Entrepreneurs: Don’t Set Goals

Summary:  Setting goals is a distraction based on the illusion that we can achieve quick success by following a predictable plan.  Make a long-term commitment to mastering your skills as an entrepreneur instead of setting goals.  

This essay is in response to this week’s Startup Edition question: How do you set goals?

Be Goalless
George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

Like most type-A personalities, I’m obsessed with achievement and spent much of my early career trying to define and attain goals. I read books, wrote down goals of various durations, and tracked them. When I fell short I blamed myself for my lack of commitment.

Then 10 years ago I read Mastery by George Leonard. Now I don’t set goals1.

The Problem with Goals: Short-Term Thinking & Predicting the Future

The future ain’t what it used to be
Yogi Berra

Look around our society – and particularly in the startup entertainment industry – and you’ll see people obsessed with the achievement of quick results. “Check out how team X did Y and achieved Z in no time!”  We’re desperate to keep up with the perception that success is right around the corner if we just followed the simple plan. But success doesn’t come quickly, and even learning how to become an entrepreneur takes most people about 5 years.

The act of setting goals starts from a flawed idea: we can predict the future. Entrepreneurship is so uncertain, so confusing and scary it is perfectly natural to seek the emotional safety of believing we know what is going to happen. You may get relief from writing down “We’re going to launch January 1st”, but this goal is based on a million little assumptions and details – most of which you don’t know.  Goals are an illusion,  don’t waste your time making them.

Unfortunately I occasionally fall back into my old bad habits and set goals. 2 years ago I started learning Chinese and wrote down 1, 3, and 6 months goals for myself. I just re-read them and laughed aloud – I had absolutely no idea how hard it would be to learn Chinese and that I would be spending hours per day at it for years. Fortunately I surrendered my Chinese goals and instead made learning Chinese a life-long endeavor. I now get instruction 2-3 times/week and try to study every day.

I’ve made a commitment to mastering Chinese.

Make a Lifelong Commitment to Mastery Instead

A year ago I decided to spend the rest of my career (20-25 years) building products for entrepreneurs.  To become great I’ll need to understand entrepreneurs’ problems better than anyone and build relationships with thousands worldwide.

So I make time every week to meet entrepreneurs in my Startup Help calls and spend my Sunday mornings writing posts like this, sharing what I’ve learned with you. I don’t have goals for subscribers to my blog – I just keep going, seeing where the journey takes me.

When in doubt … I …  just … keep … going …

Mastery was published in 1992 so unfortunately it is a bit dated and not available on Kindle. But if you find yourself frustrated with you’re entrepreneurial journey I think you’ll enjoy reading it on an airplane flight.  Here is a great summary of Mastery’s principles.2.(I bolded those that particularly resonated with my entrepreneurial journey)

Mastery is:

1. The process where what was difficult becomes both easier and more pleasurable;
2. Long-term dedication to the journey – not the bottom line;
3. Gaining mental discipline to travel further on your journey;
4. Being goalless;
5. Realizing that the pleasure of practice is intensified;
6. Creating deep roots;
7. Knowing that you will never reach a final destination;
8. Being diligent with the process of mastery;
9. Your commitment to hone your skills;
10. After you have reached the top of the mountain, climb another one;
11. Being willing to practice, even when you seem to be getting nowhere;
12. Making this a life process;
13. Being patient, while you apply long-term efforts;
14. Appreciating and even enjoying the plateau, as much as you do the progress;
15. Practicing for the sake of practice;
16. Winning graciously, and losing with equal grace;
17. Placing practice, discipline, conditioning and character development before winning;
18. Being courageous;
19. Being fully in the present moment;
20. Realizing that the ultimate goal is not the medal, or the ribbon, but the path to mastery its self (The “I am” stage);
21. Being willing to look foolish;
22. Maintaining flexibility in your strategy, and in your actions;
23. A journey; and,
24. Determination

  1. I’m not talking about short-term to-do lists or projects. Obviously I still need those to manage my schedule and get through the week. I follow a system close to GTD.
  2. Carmen Matthews on Amazon


  1. Edward Dovner September 27, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    Setting short term goals could patiently be steps to long-term goals instead which could work out better. Thank you for sharing this article and the experiences.

  2. Hugo October 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    Hello Kevin,

    The steps to mastery reming me of Mihaly’s C. Flow(http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Mihaly-Csikszentmihalyi/dp/0061339202/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381111747&sr=1-1&keywords=flow): to be fully involved in an activity, for the sake of the activity, with a level of challenge that is beyong boring and below stressing!

    focusing on mastery is a good reminder, from both an entrepreneurial and a language learning perspective – thanks for the post!

    • kevindewalt October 8, 2013 at 6:34 am #

      Anytime Hugo, great to hear from you.

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