Goals vs Themes Cover

You Don’t Need a Goal, You Need a Theme

If you’re not happy with where you are in life, it’s tempting to think you’ve simply set the wrong goals. Maybe they were too big or too small. Maybe they weren’t specific enough or you shared them too early. Maybe they weren’t all that meaningful, so it was easy to lose focus.

But goals were never the reason you didn’t “make it” this year. Goals don’t help you create long-term happiness, let alone sustain it. They never have, and they never will.

From a rational perspective, goals seem like a good way of getting what you want. They’re tangible, trackable, and time-bound. They give you a point to move toward and a nudge to help you get there.

Until we reach them, all goals do is exert pressure from afar. Even worse, when we finally do achieve them, they disappear.

But on a day-to-day basis, goals often lead to anxiety, worry, and regret rather than fulfillment, pride, and contentment. Until we reach them, goals exert pressure from afar. Even worse, when we finally do achieve them, they disappear right away — like a baseball in a home run, zipping out of sight. The burst of relief is fleeting, and we think it must be happiness. So we set a new, bigger goal. Once again, it seems out of reach. The cycle continues. Harvard researcher Tal Ben-Shahar calls this “the arrival fallacy” — the illusion that “reaching some future destination will bring lasting happiness.”

At the end of the day, what you want is happiness. But happiness is fuzzy and hard to measure — a spontaneous byproduct of the moment. There’s never a clear path to it. While goals can drive you forward, they can never make you enjoy the drive itself.

Entrepreneur and author James Altucher has lived by themes rather than goals for years. As Altucher sees it, your overall satisfaction with life isn’t determined by singular events; instead, the average of how you feel at the end of each day is what counts.

Scientists emphasize the importance of meaning over pleasure. One comes from your actions, the other from your results. It’s the difference between passion and purpose, between seeking and finding. Winning a marathon makes for one great party, but being diligent makes most of your hours at work feel fulfilling. Altucher’s themes are ideals, ones he uses to charge his decisions, and standards he can hold all of his actions against.

A theme might be a single word — a verb, a noun, or an adjective. “Commit,” “growth,” and “healthy” are all valid themes. So are “invest,” “help,” “kindness,” and “gratitude.”

If you want to be kind, be kind today. If you want to be rich, commit today. If you want to be healthy, choose health today. If you want to be grateful, say “thank you” today.

A goal asks “What do I want?” but a theme asks “Who am I?”

Themes are immune to anxiety about tomorrow. They are indifferent to your regrets about yesterday. All that matters is what you do today, who you are in this second, and how you choose to live right now. With a theme, happiness becomes more about how you behave rather than what you achieve. Life is not a series of wins and losses. Though our highs and lows may shock us, lift us up, and forever shape our memories, they do not define us. Most of life happens in the in-between, and what we want in life must be found there.

Your potential for happiness is spread across time. It may not be spread equally, but themes make the most use of that potential. Themes make your goals a byproduct of your happiness instead of letting your happiness become a byproduct of your goals. A goal asks “what do I want?” but a theme asks “who am I?”

A goal needs constant visualization for it to materialize. A theme can be internalized whenever life prompts you to reflect on it.

A goal splits your actions into good and bad. A theme makes every action part of a masterpiece.

A goal is an external constant you can’t control. A theme is an internal variable you can.

A goal forces you to think about where you want to go. A theme keeps you focused on where you are.

A goal condemns you to order the chaos of life or deem yourself a failure. A theme provides room to succeed amid that chaos.

A goal shuts out opportunities for current fulfillment in favor of a distant payday. A theme looks for opportunities in the present.

A goal asks “where did we get today?” A theme asks “what went well today?”

Goals are sticky. They’re clunky armor, weighing you down. A theme is fluid. It sinks in, becoming part of who you are. It flows from the inside out, allowing you to change as you go.

When we use goals as our primary means of attaining happiness, we trade long-term life satisfaction for short-term motivation and reassurance. A theme gives you a meaningful, achievable standard to live up to. Not once in a while but every day. It’s a way of being content with who you’re becoming, choice by choice, one act at a time, and finding peace in that.

No more waiting. Just decide who you want to be, then be that person.

A theme will bring something to your life no goal ever can: the feeling that who you are today — right here, right now — is enough.