Obsessive Focus On Your Goals Can Cause You To Miss Important Cues

Written by Mike Shapiro | | March 22, 2017

Probably the most oft-quoted advice is to set your sights on your goals and align all your actions toward that end.

“Keep your eyes on the prize.”

“Don’t get distracted from your goals by anyone or anything.”

Interestingly, the other piece of advice banging around out there for the last 30 years or so is to be aware of the rapid rate of change. The idea behind that is that presumably as things are changing, you may have to make some changes yourself to address these new forces.

But if you’re so focused on your goals, how can you know when they’re no longer the right ones for the new circumstances?

Sometimes the best lessons come from unexpected sources. One of the very best books that illustrates graphically what can happen when you stubbornly cling to a goal that may no longer square with the changing reality is Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Set in the 1870s, the story centers on the adventures of a young man with three years of Harvard undergrad under his belt, itching for some excitement. He makes his way west with single-minded determination to hunt buffalo.

The author won the National Book award for another book, so unfortunately this one gets less attention. When it does get reviewed, it’s often cited as a critique of the national epidemic of expansionist greed that all but wiped out the herds of buffalo in the Great American West. But a closer reading reveals it’s far more than that. The young man gets far more than he bargained for, enduring all sorts of hardships, natural and man-made, only to find upon his return, a world very different from the one he left. In the face of this new reality, he must re-evaluate the relevance and value of his goal.

Goals are important. They keep us focused and moving forward. But one can get so focused as to become mechanical and behave as though we’re wearing blinders. As we move ahead with determination, it’s absolutely critical to keep one eye on the what’s happening around us:

  1. Are the conditions the same as they were when we first made the commitment?
  2. If not, what — out in the world and in our own view of what we want — has changed?
  3. Would we make the same commitment today?
  4. Does the change in conditions warrant a re-evaluation of our approach, strategy or even the goal itself?

In our desire to stay aligned with our goals, it’s important to also make sure our goals remain aligned with an ever-changing reality. Sometimes it’s necessary to revise, modify, adjust or completely change our goals simply because our business, the industry — and we ourselves — have changed.