06/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Avoiding the Wrong Goals

As a practical philosopher, I love urging people on to new adventures, to the setting of new goals, and the pursuit of new possibilities. But I never want anyone to leap into a disaster. In the recent past, we've all seen far too many spectacular disasters result from people pursuing the wrong goals, and chasing the wrong things.

So many of the personal growth books of the past century have focused on the value of setting and maintaining goals that stretch us, and most have encouraged dreaming big or aiming high, but few have said much about the importance of having appropriate goals -- proper aims, or targets that are deeply right for us. In the wake of all the business disasters in our recent past, from the spectacular dot-com failures years ago, through the Enron Era, to our more recent troubles, and in view of the exciting times we face as we now move forward, times that are so full of promise and danger, this is a topic we all need to ponder. I want to share just a few thoughts today about avoiding the wrong goals.

Life often involves a paradoxical juxtaposition of opposites. For both adventurous and appropriate goal setting, we need to be at the same time bold and cautious -- bold enough to venture into unknown terrain when we hear the call to go forth, yet cautious enough to resist the siren song of goals that might look great from a distance, but ultimately would be bad to pursue. Avoiding the wrong goals can be every bit as important as embracing the right ones. And we all have one power that can sometimes make this tough.

One of the strongest and most insidious forces in human life is self-deception. The wisest among us can at times manage to fool ourselves into thinking that something we know to be wrong is actually perfectly permissible, and even advantageous to pursue in the circumstances we face. But, as Socrates is often quoted as saying, "The worst of all deceptions is self-deception." When we can't even trust ourselves, we lack the most basic resource we need for making our way forward well.

We can get so excited by the promise of a novel adventure, by an opportunity, or the prospect of something new, that we become strongly disinclined to listen to that little voice deep within whose whisperings might otherwise prompt us to stop. Whether understood as the voice of conscience, the guidance of God, the protection of a guardian spirit, or an uncanny survival instinct naturally provided by our evolutionary past, this inner sense of caution has been reported since at least the time of Socrates. The master thinker and dogged pursuer of truth claimed that, throughout the course of his life, whenever he was about to do something wrong, a voice within warned him off. And he reported that he always listened. The problem we all face is that our uncanny talent for self-deception can prevent us from properly responding to this voice that Socrates felt it so important to hear and heed.

Self-deception operates through selective attention and rationalization. It acts to license behavior that's in some way self-defeating or otherwise destructive. We can easily fool ourselves into believing we ought to pursue something that we know deep down to be wrong. And it's important to beware of this power. The supreme irony is that the smarter, more confident, and generally more persuasive we are, the better we can be at misleading ourselves.

As the highly intelligent, utterly poised, and masterfully persuasive rhetorician Demosthenes once said, "Nothing is as easy as deceiving yourself; for what you wish, you readily believe."

Unfortunately, there is no magic immunization against the ill of self-deception. But we do have some simple warning signs. When we're considering a possible goal, or contemplating a new line of action, it's best to be on the lookout for a few leading indicators that the power of self-deception may be playing a distorting role.

The rules and touchstones for detecting self-deception are basically what they always have been. Little things do matter. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. And yet, in most other ways, things are rarely what they at first seem. When you're the only one who stands to benefit from something new, no one will really benefit. Feelings matter. Proper commitments should be honored. Time does fly. No enterprise is worth your energy for external results alone. And money isn't everything. Whenever you're tempted to think otherwise and flout any of these basic truths, beware of self-deception.

Alerted to the possibility that you're fooling yourself, you can at least be on guard, and be less likely deluded into pursuing a false course that will be destructive in the long run. Self-deception is such a powerful force in our lives that we cannot guarantee, even if we do spot it in action, that we'll be able to resist its subtle lure. But we can be watchful, and, understanding its pervasiveness in human thought, we can at least be less vulnerable to its worst depredations.

Anyone who is not omniscient will occasionally set wrong goals. And not just because of self-deception, since simple erroneous judgment, false information, and incomplete perspectives can result in goals that aren't right for us. The next best thing to avoiding the wrong goals is having the ability to spot when we have gotten on the wrong path, make a correction of course, and set off quickly in a better direction. We should never let pride, a fear of embarrassment, or the gravitational pull of inertia keep us on a course that we begin to discern is wrong. It's the very nature of life adventure to present new twists and turns, unexpected developments, and even occasional reversals of direction. The best adventures are led by instinct, intuition, and inspiration, aided by reason, regulated by the little Socratic voice that warns, and shaped by that sense of calling that goads us on to choose properly and adapt as needed along the way.

An additional point is important. We should never allow ourselves to wallow in regret about inappropriate goals we may have been pursuing. We need to just learn and move on. As preferable as it is to avoid the wrong path in the first place, it can serve to show us where the right road is. Sometimes the problems that result from seeking the wrong things can wake us up powerfully to what we really do need.

The ancient Greek word traditionally translated into English as "sin," is actually an archery term that means: "a miss of the proper target." It's not just the having of goals that's important for our lives. It's having the right and best goals for who we are. We should learn from our mistakes. Then, remembering that imperfection is natural, we should at least do what we can to go and sin no more.