Phlebotomic is a blog experiment that seeks to gather multiple perspectives around a common prompt, which is provided weekly.

Last week's prompt was "Beauty"...

This week's prompt is "Path"...

26 January 2009

Victory: Is An Illusion...Or How I Learned to Stop Setting Goals and Love the Mission

I did so poorly in my first year in University that I was forced to take a course called “Studying Skills”, which could have been called, “If you don’t start taking stuff this seriously you are going to be kicked out of school, you idiot.”.

One of the main themes of the course was goal-setting, something that has never been a particular strength of mine. We were told to set reachable goals and then strive for them. Reachable goals? What kind of challenge is that?

The idea was that I could artificially motivate myself to do better by tricking myself into working towards arbitrary benchmarks of success. It was a course in the art of self-manipulation. (Note: Do not Google that phrase.)

In a world where we see the value of dangling the carrot in front of the mule, we contend that, as humans, we must occasionally sneak a bite of the carrot if we are to continue trekking. This is goal-setting. This is our concept of motivation. And, apparently, it is psychologically necessary for humans to perform.

I have always been more of a fan of mission statements than goals. Mission statements are intrinsically unreachable, the equivalent of placing the carrot so far in front of the mule so as to kill any hope that it might really be caught and eaten. They are almost better described as ideals in the sense that they set a course but never a quantifiable destination. They are generally ambiguous and subjective in nature, promising to be “the best in the industry” or pushing to be “a leader in the field”.

I work for a company with the stated mission that we are to “ solve the logistical needs of our customers by moving products where and when they want them better than anyone else.” That is our mission. How can we accomplish that? I would argue that we can’t. We can strive for it, but it is an open-ended idea without timeline or expiration date. The moment we rest on the supposed completion of the mission is the moment that someone else takes advantage of our complacency and becomes better. Hence, we are no longer “better than anyone else”.

Let's take it to the next level. The US State Department’s mission is to “Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community”. Seriously? Is that all? Just a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for everybody? Okay. The mission only extends to the people of America and the "international community". If an alien race arrives on earth, we will not be required to consider them - well, as long as they haven't organized themselves into nation-states thereby giving them inclusion in the "international community"...

I actually love the statement, though, because it sets the bar ridiculously high. It also clearly defines the "Commander’s Intent", the filter with which to make all decisions. The statement is wonderfully difficult in that, like all other missions, it can never be considered fully accomplished.

I walk through life stumbling towards a similarly unreachable mission: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

I can never stand in front of a banner claiming “Mission Accomplished” on that one. I can, however, consistently measure my heart and actions against the mission that I have been called to. I can be reminded of the filter with which I am to view and respond to the world. I can press on, unsatisfied by the artificially-pleasing bites of carrot and unfulfilled by the arbitrary benchmarks that allow me to relax and rest in my pre-disposed mediocrity. Instead, I press on towards the unattainable, knowing that glory is found in the mission itself, not in the accomplishment thereof.


  1. isn't there a difference between mission and goals, though? With a mission to reach the city, wouldn't you set goals of each neighborhood? Achievable goals with a mission that continues to pull you towards it like the horizon?

  2. the difference is the point.

    with a mission to reach the city, wouldn't an open mission allow for a more flexible and focused performance. goals might only serve to tie us to ineffective areas simply for the hope of reaching that said goal…

    goals can make positive additions, which often come in the form of painful subtractions, impossible.

  3. I think you're making a false dichotomy out of the situation to isolate negative potential.

  4. Mike - I think you're right. We all recognize that without goals we run the risk of a meandering, ineffectual lifestyle. But at some point we must recognize that overvaluing goals (especially in certain personality types) can have as harmful an outcome - namely a life dedicated to the completion of irrelevant or obsolete objectives.