10/09/2011 02:00 am ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

What's Wrong With America's Obsession With Goals

I once was the only guy at a mindfulness meditation retreat, but this was not as terrific as you might think. If your goal is real-world contact, sitting still and doing nothing for a week among 30 or so women you'll never see again -- except at another retreat where you'll sit still and do nothing -- is far from ideal.

Before we went into silence though, I was privileged to speak to an elderly retreatant who had come to meditation several years before to achieve a specific goal: Ease the severe, chronic pain in her hands due to nerve damage from a horrific car accident.

Despite research that suggests meditation can work wonders for chronic pain (not to mention aging), diligent practice failed to ameliorate hers. Then her teacher encouraged her to drop the goal, and instead to "just sit." The "goal free" result was as surprising as it was life-changing. Sitting quietly and watching the fluctuations of her pain as though they were scenes from a movie didn't lessen her physical discomfort, but now she didn't feel defined by her suffering; she was even able to forget about it from time to time.

To say that American society is preoccupied with both individual and organizational goal-attainment -- with an emphasis on "stretch" or "audacious" goals -- is an understatement.

Every Hallmark Card-style seminar is about the importance of goals. The best-selling book "The Secret" sets millions of goal-setters up for possible failure by suggesting you can meet your goals by visualizing them; and some self-help gurus spread to tens of millions the belief that there's a necessary link between goals and success.

Psychology Today, which a few short months ago published a blog called "Why Goal Setting Doesn't Work," doubles down on goal-mania in the current issue with the article, "The Surest Path to Your Goal Is Often Via the Goals of Others."

Corporate life can be nightmarish for employees pressured to meet daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly goals that demand constant growth regardless of circumstances. Talk about Ponzi schemes. Goals -- and the consequences of failing to meet them -- also permeate education, sports, government and family life.

To be sure, there are situations when goal-setting is important and even necessary. Beating an addiction, qualifying for the Olympics and spending less than an hour a day looking for your glasses come to mind as worthy targets. But beyond the value of "goallessness" in meditation, there is evidence that challenges not only the arbitrariness and frequent unfairness of goals, but the efficacy of goal setting itself.

One study links declines in performance to "stretch" goals. A second finds that only 10 percent of employees reach their targets. The authors of the paper Goals Gone Wild have identified negative side effects associated with goal setting including "an overly narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas; a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation." And yet another survey of stretch goals associated their use with businesses in the throes of existential desperation.

Even the generally pro-goal meta study by Latham and Locke in 2006 -- which pooled the results of over 1,000 other studies -- cites such pitfalls as "an adverse effect on risk taking, if failure to attain a specific high goal is punished" and states that "goals can increase a person's stress." And Paul Bauer's essay "The Dangers of Goal Setting" warns of an "addiction to goal setting."

I learned the value of goallessness in meditation shortly after I started. Like the woman I met at the almost-all-female retreat, I had a goal: To reduce anxiety and become a calm, peaceful person. After a few weeks of sessions that were the opposite of calm and peaceful, I complained to my teacher about the lack of progress.

"What am I doing wrong?" I asked.

He said meditation held many rewards, but that the practice itself works best when there are no expectations. In fact, he said calmly and peacefully, there was only one thing I needed to do: "Just sit."