Should we even have goals?

Michael Eckstein
2 min readMay 3, 2017

When I was studying economics and philosophy at university, I was interested in consequentialism and ethical utility. I considered myself rational, even headed, and smarter than I actually was. My final paper for my ethics class was an undercooked treatise on how rational self-interest was the key to maximizing happiness on earth, and that altruism was always going to be undermined by “moral freeloaders”. Lol!

I still admire some utilitarian ideas (Peter Singer comes to mind), but I’ve changed my view on the ‘ends justifies the means’. In fact, I’m not sure I really believe in ‘ends’ any more. 😳

The problem I see with ends (goals) is that they are often quite arbitrary. We make them up because we believe we will get some benefit from the outcome, based on the subjective data we have at hand.

Personally, I’m terrible at predicting outcomes. I also rarely know what to do after I’ve achieved or missed a goal. Is that it? Should I have set the bar higher or lower? Why did I set this exact goal in the first place? Is it still relevant to me?

As a species, I think we’re getting better at accurately measuring and benchmarking outcomes and interpreting data, but life is still very complex.

I still have goals, but I wonder if I should ditch them, in favour of processes.

If you think of processes vs goals through the prism of normative ethics, a process-based approach to progress might be equivalent to a deontological approach to ethics. Deontology judges morality according to whether ethical rules are adhered to. Crude example; it is immoral to kill someone, even if you think it might save the life of others.

Basically, deontology is sticking to your process, no matter the situation, and hopefully letting the good times roll. Forget goals, just do what you believe is right, every day.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more drawn to this idea. I’ve become accustomed to the fact I’m terrible at predicting outcomes, so I try to reduce risk and errors by following basic principles and focusing on the process.

I remember I once tried to set myself a goal of writing three pieces of music for piano in three months. Why on earth did I set myself that goal? Why three pieces of music? Why three months? How was that going to make my life any better?

Instead, I try to play piano a few times a week. No goals. No deadlines. I no longer have anxiety about being a great musical composer, and I think I’m slowly getting better at playing piano. I could have cheated. I could have spent my life savings on getting whipped into shape by a classical Russian maestro. Or I could have written three pieces of music that were really just Twinkle Twinkle Little Star rehashed three ways. But would this really have made me a better pianist?

Ok the lessons might have made me a better pianist… but would they have made me a happier person?

Thanks for reading! 👋

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Michael Eckstein

Thoughts and reflections on work and life. I'm a product marketer at Buffer, and work remotely from Sydney.