Living Without Financial Goals

"A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."

-Lao Tzu

It's hot as we drive through wine country, but we don't mind. We live in Minnesota; the windows are rolled down as we enjoy the heat. We arrive at our first winery near Geyserville, California.

Inside the winery, we do our tasting, check out the grounds, learn about wine generally and their wines specifically. Before heading back to the car we walk through their garden and get a couple more photos before taking off to the next winery. We are trying to hit as many wineries as we can. You might say our goal was to visit a specific list of wineries today, and a new list of wineries tomorrow.

As we're sitting outside at a picnic table eating lunch at our third winery, we realize we're tired. We are staying at a place that has a hot tub outside with a nice view. We pivot. We buy a bottle of wine from the grocery store and go back to base camp.

The next day on our morning run we decide to tone it down. We want to go to exactly two wineries. This time we will be staying at each of them a lot longer, enjoying the winery, learning more about their wines, and relaxing outside.

Some might say that our vacation was a failure. Indeed, we did not hit our goal of visiting all the wineries we had in mind. But instead of focusing on how many wineries we visited, we were able to focus on opportunities we almost missed, like staying longer at fewer wineries, having good conversations, and relaxing. We changed our minds in part because we realized that we didn't predict how tiring and unrelaxing it is to constantly hurry from place to place.

We view our vacation as a success. Instead of focusing on the original desired outcome of visiting a large list of wineries, we focused on the process of enjoying our time, the weather, each other, and living in the present. We changed our minds when we wanted to.

Living a life without financial goals is like vacationing without a set plan.

goals don't matter

Goals: The Traditional View

The traditional view of personal finance - and life in general - is that you have to set goals. If you don't have a goal, they'll say, then you have nothing to aim at. If you have nothing to aim at, then you won't end up anywhere. Goals are supposed to help focus you and help you figure out what you want out of life. Once you have your goals, then you can set subgoals and put together a plan to meet all your goals. Some experts tell you that your goals have to be SMART, because, you know, you don't want dumb goals. This focus, the saying goes, is what gives people the drive to go after their goals.

Issues With the Traditional View

I'm not arguing against finding motivation and drive to pursue what's meaningful to you. I'm simply here to let you know goals have downsides, and I firmly believe it's why so many people struggle.

Let's talk about the idea that without a goal you won't have anywhere to go. It doesn't take much contemplation to realize that just is not the case. Leo Barbauta, the founder of Zen Habits, would ask you to walk outside without an agenda. Just walk around, wherever you feel like going. You'll definitely end up somewhere. You can design a life with meaning, and have motivation to pursue what's meaningful to you, without goals, just like you can walk around outside without having a destination in mind.

Goals set you up for failure more often than you think, they increase anxiety, and they prevent you from fully living in the present, being satisfied with what you have.

Let's explore the downside of goals in more detail.

Future Is Unknown

Goals are future-oriented. The future is unknowable. There's more that can go wrong in the future than you can control. Almost by definition, you are far more likely to miss your goal than you are to attain it simply because there are so many things that are outside of your control.

You might set a goal to lose 10 pounds by summer, but come down with the flu and have to rest for a month. You might set a goal to run a marathon in under four hours but sprain your ankle during training, rendering yourself unable to participate. You can set a goal to get your boss' job, but get laid off due to corporate downsizing.

In a world where we call it a success to hit our goal and failure to miss it, setting goals sets us up for failure more often than not.

We can't control the future. Life happens. By no fault of your own, it's likely you will fail to reach your goals. There are more ways to miss your goal than there are to hit it.

Missed Opportunities

When you are intently focused on achieving your goal, you have tunnel vision. Your goal is crystal clear, but other opportunities are blurry, at best. Focusing in on your goals leaves you blind to the opportunities you may be missing. This could mean gunning for your boss' job caused you to miss an opportunity at a different company that is a step up from where you were focusing. In personal finance, it could mean doing everything in your power to retire at 55 from a job you hate only to miss an opportunity to take a job that you love and would be happy to work for another decade or longer.

If my wife and I were laser-focused on hitting our goal of visiting 10 wineries in a day, our satisfaction with our trip wouldn't have been as high as it is.

No Contentment

We're all pretty much wired to want to improve ourselves. It's natural and it's good. The problem with too much focus on goal-setting is that it can cause us to lose gratitude for what we already have. You probably know someone who worked at a company that did really well, only to have the annual and quarterly goals revised upward, leaving everyone disappointed.

Obsessive goal-setting and the ensuing quest for goal-achievement are at odds with gratitude. You might be thinking that it's totally possible to be thankful for what you have AND set your sights high on lofty goals, and I would agree with you that it's possible. It's possible in the same way it's possible for a high school basketball player to get drafted into the National Basketball Association.

Millions of people in the United States alone suffer from an anxiety disorder, and those with anxiety have a good chance of also suffering from depression. Many more feel anxious and depressed without having a diso