We’re often told about the importance of setting and meeting goals, and how planning for the future is the key to success. But all that forward-learning can cause a bit of anxiety and blind us to opportunities right in front of our face. In his book The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman shares a more productive mindset by profiling an “aha” moment by Steve Shapiro, a management consultant who advocates that we go goal-less:

[Shapiro] tried to dig himself out of such crises by means of even more goals (at one point, he recalled, he had a five-year plan to become ‘a leader in the innovation space’). But none of these plans changed his life. What made the difference, in the end, was a conversation with a friend who told him he spent too much energy thinking about his future. He should think of himself more ‘like a frog’, she said.

Shapiro was wondering whether to feel insulted when she explained: ‘You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for a while. Continue this over and over , moving in whatever direction feels right.’ The imagery of sunbathing on lily-pads should not be taken to imply laziness. Shapiro’s friend’s point was entirely compatible with his hard -charging, achievement-hungry personality; it simply promised to channel it more healthily. In fact, it promised to help him achieve more, by permitting him to enjoy his work in the present, rather than postponing his happiness to a point five years in the future – whereupon, in any case, he would surely just replace his current five-year plan with another. The idea triggered a shift of perspective for Shapiro that would eventually lead to his reinvention as an advocate for abolishing goals.

Read more from Burkeman in his book The Antidote, and see him speak at this year’s 99U Conference.

  • Jess

    I love this. We have to learn to enjoy the process as much as the outcomes, otherwise our whole lives pass with only a few moments of feeling truly satisfied before it’s on to the next thing. I also think what is interesting is if you enjoy the lilypad you’re on you may find your next hop is to somewhere much different than you expected. But where you are ultimately happier. Because it emerged from your own focus and enjoyment, not a plan of where you think you should go.

  • Angela Booth

    What a brilliant idea — sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; I like it. Achieving goals is all very well, but you miss a lot when you’re striving for a future which may or may not come.

    I’m going to enjoy the sun for a few moments… 🙂

  • http://facebook.com/salvatorefiteni Salvatore

    I suppose we should find a healthy balance between the lily-pad mindset and planning the future. Focusing purely on the now without some idea, plans, goals for the future isn’t necessarily healthy either. I do like the imagery of the frog on the lilly-pad and something that can zap us back to the present, when we are too future focused. 🙂

  • Joey Brennan

    Is it really about being goal-less? I’d agree that a lot of todays goal setting has become about projecting what we think will make us happy… But I think it’s equally dangerous to tell someone to forget about the process all together. I’d argue that we need to spend more time on personal reflection, and developing self-awareness, before we begin the goal setting process… Thoughts?

  • Andrei Graunte

    Sunbathing on one lily-pad at a time surely sounds better and more focused than swimming endlessly towards an uncertain shore.

  • dvonbieker

    What I like about this is it can get you unstuck, because you just need to focus on the next lily pad. One leap at a time and before you know it you’ve crossed the pond.

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