In my work as a career coach, my clients and I focus a great deal on authentic goal-setting, working to get at the heart of what they want – deep down – in their life and work. They’re often very surprised at how “off” their goals have been, given what they personally believe and value. Very few of us have received any positive training or guidance on how to set authentic, inspiring goals that will drive us forward to joyful and rewarding outcomes. Throughout my own early adult life, I didn’t know how to do this, and I made a number of huge, costly mistakes that hurt me.
To learn more about creating goals that will move our lives forward in meaningful and enriching ways, I was excited to connect with Vishen Lakhiani, Founder and CEO of Mindvalley and author of the book The Code of the Extraordinary Mind.
Mindvalley designs and offers learning experiences from some of the most well-known authors in transformational education for over three million students worldwide, including Harv Eker, Lisa Nichols, and Sonia Choquette.
Vishen shares below his take on goal-setting, learned from years of running Mindvalley and working with many of America’s top authors:
Kathy Caprino: Vishen, you say modern goal setting is “dangerous.” Why?
Vishen Lakhiani: Modern goal setting, as it is explained in countless college courses or to high-school kids (and even young children), is really not about teaching you how to pursue what will help you lead an extraordinary life. Instead, it is about teaching you to pursue common “Brules” (the bulls**t rules created by society that we adopt to simplify our understanding of the world) that often lead to you chasing things you’ll ultimately find do not really matter.
Setting goals is incredibly important for progressing in life. The trouble is, how do you know you’re setting the right kind of goals?
Most people make the common mistake of choosing goals based on what I call the Culturescape. The Culturescape is the web of beliefs, habits, practices and mythologies of society that tell you how you should live your life. It is the Culturescape that tells you that:
You should get that college degree.
You should get a 9-5 job.
You should get married.
You should work hard.
These goals do not always serve your happiness, but instead, serve an idea from the Culturescape you took on at some point through conditioning.
The best way to choose goals that align with your happiness is to ask yourself these Three Most Important Questions.
1) What beautiful human experiences do you want to have?
2) What will help you grow and become the man/woman you want to be?
3) In what ways can you contribute to others and the world as a whole?
These questions will help you cut through the clutter, the noise, and the confusion of traditional goal setting— allowing you to focus on goals that will serve your happiness.
Caprino: In your book you talk about an “end” goal vs. a “means” goal? What is that, exactly?
Lakhiani: The difference between a means goal and an end goal is a lesson people should learn early in life. End goals are the beautiful, exciting rewards of being human on planet earth. They speak to your soul and bring joy in and of themselves. “Means” goals are the things society tells us we need to have in place to get happiness – things like hitting a certain income level, getting a specific promotion, etc.
Most people make the mistake of setting what are called means goals, instead of end goals.
A means goal is something you do in order to get to the experience you want to have. It is usually a goal followed by a “so.” For example, I want to get a 9-5 job, so I can save up, so I can someday travel the world. When instead, if you focused simply on traveling, you could find many other opportunities that will help you get the experience of traveling right away.
A means goal is never as fulfilling and does not serve your happiness.
Caprino: What are some characteristic of a “means” goal? How can we tell them from the goals we should be pursuing?
Lakhiani: Here are some key characteristics of “means” goals.
Means goals don’t stand up alone.
Means goals are stepping-stones to something else. They’re part of a sequence. For example: Get a good GPA so you can get into a good college. This often means that goals get strung together into (life) long sequences, like this one: Get a good GPA so you can get into a good college, so you can get a good job, so you can make lots of money, so you can afford a nice house, car, etc., so you’ll have money saved to do all the stuff you really want to do after you retire.
Ask yourself, “Does my goal have a “so” attached to it?”
Means goals detour you, and lead you to conform to “brules”
Means goals are often about meeting or conforming to the “brules” and may or may not have individual meaning or connection to you.
Ask yourself: “Is my goal something I think I “should” meet as part of achieving my ultimate goal—for example, thinking that I should get a college degree in order to have a fulfilling job or that I should get married in order to have love in my life?”
Many means goals are cleverly concealed Brules. You do not have to get married. Or get a college degree. Or be an entrepreneur. Or join the family business. What you really want is to be in beautiful loving relationships, to have consistent opportunities to learn and grow, and to have freedom, and be financially stable. These can come in many different forms. See the difference?
Caprino: Tell us more about “end” goals that get us to what we truly want.
Lakhiani: End goals are about following your heart. When you are working on an end goal, it doesn’t feel like work.
End goals encourage you to follow your heart
Time flies when you’re pursuing them. You may work hard toward these goals, but you feel it’s worth it. They remind you of how fantastic it is to be human. When you’re working on an end goal, it doesn’t feel like “work.” You could be doing it for hours on end, but it genuinely makes you happy or gives you meaning. You don’t need to step away to get “recharged.” Working on the end goal itself recharges you—it doesn’t drain you.
End goals are more often about feelings and experiences
We want to be happy, be in love, to consistently feel loving, to consistently feel joyous. These are powerful goals. A diploma, an award, a big business deal, or other achievements can certainly bring good feelings, but they are not end goals unless you’re happy while you’re pursuing them—in other words, unless the act of studying for your diploma or closing the business deal itself brings you happiness. End goals have happiness baked into the pursuit.
Caprino: How can people apply the Three Most Important Questions in their work/careers?
Lakhiani: You can apply to Three Most Important Questions to everything in life, including your career. But remember your work/career itself may only be a means goal to what you actually desire.
For example, if you ask yourself, “If time and money were no object and I did not have to seek anyone’s permission, what kinds of experiences would my soul crave?
You will realize what it is you desire. Your answers may or may not align with your work and your career. If they do, that’s great. You’re following an optimal path to your fulfillment. But if they do not align, then you are probably doing work that does not serve your quest.
Then, you can ask yourself, “In order to have the experiences above, how do I have to grow? What sort of man or woman do I need to evolve into?”
This may help you realize that you there are skills you need to develop, or attributes you need to cultivate, in order to accomplish your end goals. If your work/career is helping you grow in this way, then it may be serving your end goals.
And lastly, ask yourself, “If I have the experiences I long for and have grown in these remarkable ways, then how can I give back to the world?”
It is by contributing that we find our greatest fulfillment. We should do work and pursue careers that enable us to contribute in the way we desire. This is how we can serve our happiness and the world at the same time. And if your work/career helps you reach this place of contribution, then it is serving your happiness.
Caprino: Vishen, how would you respond to the folks who will say to you, “Sure, that’s all well and good, but I have to make money, and make a living, and take care of my responsibilities and my family. Feelings and experiences are great, but they don’t put food on the table and pay the electric or insurance bill.”
Lakhiani: Nobody is saying you need to shed your responsibilities. What we are saying (because remember, we are talking about goal-setting here) is that you need to start by asking yourself:
What do I want my family life, personal life and work life to look like in the future?
And then, slowly adjust the present to get you there.
This article orginally appeared in Forbes.