If you've ever read a popular book on the importance of planning for the future, you'll almost certainly have encountered a reference to the Yale Study of Goals. This is an ultra-famous finding about the importance of creating detailed plans for your life. The essentials are as follows: in 1953, students graduating from Yale University were asked by researchers whether or not they had formulated specific, written-down foals for the rest of their lives. Only 3% of them said they had. Two decades later, the researchers tracked down the class of '53, to see how their lives had turned out. The results were unequivocal: the 3% with written goals had amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97% combined.
This is a jaw-dropping finding, and a powerful lesson about the importance of focusing on the future and intensely pursuing your dreams. No wonder it's achieved the status of legend. The only problem is that it is, indeed, a legend: the Yale Study of Goals never took place.
We spend our lives obsessed with planning for the future, with setting goals and making them come true - yet a growing body of research is starting to show the dangers of this approach, and to suggest that many of us, and many of the organisations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goal-setting and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out. Goals can narrow our vision, blinding us to opportunities we weren't expecting. Some studies suggest that they can lead to a decrease in productivity, because people slack off once they've met some pre-assigned target; others indicate that people are more willing to cut ethical corners when they're too intently focused on a goal. Even success in some given category can lead to failure in a bigger sense: you can aim to become a millionaire by 40, and you can succeed - but if you've ruined your health and alienated your friends and family, in the process, does that really count as success?
Above all, too much goal focus starts to call into question the whole point of existence: if it's always the future that matters, never the present, when will you ever get to savour the fact of being alive?
The benefits of a more relaxed approach to goals, in business and in life, are hinted at by the work of the researcher Saras Sarasvathy among successful entrepreneurs. We tend to imagine that the special skill of an entrepreneur lies in having a powerfully original idea, then fighting to turn that vision into reality. But the outlook of Sarasvathy's interviewees rarely bore this out. They didn't think like high-end chefs, concocting a vision of a dish, then hunting for the perfect ingredients. They behaved more like ordinary, time-pressed home cooks, checking what was in the fridge and the cupboards - what resources were at their disposal - then figuring out, on the fly, what they could make and how. Where, precisely, were they headed? They often didn't know.
At the bottom of our fixation on goals, I suspect, isn't a simple desire to get things done, but a deep discomfort with feelings of uncertainty: once we've set ourselves firm goals, we get to pretend that the future is certain. Yet there's something very fruitful in learning to embrace uncertainty instead. "The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning," argued the social psychologist Erich Fromm. "Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers." Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities - for success, for happiness, for really living - are waiting.
Oliver will be speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival, running from 21st May to 31st May in association with the Huffington Post UK.Suggest a correction