Setting Goals in an Uncertain World

There are countless examples of how people who set personal and professional goals achieve much more than those who don’t.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards (among many other accomplishments) had a brush with mortality early in his life and wrote a list of 101 things to accomplish in his life. He has accomplished nearly all of them.

Jim Collins identified through his research and writing of Built to Last and Good to Great that all of the greatest companies in his study operated with respect to a BHAG - a Big, Hair, Audacious Goal. These goals (think of Kennedy’s declaration that we will land a man on the moon) provide direction through the sheer fearlessness of what has been set before the team to accomplish.

However, humans are terrible predictors of the future. We fall prey to a multitude of behavioral biases that make us completely incompetent when it comes to forecasting anything, whether that be future oil prices, the weather, technological progress, or scientific discoveries. We herd, anchor, exhibit confirmation bias, and have pretty much no ability to accurately calculate the probability that future events will occur, even with the assistance of complex mathematical tools. Black Swans complicate this situation even more, since the events that have the largest impact on how the world and our lives get shaped over time are by their very definition, unpredictable outliers.

Consider the example of predicting the outcome of a single game of pool. It’s been proven that doing so requires some knowledge of the dynamics and position of every atom in the entire universe. Predicting what you’ll do in your life involves the interaction of a lot more moving pieces than a game of pool.

So what does it mean to set goals in a world filled with so much uncertainty?

In setting goals, you need to not be predicting the future, but shaping it. It’s a matter of how you perceive your future.

As Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle is the Way:

“Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness.”

Change your perception of what it means to set goals and your goals will be more effective. Don’t attempt to predict how specific things will turn out in the future and tie your goals to those events. Instead, set goals that involve actions you can control.

As Henry Cloud stresses in 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Love and Life, you have to ‘Play the Movie,’ an exercise where you envision the end result and then ‘play’ through the script in your head that will get you there. This practice will help you understand the steps you need to take in accomplishing a goal because it will force you to think through the actions you have control over and can actually take in achieving that end result.

You don’t predict the future and plan your goals around them, you define your goals and build a life towards those goals. You create the future, you don’t try to predict it. Because you can’t predict it. You can decide what you want it to be though, and then work hard to make that a reality.