• 11.09.12

Why Setting Goals Could Wreck Your Life

You’ve been told time and time again that the secret to success is setting goals. But what if goals do more harm than good?

Why Setting Goals Could Wreck Your Life

If you’ve ever read a popular book about the importance of planning for the future, you will almost certainly have encountered a reference–and quite possibly several–to the Yale Study of Goals. This is a now-legendary finding about the importance of creating detailed plans for your life. The essentials of the study are as follows: in 1953, students graduating from Yale University were asked by researchers whether or not they had formulated specific, written-down goals for the rest of their lives. Only 3 percent of them said they had. Two decades later, the researchers tracked down the class of ’53, to see how their lives had turned out. The results were unequivocal: the 3 percent of graduates with written goals had amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97 percent combined. It is a jaw-dropping finding, and a powerful lesson to any young person thinking of just drifting through life. It isn’t surprising, then, that it achieved the status of legend in the world of self-help, and in many corners of corporate life.


The only problem is that it is indeed a legend: the Yale Study of Goals never took place.

Some years ago, a journalist from Fast Company set out to trace the source of the alleged study. No academic journal reference was ever cited when it was mentioned, so he began by asking the motivational gurus who liked to quote it. Disconcertingly, when asked for their sources, they pointed at each other. Tony Robbins suggested asking Brian Tracy, who in turn suggested Zig Ziglar, a veteran of the motivational-speaker circuit, and a regular fixture at Get Motivated! seminars. Completing the circle, Zig Ziglar recommended asking Tony Robbins.

When I called a senior Yale University archivist, Beverly Waters, she seemed friendly and eager to help, but when I mentioned the goals study, a note of frustration entered her voice. “I did a systematic check, years ago, when this first arose, and there was nothing,” she said. “Then the secretary of the graduating class of 1953 did another systematic check, and nobody he spoke to had ever been asked to fill out such a questionnaire, or anything like that.” She added that it was highly unlikely that it had happened in some other year, and been wrongly described as taking place in 1953, because the Association of Yale Alumni would have been involved–and nobody there could trace anyone who remembered it. Waters sighed. “It’s just too good not to be true, I guess,” she said.

Of course, the non-existence of one study about the benefits of setting goals does not disprove the suggestion that setting goals has benefits; there is plenty of very real research testifying to the fact that the practice can be useful. What the story indicates, instead, is how far the fascination with goals has gone. You might never have written down any ‘life goals’ yourself, and you might well disagree with the imaginary Yale study’s implication that material wealth is the ticket to happiness. But the basic urge beneath all this is nearly universal. At some point in your life, and perhaps at many points, you likely have decided upon some goal–to find a spouse, to get a specific kind of job, to live in a particular town–and then devised a plan to attain it. Interpreted sufficiently broadly, setting goals and carrying out plans to achieve them is how many of us spend most of our waking hours. Whether or not we use the word “goals,” we’re forever making plans based upon desired outcomes. “Consider any individual at any period of his life,” wrote the great French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, “and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.” Tocqueville’s use of the word “comfort” should not distract us here; we are, of course, capable of setting far grander and more selfless goals than that. But the deeper truth remains: many of us are perpetually preoccupied with plans.

It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.

One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. As the Boston Globe reported, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallized in a number: 29. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.

Yet the plan not only failed to work–it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended–and thus more uncertain–research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles. There were certainly many other reasons for GM’s on going decline. But twenty-nine became a fetish, distorting the organization in damaging ways, fuelling short-termism and blinkered vision, all so that the numbers in the business news headlines might match those on the vice-presidents’ lapels. But that never happened. GM continued spiraling towards failure, and went bankrupt in 2009; it ended up taking a bailout from Washington. At the Detroit Auto Show of 2010, the firm’s newly installed president for North America, keen to show how much GM had changed, used the twenty-nine campaign as an example of what it would no longer be doing. “We’re not printing [lapel] pins,” he told a radio reporter. “We’re not doing any of that stuff.”


In most artificial studies of goal setting, participants are faced with a single task or simple set of tasks; some of them are then encouraged to approach the task with a goal firmly in mind, while others are not. But as the case of GM suggests, outside the laboratory–whether in business, or in life in general–no situation is ever anywhere close to being this simple. In singling out one goal, or set of goals, and striving to meet it, you will invariably exert an effect on other, interlinked aspects of the thing you’re trying to change. In an automobile manufacturing company, that might mean starving your research division of funding in an effort to meet a predetermined market share. Applied to the personal realm, it might mean, for example, achieving the financial wealth you dreamed of at the expense of your personal relationships: attaining your goals at the expense of ruining your life.

Excerpted from The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, published in November 2012 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Oliver Burkeman. All rights reserved.

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian based in New York. He writes a weekly psychology column, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” His new book is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Follow him on Twitter @oliverburkeman.

[Image: Flickr user Anthony Gattine]