The Real Harm of Goal Obsession

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

June 8, 2015
by Marshall Goldsmith

So much has been written about ways to achieve goals. And my new book Triggers is all about the ultimate achievement, becoming the person you want to be. There is a fine line, though, between setting and achieving goals and goal obsession. When we become obsessed with achieving our goals, it can do more harm than good!

Goal obsession is one of the greatest problems that I encounter in my interactions with successful people. Goal obsession occurs when we become so focused on achieving our goal (or task) that we forget our larger mission.

Let me give you an example from Wall Street. “Mike” was always complaining because he worked too hard. When I asked him why he worked so hard, he replied, “Why do you think? Do you think that I love this place? I am working so hard because I want to make a lot of money!”

I continued my inquiry, “Do you really need this much money?”

“I do now,” Mike grimaced. “I just got divorced for the third time. With three alimony checks each month, I am almost broke.”

“Why do you keep getting divorced?” I asked.

The answer came out with a sad sigh, “My wives kept complaining that I worked all of the time. They had no idea how hard it is to make this much money!”

Over the last 30 years, I have noticed a clear trend. Almost everyone that I meet feels as busy – or even busier – than they have felt in their entire lives. I see too many older people wrecking their health in pursuit of their next achievement. I see too many younger people who are missing their youth, then postponing their love life, then not having children – all in service of their career.

For what?

There is nothing wrong with hard work. I do it myself. There is nothing wrong with choosing to dedicate your life to your career, if that makes you happy. The problem occurs when the price we pay for achieving goals, is not worth the cost we incur in our lives. Only we can determine the costs and benefits to our own lives.

One of my favorite movies is the Academy Award winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai. In this movie, the star, Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guiness) becomes so obsessed with his goals – build a great bridge and improve troop morale – that he completely forgets his mission – winning the war. At the end of the movie, he realizes that he has been building a fantastic bridge to support the wrong army and exclaims, “What have I done?”

Your life is your life. It is not my place to tell you how you should live it. I would just suggest that you ask yourself two challenging questions:

1. What are the most important values in my life? Are my values reflected in the way I spend my time?

2. What is my mission – as a human being? Am I becoming so focused on achieving my goals that I forget this mission?

At the end of your life, you don’t want to look back like Colonel Nicholson and ask yourself in dismay, “What have I done?”