How to avoid the law of unintended consequences when it comes to your life.
“What if my whole life has been wrong?” This was the awful truth revealed to Ivan Ilych as he lay close to his death in Tolstoy’s short story “The death of Ivan Ilych”. A story that reveals the possible conclusion of a life lived according to pursuing achievement. Pursuing achievement, at least according to society’s definition, without heeding the downsides, the risks, the gnawing doubts. The gnawing doubts that eventually caused what was almost certainly a psychosomatic death. A death resulting from being too goal oriented.
Despite this story having been written in the late 1800’s, over 100 years later Carrie Green, founder of the Female Entrepreneur Association, experienced something similar, albeit thankfully not as terminal as for the fictional Ivan Ilych. In her 2014 TEDx talk Carrie recounted her experience of becoming utterly miserable even as she was running a successful global business. She had reached her goals, but in her own words she had “never been on track”.
In my own life, I can relate something similar. In 2012 I made the decision to move from employment to freelance work. My primary motivation for doing this was financial. I felt undervalued, financially, by my employer and wanted to take control of how much money I could earn. I hit my income goals, in fact for a few years, I exceeded it. But the assignments I took to do that kept me away from home for a large portion of the time. And, when I was at home, I was quite tired from the long hours and travelling. The result was that I missed out on time with my youngest as she was growing up. This is time I’ll never get back and something I’ll always regret, in spite of the material comforts that the income was able to provide.
Humans are all primarily motivated in two directions: Toward pleasure, or a desired outcome, and/or Away From pain, or unpleasant situations.
What Tolsoy’s fictional Ivan Ilych, Carrie Green, and me all had in common was insufficient balance in these directional motivations. We all had too much preference for our Towards Cognitive Intention. We were all habitually goal oriented without a strong enough counter preference for considering risks with our Away From Cognitive Intention.
In his book Getting People Right, author and creator of the Identity Compass, Arne Maus states that “when the ‘Towards’ preference shapes a person to an excessive degree, the compulsion to reach the goal may overshadow their ability to see problems that might possibly arise.”
“…the compulsion to reach the goal may overshadow their ability to see problems that might possibly arise.”Arne Maus
Now, I am definitely not advocating for the opposite, preferring being motivated by getting Away From problems to the exclusion of goal orientation. To quote Arne Maus again, this is like “getting into a taxi and explaining to the taxi driver where you don’t want to go.”!
[this is like] “getting into a taxi and explaining to the taxi driver where you don’t want to go.”Arne Maus
So what am I advocating?
For the best chance of success in any endeavour, taking a more Dynamically Intelligent approach (Stevens, 2020), deliberately choosing a balance between Toward and Away From motivations, is the way to go.
deliberately choosing a balance between Toward and Away From motivations, is the way to go.
A great way to do this is to be Intentional. It was too late for poor Mr Ilych to take this approach in order to stave of death. It was, however, ultimately gaining the clarity that he wanted to end the suffering of his wife and child, and that his death was the way to do this, that caused an end to his pain. Carrie Green took the time to get really clear about what kind of life she did want, and why, that enabled her to be intentional as she started her highly successful and fulfilling Female Entrepreneur Association. And, this was also what I did as I moved back into freelance work a few years ago. I was clear about what kind of lifestyle I wanted, so I was intentional and only focussed on looking for roles that would allow me to achieve this.
Getting real clarity about the kind of life you want, and why, allows you to be more intentional in your pursuit of goals, and more aware when you are going off track. It allows you to more easily recognise when you are starting to go Toward something you don’t want.
As Carrie’s story highlights, this is especially important for independent and small business owners who’s life and business goals necessarily overlap to a great extent. For these individuals, getting it wrong means not only derailing their business, but also their life.
So, to answer the question posed by the title of this article then, yes, you can be too goal oriented. But, by being more intentional about the goals you want to reach, by getting real clarity around the life you want and how your goals fit into those, and by understanding why you are trying to reach them, you can develop more awareness of when you are going off track. You can make it easier to choose your Away From Cognitive Intention. You can avoid the pitfalls of being too goal oriented.
If you want to be more intentional in your life then get in touch to book a no obligation discovery call.