Are You an Ambitious Person Who Isn’t Big on Goals?

80% of ambitious people are goal oriented, 20% of ambitious people are not goal oriented. This ratio came from a friend. It strikes me as about right.

I’m not a goal person. I set a few short and medium term goals, but no long term goals.

I think long term goals are dangerous. When you are singularly focused on a long term goal or plan you become blind to the opportunities which exist on the periphery of everyday life. In other words, you blind yourself from the random events which can change your life.

But I’m still ambitious. I’m in the 20% minority.

So what drives me, if not goals? I’m not exactly sure. I want to have impact. That drives me. I want to change the world and make it better. That drives me. What drives me more than anything is an internal beating drum which I can’t verbalize.

I’m curious to hear from driven, ambitious people who don’t follow the textbook approach of elaborate goal-setting, new year’s resolutions, and life plans. From where do you derive your ambition? Is it just the way you are or can you point to explanatory factors?

17 comments on “Are You an Ambitious Person Who Isn’t Big on Goals?
  • “I want to have impact. That drives me. I want to change the world and make it better. That drives me.”

    Ben, both of those are long-term goals.

  • Yeah, I’m kind of with the last guy. However, I guess it depends on how you define goals or long-term goals.

    I think the difference you’re talking about is having specific long-term goals versus more general ones. If so, I’m all with you on that.

    I love to be agile, ready to take advantage of opportunity and make decisions based on the now. However I know I’m driven towards certain long term ideals. Maybe that’s it… having ideals vs goals. Ideals being a state that can never be reached, but infinitely approached.

  • I’ve been big on making goals, not so much on following them and going through them though ;p. Long-term goals are difficult. There’s a problem with them, and thats that you develop your interests and sometimes change them, dubbing your long-term goals irrelevant. But it goes back to what jeff said, how do you define goals and long-term ones.

    ” When you are singularly focused on a long term goal or plan you become blind to the opportunities which exist on the periphery of everyday life. ”

    Definitely agree all the way.

  • Ben,

    I suppose it all depends on how you define goals. I would say that anyone who acts beyond the intrinsic value they get from their tasks is somewhat of a goal-setter, doing a task for a goal beyond the act of doing it.

    As in long-term goals, I think it is the act of setting them that is more important than achieving them. For me a long term goal is a statement identifying where you think your direction should inevitably lead you in ten or twenty years. So if you are going into law school, this could be to own your own firm or be a district attorney.

    Ultimately though, a goal is about the start not the finishing line. I use goals to motivate me, but not as an end in themselves. That is a distinction that is hard to maintain, so I can see why someone like yourself would avoid long-term goals. But for myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to switch a big goal that no longer reflects the path I want to take.

    Interesting post,

  • Ben,

    I think a clear perspective on goal setting is important. Long term goal is what we are programmed to achieve in life and that comes preset with our DNA. It just gets progressively clearer to us, its visibility improved by the outcome of several short term goals we set for ourselves. It’s emergence from the shadows is a result of a conscious cognitive process. Great people recognize that early, focus their energies and go after it, ending up as super achievers. Our role is just limited to execution of several short term tasks that lead to its attainment. Isn’t it curious that none of us fail to attain our long term goals that way ?

    I agree with you completely when you say [setting] *long term goals are dangerous* – for the reason that we may end up messing with our software which we are only entitled to recognize, not tweak.

  • I’m driven by the unknown. In other words, I like the idea that I don’t know what I’ll be doing in five years, but that it could be even more interesting and satisfying than what I’m doing now.

    I look at life as a place for exploration – if you decide ahead of time how it’s going to look, that’s pretty boring to me.

    My wife is the exact opposite. She needs predicatability and a specific, concrete game plan.

    Needless to say, we’re complementary that way – she works at the steady gig and I’m the risk taker.

  • I believe that a basic set of principles and values to guide every action is the only ‘goal’ worth striving for, aside of keeping an open mind.

    The more specific the goal, the more likely one is to be blind-sided by it and to miss opportunities that arise! Alas, we cannot plan elaborately for serendipity, except keep an open mind and keep our eyes and ears open.

  • Call it agility, flexibility or humility, I think the key to what you’re talking about is the ability to change your mind about things. I find those who have firm, concrete goals tend to be inflexible about changing them, which can not be a good thing. An ambition to be the best you can be at whatever you put your mind to, even if you haven’t thought what that might be yet, is a much best philospohy on life, don’t you agree?

  • Hey Ben, hope your trip is rockin since you left Austin!

    That ‘goal setting’ thing has always bothered me frankly. Coming from a long linage of ‘engineering’ types, the mechanical aspects of accomplishing a ‘long term goal’ was more or less a Pert/Gantt Chart activity. Which, for me, pretty much limited your life thru the boxes on the chart… being an entrepreneurial type…that just never settled in over here. As such, I have never thought of myself as a ‘long term’ goal person.

    But like you, I am severly driven to accomplish, particularly in the vein of something for which I have a passion; currently that is my startup. Like other posters, I am totally comfortable in not knowing what I am going to be doing in 12months, but knowing that I’ll be head long into doing whatever tasks it takes at that moment to make this deal fly.

    I thought about the difference between the “80%” and the “20%” after I read it. I wonder if there are any characteristics of the 80 that are significantly different than the 20? Are there more J.O.B. types in the 80 and more ‘off the grid’ (pioneers) in the 20?

    A couple of thoughts.

  • Your primary goal is self-development–life long learning, erudition and living your values. Short term goals and new activities are just ways to get there.
    Have lived the same way for 50+ years and have also achieved many, if not all, of the things the 80% strive for but with the added benefit of this extra richness.

  • Those who spend their energies to chart in advance a specific pathway for their lives seem horrendously ignorant of the realities of the world.

    The days of being able to fix on a specific goal and work towards it are as dead as the dodo. The world is changing too much and too quickly for that strategy to work.

  • Chris –

    I think your comment is valid, but only within specific insulated worlds (like the internet and tech in general). There are endless examples of very specific life goals that exist in a world where the world is *not* “changing too much and too quickly”.

    For example, what if someone decides when they are very young that they want to become one of the best cartoonists in the world? What if they want to be the best baseball player? A legendary poet? The platforms for these aspirations may change – comic strips may cease to be published in newspapers, baseball stadiums may look different 30 years from now, and people may read poetry on their cell phones – but chances are pretty high that the intrinsic nature of these (very, very specific) goals isn’t going to change very much – if even at all.

    I’m not so sure that the people charging forward on specific pathways like those are “horrendously ignorant”. I agree with you that someone who wants to rule the internet 40 years from now is probably in for a mental whallop every year or so considering how fast it changes. But the internet – and tech in general – exists as a platform, and of course platforms change constantly.

    So someone who has been fixated on revolutionizing TV for years and years may be “dead as a dodo” when YouTube and all its various future incarnations come along at the speed of light… but someone who grows up watching TV and is inspired to devote the majority of their life to becoming a sitcom actor is probably not as ignorant as you’re making them out to be.

    Some of you might be forgetting that not everyone wants to grow up to create the next Google. I think it would be interesting to hear reactions to the questions Ben has posed from people outside of tech – maybe in “creative content”, like books or TV or movies, where the platforms change constantly, but the content itself tends to remain intrinsically the same.

  • A pattern I’ve observed from own research is a bi-modal goal-setting tendancy. That is, many ambitious types who end up accruing impressive resumes operate in one of two modes: “seek” or “destroy.”

    The seek mode is the generalized, keep your options open, explore, and look for novel experiences approach you describe. However, once a certain possibility passes certain tests — big reward, feasible, matches values/interests — they tend to switch over to “destroy” mode, in which they make relentless progress toward completion. This latter process may be spread over multiple years, so it fits under the rubric of “long-term goal.”

    In your own life, Ben, you might consider Comcate, your blog, and your book, as examples of these sort of targeted long-term goals.

    In some respects, it seems problems with long-term goal making arise when people fixate on a particular goal (e.g., the classic “make a million dollars by the time I’m 25”), without having it passed the rigorous screening of the seek and destroy model. Without that qualification, the goal is meaningless — a potential serious time synch (explaining why there exist so many ambitious, goal-obsessed people with little to show for a life time of making missions statements and powerful New Years Resolutions).

    Just some rough thoughts.


  • I personally am not in the tech industry…as a matter of fact, my startup is a nonprofit. I have never been one for making long term goals…even as a child I remember changing daily what I thought I might be when I grew up. The thing is…much like others have said…life changes…and with it so do those goals, if you happen to set any. If I had had my heart set on being something when my son came along and plans HAD to change…I would’ve been heart broken that suddenly I would never reach that goal. Instead…I didn’t have a set goal that I was holding on to…and so when life changed…so did my path, with very little effort or thought of loss.

    I think the problem for some of us (not to say all, because some people are VERY successful with set goals) setting a goal feels too confining. We find that we work better in a more spontaneous life style, maybe because we still don’t know what exactly we want to be when we grow up…maybe because we want the option to be ANYTHING when we grow up. We find a path today that we chose to walk down…but tomorrow we may come to a cross roads and chose a different path…or are forced into a different direction. Had you asked me 6 years ago if I saw myself running a nonprofit for the disability community…I probably would’ve laughed…it was never even an idea…until life threw me a new path. Flexibility is the key to success for many…possibly more than 20%.

  • Like the person above me, I always changed what I wanted to be. My friend says that I change majors/careers more often than I change girls (and that’s saying alot). Just being in the moment and taking everything in and seeing the implications of that single moment are enough to really get me going. I assume that the long-term goals will be realized as a result of my short-term goals. Confidence in that result, for me, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Yeah, the point is quite clear n obvious to me. Leading each day with proper conscience of doing something good and fruitful which may benefit you momentarily or in future will ultimately drives you towards the accomplishment of long term goals. If we break down the long term goals in generic terms the most common are monetory, physicaly, spritualy and mentally fulfillment of you and others around you. The bottom line I found is CONTINOUSLY PUTTING YOUR EFFORTS TO MAKE THE THINGS BETTER AND BETTER ON DAILY BASIS, which may bring a big difference in future.

    This is my first blog of my life, so just wanted to put my views n really am feeling today that I have done something fruitful to achieve a big difference in my coming life.

  • Actually, I was thinking about this today. The definition of short term vs long term goals really depends on how you’re defining it and who you’re speaking to. It depends on each individual person’s reality and what type of impact they want to make on the world. Goals is just the material word that we use in our language in an attempt to tangibly convey what we are working towards usually within a designated period of time. The most common goal categories fall within the short, medium and long term goal range. However a goal does not have to fall within these 3 different range categories. A 30 day goal might be short term for one person, yet a long term goal for another. Just like a 3 year goal might be categorized as long term for persona A, yet person B categorizes it as a short term goal. It all depends on how much that person is seeking to accomplish within the period of time their committing to realize the goal. Unfortunately, many people think that once they have come up with the goals they want to accomplish and have written them down, that somehow the goals will start materializing all on their own – well that’s not so. And here is where I highly recommend for people to open themselves up for total randomness in their life. Goals are fluid, not static! If you want to materialize them, guess what, you gotta get out there and start implementing asap, you can’t get stuck on the details and its duper important to be open to anything and everything (of course as long as you’re not in harms way)…most of the time the path that I began in is never the path that I end up in when I accomplish my goal. In other words, creating a road map to accomplishing your goals covering all the days of the calendar year, is probably not as effective as getting out there and just doing it as soon as you can. There is no need to set up conditionals for the who, where, what, how, when and why when you can just as easily and most enjoyably Improvise along the way. Also – I am not inspired by goals per say, i view the concept of goals as a word tool in place to help verbalize where we are headed or where we aim to be. My childhood experience is what mainly informs my drive and why I do what I do.

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