Why Wise Men Abandon Their Goals

Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2
Jackie Chan shows his calligraphy: 水能载舟,亦能覆舟

Water floats, but also sinks boats. This old Chinese proverb reminds us that our most beneficial tools can injure us when applied unskillfully. Goal setting, the ultimate weapon in the personal development arsenal, is no exception to this rule.

Smart men set goals. Wise men abandon them.

The Danger of Goals

Love, happiness and self-actualization are the universal human desires that motivate most goal-setting behavior. Compared to business processes, these desires are non-specific, not measurable and not easily squeezed onto a timeline. This poses a problem to those who are accustomed to planning their future, with the guidance of continuous feedback.

The clever man quickly finds a solution, by substituting a proxy goal for his original desire. His proxy goal is evidently in alignment with the true objective, and has the advantage of being easier to quantify. Typical proxy goals are money, power and fame. Thus equipped, the clever man plans to achieve his desired percentage of satisfaction by a specific date.

The wise man sees the folly of this approach. At the outset, proxy goals produce the desired results. If poverty and powerlessness are real obstacles to happiness, then wealth and empowerment are real solutions. But when these substitutes inevitably diverge from the original objectives, the goals themselves become obstacles to success.

Without an honest and direct confrontation of one’s true desire, goal setting is just another destructive habit.

Manifesting Confusion

We are told that goal setting is an irreproachable pursuit. People who set goals are focused, intelligent, passionate and successful; people who do not are ignorant, lazy, fearful and ineffective. Such accounts represent the wishful thinking of goal addicts.

We should expect people who achieve their goals to consider themselves successful. They are successful by their own measure—as are many others who fail to set any goals whatsoever. This is a case of subjective bias; if we want the objective truth, we should ask someone without a horse in the success race.

Forget about personal development speakers, coaches and other businessmen. As Lieh-tzu said, One who sets out on a great enterprise does not concern himself with trifles; one who achieves great successes does not achieve small ones. Mankind’s greatest masters left us a different path to personal empowerment: abandon your goals.


  1. Completely in agreement. I’ve never heard the phrase “proxy goals” before, but the meaning it conveys is obvious, and it’s true for many people today.

  2. It’s a very good article. I recently began training in the Wu style of Tajiquan. A friend asked me about my goals. I simply intend to show up regularly, absorb what they teach me, and practice. That’s quite enough.

  3. Thank you for your post. It seems counter-intuitive to many people to have anything other than goals.

    Being present, as you know is all that there is. We must act prudently for change, which some will call the future, but really this is a change in the now. For example, it makes sense not to spend all your money as things will change and you may need some of it for a different occasion.

    I studied Shotokai Karate for a few years when I was in my 20’s. Rick Matz, says (above) he just shows up. That’s what I did. I didn’t have a goal to get advanced belts. They were given to me when the time was right. All I wanted to do was go to the dojo and practice.

    These days I do chi-kung. I do it every day by myself. I have been doing it for years. It’s simple yet subtle. The style I do is just 18 movements. I don’t need anything else. Each day is different, and after all, it is a way to be present and healthy.

    I am currently starting to write about creativity and came across the Kyoto School of philosophy and the work of Nishida Kitaro. He writes about action-intuition. This is antithetical to the planning/implementation mode that so dominates education and business here in America. It is the artist’s way. You do something (create) and reflect. Then from that point you can see what to do next. It’s like climbing a mountain. Only by actually climbing part way can you get a better view. But goal orientation is blind to the ever changing now. It is like a horse with blinkers that can’t see anything on either side of the road.

    Anyway, I have probably mixed enough metaphors here. I deeply appreciate your perspective. Thank you.

Add a Comment