re overdue for some serious self-examination as to where we go from here.

How do we know whether the new goals and desires and lifestyles that we’ve either adopted, or want to adopt as we emerge from the pandemic, are indeed the ones that will lead to fulfillment?

​The dogs that we adopted and sheltered are only signposts pointing the way to a deeper layer of desire.

The answers are elusive without radical honesty about the systems of desire that are shaping us. We should start mapping them out. Literally. You don’t have to be an artist, but you do have to externalize in some way the systems of desire that are deeply internalized within you.

​It’s one thing to know a landscape by sight, another thing entirely to know it well enough to be able to map it out so that others may know how to navigate it too.

The same is true of our inscape, or inner landscape. When it comes to our desires and the systems that mold them, we don’t truly understand them until we’ve named and communicated them.

Map Out the Systems of Desire in Your World

Every industry, every school, every family has a particular system of desire that makes certain things more or less desirable. Know which systems of desire you’re living in. There’s probably more than one.

Our most pressing problems are problems of desire. We can’t want that which we’ve never seen or heard, or that which lies outside of the world that we live in, unless we’ve stopped believing that the universe of desire ends at whatever shore we happen to be standing on.

Setting better goals requires looking to the future and wanting something enough to effect change.

It means falling in love with a better version of the future.

That’s the only way we’ll want to do something about climate change, poverty, or epidemic levels of obesity (among other things). We’ll need to desire the necessary changes more than we desire the alternatives — the comfortable, easy ways forward.

It starts with not growing complacent in the systems of desire that we’re in. First, we have to see them.

Here’s one exercise that I found helpful.

On a piece of paper, draw a large circle. The circle represents some system of desire that you’re currently in: your family, your company, your friend group, maybe even your country.

On the inside of the circle, map out all of the people or institutions that are responsible for setting the goals that you (or other people) typically pursue. (For instance: Instagram Fitness Influencer That I Follow Has Six-Pack Abs). Be honest with yourself about how attached you are to the goals and people that you list.

Then ask yourself: What are some things that I might want to pursue that lie completely outside the boundaries, for which there is no support or understanding? These things fall outside of the circle.

The outside is much harder to see. It’s the mysterious domain of desires and goals for which there aren’t any immediate models inside the system. Coming up with these doesn’t come easily. But it’s worth wrestling with for a few days.

This is no mere exercise in setting goals “outside the box” (or in this case, the circle.) The difference here is that we’re dealing with desire. We’re talking about goals, not ideas. Goals have to do with something we want, not just something we think.

The power of conformity is well-known in the realm of ideas, but far more powerful in the realm of desire. We want what other people want because there’s comfort in knowing that someone else is pursuing the same thing that we are. Nobody wants to run a marathon alone.

Yet the idea that I want to run a marathon at all is the more interesting thing. Where did I get it in the first place?

The question that our culture will have to answer is whether we want to run more and more decadent marathons, or whether we want to go to Mars, or whether there’s a greater desire that we are in the process of realizing.

We’ll realize it by recognizing not only our limiting beliefs, but also recognizing the people and things that limit our desires.

Entrepreneur and VC Marc Andreessen, in an April 2020 post on his company’s website titled “It’s Time to Build,” wonders how so many Western countries were unprepared — from a production standpoint — for the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. At one point, there were serious shortages of ventilators, test kits, cotton swabs, even hospital gowns. The complacency and malaise seemed to extend to many other domains, even before the pandemic — to education, manufacturing, transportation. Why were Americans no longer building the things of the future? he asked.

The problem is not capital or competence or even a lack of awareness of what’s needed. “The problem is desire,” Andreessen wrote. “We need to ‘want’ these things.” But he acknowledges that there are forces in place that prevent us from wanting to build the things we need: regulatory capture, industry incumbents, stalemate politics. “The problem is inertia,” he continued. “We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things.”

Crippled systems of desire, unable to adapt, have made it so that we gravitate toward the path of least resistance — monetizing YouTube videos of people reacting to other YouTube videos, for instance — and lack the will to build the essential tools needed for human survival and flourishing.

If you understand the systems of desire that color the choices of people around you, you’re more likely to see emergent possibilities by daring to look in different directions.

Make visible what is invisible. Mark the boundaries of your current world of wanting, and you’ll gain the ability — at least the possibility — to transcend it.

The next post in this newsletter will be for premium subscribers only—Part II of what I’ve learned from René Girard. Don’t miss it.

Adapted From WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.