The Meaning of Goals

Setting goals is a little bit like locking a cute baby monkey in a room with a bunch of 4 year olds, and waiting for the ensuing chaos. 

Each child is apprehensive about approaching the little monkey, but equally longs to hold it. What will their play be? How will they be influenced by the tactics of the other children?

The children are like your personality. They are the different parts of your psychology that come up when in pursuit of something that matters. And the meaning isn’t tied up in the monkey; it’s in what the monkey teaches you. 

A really good goal tends to present us with all of our demons – resistance in the form of contrary beliefs, emotional responses, thoughts and behaviors. The goal should bring them all to the foreground. And the degree to which we can meet what comes up is the same degree that we get meaning from pursuing the goal. So you could say that the true purpose of our goals is to show us stuff about ourselves. 

Enough about monkeys though. Let’s take a fairly standard goal that people have – say the goal to find your soulmate. What kind of children come out?

‘i want that monkey’

Research into happiness tells us that we get some meaning from simply setting goals, even if we never work on them. In fact, research shows that we’d be pretty depressed without that. (I would be extremely worried about your state of mind if you turned to me and said you had no goals.)

But we want meaning as well as pleasure. So it’s important not to get carried away with goal-setting.

If you want to create goals that matter, you’re better off focusing primarily on the emotions and actions you want in life (see this previous article on desire mapping). This is what self-aware people do before they go out there making shit happen. 

So taking the goal of discovering your soulmate: you need to have arrived at that decision through an internal assessment of where you’re at. If you’re not really feeling it, then it is unlikely that you will get much meaning from – erm – ‘working on’ the goal. 

‘but I don’t know how much’

After formulating the goal, it’s time to make some decisions. Decisions are the prerequisite for achieving your goals. Interestingly, we tend to assume we have made decisions, when really we haven’t.

When pushed, pretty much everyone would prefer:

  • to be ‘happier’
  • to have more money
  • being stress and anxiety free
  • to be in a great relationship
  • to live in their dream house in a dream location

But delve a little deeper, almost nobody is actually making the decision to accept nothing else. Primitive drivers such as security or control, tend to get in the way. If not those, then it’s more complex ego mechanisms, such as the desire to be told what to do, rather than have the courage to call your own shots.

The point is, you want to check in on the strength of your decisions around the goals. Weak decisions mean loosely-held goals. Read this other post on willingness if you need some motivation. 

Take our goal of finding our soulmate: let’s say we have really decided to do everything we can to meet them. So we will go on dates with people. And we will join interest groups and online dating apps. We will accost beautiful strangers in bars and cafes. We will not be half baked about it. 

‘and also, I’m scared of the monkey’

Once you’re committed to your goals, that’s when the psychological party begins. 

The goal becomes the stone of truth upon which all your contrary beliefs, emotional responses, thoughts and behaviors are broken / let go off.

This is important and most of us don’t really get it. 

So with our goal of finding our soulmate: what might we encounter in the form of ‘contrary beliefs, emotional responses, thoughts and behaviors’?

How about the belief that you’ll never find anyone decent, or that you aren’t ‘good’ with relationships? Or the response of feeling insecure, or rejected, or jaded, cynical or – even worse – actually happy? What about the thoughts of ‘this won’t last’ or ‘this is too good to be true’ and other upper limiting? And behaviour wise, how about avoidant behaviour?

Will you observe these horrors, and let them fuel a more self aware version of you? Might you realise you don’t actually want a monkey, you’d prefer a horse? Will you drop that monkey like it’s hot? 

Goals are created so that we can bring up any internal conflicts to the goal and then deal with them. The reward of dealing with inner conflicts to the goal is the goal itself.

This what makes goals such great tools for personal growth. They challenge us to let go of what is preventing the goal from happening.


Enjoy making decisions and setting goals. And truly relish the fact that the bigger and scarier the goal, the more free you’ll become in the process. 

But don’t expect goal-setting not bring up those deep fears and insecurities, because a good goal always will. Then it’s just a matter of how willing we are to allow our fears to be present alongside our hopes. 

The strength of your decision will probably be the deciding factor.