Are Your Financial Goals Meaningless?

Most driven individuals on their path to financial independence mastery know that you need goals to get to the next stage in life.  And when it comes to money, many individuals have plans to increase their earnings ability, improve their lifestyle or save for long-term financial security.  Nevertheless, even the most ambitious individuals quite often find that their goals fail within weeks or months into their endeavor.  Why? Because they set meaningless goals.

So, what is a goal?  A goal is a future or the desired result that you envision, plan for and commit to achieving.  Many well-intentioned individuals set specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timebound (or SMART) goals.  And goal-setting can be as simple as striving to wake up at 4 am each morning to exercise for 15 minutes so you can lose five pounds in a month or as ambitious as starting a business from the ground up. 

When viewed in isolation, a well-defined financial goal may appear virtuous or valid on its surface.  But, when it’s out of context with what’s essential to you, your goal likely will become meaningless and fail because it’s not aligned with what matters most in your life.  Certainly, determination to achieve an objective may initially propel you towards your aim, but soon enough, willpower fatigue likely will set in, and you’ll probably end up reverting to old financial habits. 

Alternatively, you could push toward your financial goals on willpower alone, mistaking effort and progress as measures of success as you propel forward only to find that the object of your intention is hollow or unappealing once you’ve attained it. 

Goals in and of themselves are meaningless.  They’re simply a means to an end.  What gives a goal meaning is its transformative power to shape and change who you are so that you can have the resources you need to experience a life worth living.

Why Do People Set Meaningless Goals?

So, why would someone set out to pursue a meaningless goal?  Well, some individuals attain disappointing outcomes because they fail to take the time to understand what they want from life before creating and getting after their dreams.  Thomas Merton, an American Trappist Monk, once said that “people may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” In a similar vein, Steven Covey was quoted to say that “if the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us closer to the wrong place faster.”

In his book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks uses the analogy of climbing a mountain to pursue goal fulfillment.  Some individuals start out in life intending to scale a mountain summit to reach some level of material wealth, comfort, or simply to be “happy”.  After speaking with hundreds of people from all walks of life and studying philosophy, religion, psychology and sociology, Brooks’ findings show how even the most accomplished athletes, artists, business leaders and many others struggle with drugs, alcohol or other vices to make up for the hollowness of their lives even after acquiring status or wealth that many in society today would yearn for.  

Whether you view goal setting as climbing a ladder or summiting a mountain, the fact is that if you haven’t clearly defined why you’re pursuing the goals you’ve set out for yourself, a time likely will come when you end up with frustration and regret.  Indeed, a time could come where everything you have achieved will seem as though it were for nothing.  And to be sure, society today is littered with broke lottery winners, miserable millionaires, and accomplished actors and musicians who have ended their lives in desperation.

The truth is that many well-intentioned individuals chase meaningless goals not because they’re sadistically pursuing failure.  More often than not, this outcome has to do with the fact that their goals were not their own.  They’re just doing what seemingly everyone around them is doing or wants them to do.

This behavior typically occurs when we live a financial script handed down from family or culture early on in life, like going to school, getting a good job, buying a house, getting married, having kids, and saving for retirement.  It’s keeping up with the Jonses or living the American Dream, right?  Well, when you’re setting goals to live someone else’s financial scripts, there’s a good chance that you could wake up lost, disappointed, or simply unfulfilled.  So how can you set meaningful financial goals? 

The Antidote for Meaningless Goals

First, start by understanding what’s essential in your life, define a vision that aligns with your values, and then create goals that align with your vision.  Isn’t this all fluff when we should be talking about making money?  The short answer is no. 

Make no mistake, the word “vision” seems like another fancy buzzword because it’s become so overused in today’s culture.  That’s why when you hear the word “vision”, you might think of business leaders who are intent on using ten-dollar words like “vision statements” to represent ten-cent ideas or self-help gurus who espouse having vision as a panacea for overcoming personal or professional underperformance. 

But the truth is that in its simplest form, the word vision represents a picture or a snapshot of your desired life destination.  It’s the creative process of developing a mental movie of your future potential life outcome.  Vision is about being clear about where you’re heading; goals are how you get there.  That’s why without vision, goals are meaningless.

Now, you may be asking: “Isn’t vision and goal the same thing?” You might even ask, “I envision myself having saved more money in ten years than I have today; isn’t that a vision.” Well, vision is different from goals because it marks what happens after you’ve crossed the finish line.  If your goal is to have more money in ten years, how would you use that money?  What would change in your life as a result of having acquired more wealth?  A goal, like saving more money in the coming ten years, sets out a specific set of tasks necessary to accomplish that outcome.  The vision, on the other hand, is what you will do with that money and how your life will change once you have that money in your hands.

What Does Vision Look Like?

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the concept of vision as it relates to your finances, take an example from Pele.  Now, Pele is arguably one of the greatest soccer players in the world.  And he attributes his success to the practice of visualization.  If creating a vision is imagining your future life outcome, then visualization is the active practice of rehearsing that story in your mind.  That’s why one hour before each game, Pele would go through his own mental movie, starting with when he was a child to his current moment right before a game, recalling how he felt playing soccer as a child and how he needed to play his next match as a way and to evoke positive emotions and mentally prepare himself for success on the field. 

Thinking more long-term, some individuals find it helpful to create vision boards by physically laying out pictures of places, people, or destinations they’d like to see take place in their lives.  Now, to be clear, we’re not talking about the “law of attraction” or positive thinking type of board here.  Simply put, it’s a physical board filled with a collage of pictures representing how you’d like to see your career, family, health, travel, or social situation play out in the future.  The collage itself is a physical representation of your intentions.  It’s there to remind you why you’re getting up in the morning.  You’re still going to have to get at it and do the work to make that vision a reality!

At first glance, your initial response may be to say, “What’s the point in all of this?  I’m not looking for some path to enlightenment here.  All I want is to save enough money to buy a house, put my kids through college and ensure that there’s enough money to cover my needs for the rest of my life.” Now, this is a valid point, but how much money is enough?  Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve accomplished these goals.  Then what?   Well, take a tip from Disney.  No, not Walt Disney.  We’re talking about his brother Roy.

When we think of Disney, more often than not, we think of its founder, Walt Disney, the creative mind behind the media company.  Few people know, however, that it was Roy who was the operations genius that turned the company into a profitable empire.  And Roy once said that “when your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” Put differently, when you’re clear about where you’re going and understand what the destination looks like, you instinctively know what goals need to be set and the resources you’ll need to achieve that result.

Intention: It’s What You Need to Create Your Vision

So, how do you create your life vision?  To know what you want your life to look like, you’ll first need to take the time to understand what’s important to you and how you want to spend your time.  This journey begins by identifying your top core values.  In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear shares a list of values he prepared in collaboration with the LeaderShape Institute. 

In his book, Clear describes how he identifies five core values to focus on and then prioritizes the short-list.  After that, he aligns his daily practices to align his life with his values.  Once you’ve identified which values you want to give your time to, then take the time to create a vision for how your life will change in the future as you begin to focus on your priorities. 

Again, vision represents a picture, or a snapshot of your desired life destination.  It’s the creative process of developing a mental movie of your future potential life outcome.  Vision is about being clear about where you’re heading, goals are how you get there.  This brings us to our final point: setting your goals.

Goal setting is the process of identifying what work needs to be done, the financial resources you need, and who you need to become to close the gap between where you are today and your ideal life vision.  When approached correctly, this goal-setting process should withstand the ebbs and flows of near-term uncertainties when they’re grounded in your vision and values. 

When it comes down to it, spending the time to create your vision is an act of intentionally designing your life.  The truth is that few individuals want to take the time to be introspective.  They want a quick fix or rely on others to tell them how to do it.  But if you want to avoid pursuing meaningless financial goals, you’ll have to start by doing the work to understand who you are, what’s essential to you and then creating a vision for how you want your life to unfold.  Doing so will naturally lead to creating meaningful goals and move you further down the path to mastering your financial independence journey.