Beware Goal-Setting’s Compare & Compete Trap

A few years ago, Sean made a rule for me: no calling yourself lazy. It’s a good rule—and a rule specifically directed at me. Sean never refers to himself as lazy; he values rest and sustainability far too much to label himself with such a negative term. But me? Well, before “the rule,” I used to refer to myself as lazy on the regular.

Here’s the thing: I’m obviously not lazy. And here’s the other thing: so what if I was?

Lazy is one of those terms that has the potential to be morally neutral but, instead, is understood as morally wrong. If lazy means not working harder than you have to, why should that make me a bad person? Why should it make me less worthy of respect or care than someone who works their butt off unnecessarily?

Dr. Devon Price wrote a whole book about the history of laziness, the concept as a tool of oppression, and the alienation it causes:

When we say someone’s lazy, we’re saying they’re incapable of completing a task due to some kind of weakness, but we’re also claiming that their lack of ability somehow makes them morally corrupt. It’s not that they’re tired or even dispirited in some way we might sympathize with the word implies that they’re failures on a fundamental human level.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

It’s pretty easy to imagine a world in which laziness—not working any harder than you have to—is considered a virtue. A sign of high intelligence, good fortune, and creativity. Actually, it’s not hard to imagine it at all because there was a time, not so long ago, when wealthy people believed work was beneath them. From the Greeks to European feudal societies to what sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the “leisure class,” taking it easy—and having the privilege to do so without repercussion—was a sign that you were at the top of the economic food chain. Work was a lowly activity for lowly people (i.e., women and enslaved people). Having to work to provide for yourself was considered a truly terrible fate for an aristocrat or capitalist.

That’s changed dramatically, of course. Today, hard work is a sign of moral virtue. It is considered a prerequisite for success—regardless of how much financial and social success can be attributed to starting out with many more resources than your plumber or mail carrier, who also work hard. This shift is largely attributed to the Protestant Work Ethic. Working hard in service of your vocation was (is) seen as a way of demonstrating piety and even your position among The Elect for salvation. The Protestant work ethic was influential in the founding of the American colonies and laid the groundwork for the unique way that the United States formed itself. It’s primarily why such significant disparities still exist between capitalist culture in the US and capitalist culture in western Europe.

Max Weber, another sociologist, wrote about this in his book, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit Of Capitalism:

The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. … The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling…

Max Weber

In league with this ethic of wealth accumulation and the virtue of pursuing a vocation, the Protestant Work Ethic also carries with it the negation of pleasure as virtuous. In other words, making money is good; having fun is bad. Now, plenty of people are pushing back against this today—many of them drawing on wisdom Eastern, African, and indigenous traditions from around the world. But the very need to push back shows just how pervasive this attitude toward hard work is, especially in the American economy. We integrate that belief that hard work makes you virtuous at an early age.

One of my favorite things to think about over the last year or so has been what makes something a moral issue. How does a particular action or condition come to signal superiority in the eyes of others and become desirable? I notice opportunities to ask these questions everywhere right now because nothing brings up the moral baggage of all sorts of decisions than New Year’s. The language of New Year’s resolutions is the language of moral superiority. We resolve to wake up earlier, spend less time on our devices, exercise more often, finally get started on that side hustle. We resolve to move away from action we deem, at one level or another, moral failings and move toward action we deem virtuous.

On World Philosophy Day, philosopher Kate Manne tweeted these questions to consider:

What is it not the case that we ought to do? What false and pseudo-obligations may haunt our mental and social lives, and make us feel needlessly guilty or sinful?

Kate Manne

What are some of the things we might feel needlessly guilty or sinful about? Well, lacking discipline, renting your home, being disorganized, spending too much time on social media, being unhealthy, being in debt, not having a retirement account, avoiding healthcare, sending your kids to daycare, preferring long walks to long runs, working too little, working too much—I could go on and on. Our culture as a whole has a wide range of “rules” to follow. The smaller groups we belong to have even more rules.

But most of these rules are just made up—a transference of sacred codes of conduct into the secular world. This is not to say that rules don’t have their place; there should be laws against murder, fraud, and the like. But it is to say that, whenever we feel an obligation to a course of action, a “should” that we think is vital to be perceived as a functioning member of society, we can examine that impulse more closely. We can take a step back and ask whether that obligation is valid.

Again, this topic is on my mind because my feeds are awash in new year’s goal-setting advice. Ten tips for spending less time online. Five ways to incorporate exercise into your day. Seven steps to eliminating plastic from your home. Thirty-seven experts weigh in on becoming a better parent. And, of course, how to make 2022 your best year yet. This time of year is practically a ping-pong game of shoulds and supposed-tos. And in this kind of environment, it’s hard not to look around and see how you stack up against others—the way they are now, the goals they’ve set, what they’re trying to become.

Which leaves me with the question: do your goals make you a better person?

I don’t mean: do your goals help you yourself grow? Hopefully, they do (although I’m dubious). I mean, do your goals make you a better person than someone else? Does setting a goal to spend less time on a device automatically lead to thinking that someone who spends more time on that device isn’t as smart, disciplined, or evolved as you are?

On the one hand, this is an easy question. No. We absolutely know our goals don’t make us better than other people. But on the other hand, all those shoulds and supposed-tos cast the shadow of the ideal human—the ideal human who is all the things we aspire and strive toward. The human who has a perfect marriage, a deep connection with their children, a successful career, a hobby they’re passionate about, the discipline to run marathons and maintain their ideal weight. It’s from within this shadow that many of us set our goals. We measure our own lives against the ideal other to determine what we need to change to become more like them.

Sebene Selassie talks about this in a section of You Belong that never fails to stop me in my tracks no matter how many times I read it. She writes, “By the time we are grown-ups (or even adolescents), we hustle relentlessly to “be better”—smarter, healthier, cooler, thinner, richer, funnier, prettier, calmer, and woker. The “-er” at the end of these words is comparison and competition.” She continues, “Comparison and competition are the primary fuel for separation, domination, and not belonging. Not belonging is a cumulative condition. It stems from all the tiny moments of comparing ourselves and competing with others.”

Failing to step closer toward that ideal state isn’t just a passing defeat. It becomes a moral judgment—a reminder of the hierarchy at the root of our own not-quite-enoughness as well as systems of oppression. Our failings—or those we perceive in others—only reinforce any sense that we don’t belong. We feel less-than—even guilty or sinful, as Manne suggested. Not much of this experience is likely to be conscious. Most of us—I hope—aren’t sitting around passing moral judgment on ourselves or others with intention. However, in my own experience and in conversation with countless others about their own perceptions around goals, I believe that many of us judge ourselves (and others) with the goals we set.

Philosophically, we can define morality in two ways according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: descriptively, referring to an external or personal moral system (i.e., religion or code of conduct), or normatively, referring to the logical conclusion any rational person would make about the inherent “rightness” of a position.

Many of the objectives we choose as goals seem to point to the normative use of “morality.” Exercising more is good; any rational person can see that. Generating more revenue is good; any rational person can see that. Paying off debt is good; any rational person can see that. Spending less time on your device is good; any rational person can see that. But are those things really true? Is exercising, making money, spending less time on a device, or paying off debt the only rational course of action for the virtuous?

My answer is no. These goals aren’t the result of universal logical reasoning but, instead, the product of imposed moral systems. And it’s these moral systems that can make it nearly impossible to know what you, a rational and feeling being, really want. Nearly impossible—but not totally impossible.

When we can examine the moral system behind an inclination to reach for a particular goal, we have the chance to identify the perceived or explicit rules—the shoulds and supposed-tos—that influence that inclination.

The moral character of goal-setting doesn’t stop at influencing whether we see ourselves as good or bad. Goal-setting is often a form of hierarchy creation. Being fit is good; being fitter is better. Making money is good; making more money is better. And, this isn’t merely a personal hierarchy—it’s a social one.

The philosopher Kate Manne, who I quoted earlier, recently wrote a brave and vulnerable essay for the New York Times in which she described the immorality of diet culture. Specifically, she cited how avoiding cravings and ignoring our appetites has been celebrated:

The natural human appetite for rich and sugary foods is thereby derided as not only contrary to reason but also something to be tamed, shunned, even shamed. The constant deprivation and, sometimes, sheer hunger of someone who sticks to a rigorous diet is envisaged as an unambiguously good thing and as an achievement, even a virtue.

Kate Manne, New York Times

I hear similar things about productivity, systems, or marketing. Business owners tell me, “This is the year I stick to my plan and work my systems!” Or, “This is the year I market like a boss!” Or even, “This is the year I outsource everything!” And I know there is a moral quality to these statements because they also tell me how “bad” or “stupid” they’ve been in the past for not doing these things. And while they might laugh it off, there is a painful honesty there, too.

Let’s move out of the world of philosophy for a bit, though, and enter the world of psychology. Albert Bandura was a social cognitive psychologist who passed away last summer. He’s incredibly influential in his field and best known for his social learning theory and the concept of self-efficacy. I’ve been studying his work for my research on goal-setting and motivation. Bandura describes a key component of self-motivation and self-regulation as discrepancy production. Discrepancy production is how we actively create a difference between our current and desired conditions. The discrepancy inspires motivation for change.

At its most effective, discrepancy production is an act of subjectivity—we decide our own desired condition and self-motivate to achieve that condition. We act on our own situation and change it to be closer to our goal. However, what I find pervasive in today’s goal-setting is not subjectivity but objectification. In other words, the discrepancy is produced for us for economic gain.

I mean, in some ways, this is just the essence of marketing, right? An ad will highlight how things could be different—the discrepancy—and then tell us what’s required to reach the desired outcome it’s created for us—namely, buying their product. Look, I’m fine with marketing. My issue is that, as we’re bombarded by discrepancy production in that form and continually objectified by market forces, we lose sight of what we really want and lose the ability to produce our own discrepancies without the undue influence of the market. If we aren’t the subjective force behind our own discrepancy production, we will find it challenging to self-motivate and self-regulate.

Okay, let me say that in English.

We aren’t in control of our own goal-setting because the market tells us what we should want and what we’re supposed to do. And that means we’re going to have a hard time getting ourselves to do the things we think we want to do.

I think that about sums up the existential crisis of the 21st century, huh? Because just wait for it, after the new year/new you headlines start to subside, we’ll begin to see the headlines about how to not lose our motivation or how to stick to the plans we made in January. Our sense that we lack motivation, persistence, or discipline brings us back to the moral dilemma. We hold up those willing to strive, deprive, and push through as paragons of virtue—while bemoaning our own inability to get things done.

So what are we to do?

Is there a way to reclaim our desire for growth while quieting the influence of the market and the social order it’s created?

Yes, I believe so.

First, we need to closely examine the discrepancies we feel in our own lives. Did I create the discrepancy? Or was it made for me? Are the circumstances I desire based on my own will or the will of the market?

Second, anytime we compare or order others, we need to examine the “rule” that’s creating that hierarchy. Why do I believe this person’s action is better than my own? Why do I think I’m better than this group of people?

Third, we can take charge of our own discrepancy production. For me, that doesn’t just mean setting goals—it means creating a strong personal vision that’s not so much based on material conditions as it is personal growth and my experience of life.

And finally, we can create a personal ethic—our own system of morality that will influence our actions and shape our lives and stand in contrast to systems that try to impose their will on us. And that might seem like a tall order—especially given our context. But I don’t think this needs to be difficult. It can be as simple as spending some serious time on your personal values and how those values operate in the world. How does one act in alignment with those values? How does one set goals within those values? How does one structure their life within those values? That’s the essence of a personal ethic—and it’s probably already something you’re working on.

Finally, I want to leave you with this. The existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote a book called The Ethics of AmbiguityIn it, she lays out a guiding ethic in response to the philosophy of existentialism. It might be somewhat familiar to you already. She writes, “To will oneself free is also to will others free. This will is not an abstract formula. It points out to each person concrete action to be achieved.”

To act toward my own freedom, I must work towards the freedom of others. When we make goal-setting a moral issue, when we use it to rank ourselves and others into a moral hierarchy, we deny ourselves and others freedom. In letting go of this moralizing and social ordering, we’re taking a step toward greater freedom for all. That’s a moral system I can get behind.

How would your goals or commitments for this year be different if you put this ethic of freedom at their center? What outside influences could you free yourself from this year and, in so doing, help others realize their own freedom?

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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