By: Prakash Nedungadi
Business Coach, INDIA
Goals vs. Obligations: the opposing perspectives Imagine you are on a small boat sailing on the sea, with an idea to reach a point on the coast of a land where you are safe, satisfied and fulfilled. You see a lighthouse near that point and you know that if you follow the beacon from that lighthouse, it will help you get your boat quickly and purposefully to that shore. You use the beacon to constantly stay true to your direction, to navigate through the winds and tide. You start moving faster and more smoothly as well, because you are surer of where you have to reach. Since you can point to the lighthouse clearly to your teammates and crew, they find it easy to follow you. Ultimately, you pass the lighthouse, wave to it in gratitude for its guidance and then alight on the shore, truly feeling joyous of a voyage well done. You look forward to the next voyage and to search for a new shore and lighthouse to follow. Now imagine if you were back on boat in the sea where we started. However, that lighthouse which was near the shore suddenly was lifted from where it was and put on your boat! Picture yourself carrying that heavy, bulky structure on the deck. It’s getting in the way of everything. Navigating becomes difficult and speed slows down because of the weight. You curse the lighthouse, but you don’t let it go because you believe it takes you to the shore where you want to go. In the process of manipulating your way through the ship, you get in the way of your teammates and keep putting pressure on them to “mind the lighthouse”. Since you are strong and determined, you finally reach the shore, tired and spent, relieved and yet frustrated with the lighthouse because it made everything so difficult. You try to enjoy the shore with your teammates but it’s tough because you dread the next voyage that you inevitably need to take. This is how goals (for which I have used the metaphor of the lighthouse on the shore) are empowering in a person’s life – through creating anticipation, direction and clarity – and how when the same goals become obligations (for which the metaphor is the lighthouse on the boat itself), they can dis-empower by becoming a burden that you have to carry.
Note that in various contexts, goals, obligations (and objectives) are often used interchangeably. In this case, we are interpreting “obligation” as something that a
person feels forced or “obliged” to do or achieve (and the obligation could be self inflicted) while a goal is something that he/she chooses to do or try to achieve.
Indeed as a report from The Independent stated “ “Young people who fail to achieve their life goals by the age of 30 are seen as “failures” by their peers and are under so much pressure to succeed that they sacrifice their health and leisure for success, a report has found. “ (The report was from the Operations Research Corporation International amongst 1,000 24-30 year old youths in the UK)
You see this sometimes in sports, when, during a championship game, the coach or management makes its team so obsessed with winning, so pressured to “do-or-die”, that they start slowing down, making unforced errors, pointing fingers at each other or stop acting spontaneously with a great play. Due to this self-inflicted obligation, they also rationalize cheating and other forms of unethical behavior. As Michael Josephson of the Josephson Ethics Institute says, ““the pressure to win in high profile schools is so great that it is almost impossible to resist rationalizing. So when competitors cheat or indulge in other unethical practices, the tendency is to redefine the ground rules rather than be at a disadvantage. The same is true in business, leading to unethical practices….”
Vivek was a very successful business executive who had risen through life against several odds to a senior position in a company. He had excelled in school, in college and was always amongst the top of his class. He joined a very good company and immediately took on high targets and drove himself and his team to achieve them. Since he was intelligent and worked hard, it was possible for him to succeed and to be recognized through promotions to senior positions. But Vivek seemed tense all the time and worried about his targets constantly. Right through a project, he would be tense and nervous. His ability to think freely and creatively suffered. However, he plodded on and his strength and resilience would see him through. Even at the end of a project, when he had achieved outstanding results, Vivek could not really celebrate. He was too tired and had already started dreading the thought of the next goal he had to achieve. He put pressure on his team and family and even his friends noticed that he was always “intense”. When they told him this, he retorted “Of course, I’m tense! Shouldn’t I be, since I am obliged to get this target done?” Even on a leisure trek with his family, he would be worrying about how to get to the destination and put pressure on them to hurry to do so. It came to a stage after several years, when Vivek wanted to abandon all goals since he saw them as the shackles of obligations and wondered if his career and life had been worthwhile at all.
“Obligation may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning” – George Eliot
How do we handle goals as empowering tools rather than as dis-empowering burdens? It does not seem to be an easy question to answer. Read many articles on achieving goals (e.g. your New Year resolutions) and they will tell you that the first thing to do is to put yourself under pressure to achieve them. “Tell your friends and family about your goal,” they say, and it increases the peer-pressure on you to stick to your goal. It does make sense. However, think of what it does to you…does the pressure sometimes make you want to cheat, just a little bit? Do you feel bad about yourself when the obligation is not getting done? Does it make you unnecessarily tense while you are achieving it? And after some time, if you keep moving from goal to goal, from one New Year resolution to another, does it become something you infact, deep inside you, dread?
“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.” – Lao Tzu
This suggests that we release our obligations to be more effective, besides being more happy. Letting your obligations “go” does sound relieving, and it feels good to now that “it all gets done”. So is there no role for goals in our lives? What happens if we just move from day-to-day and set no purpose? Would things get done faster, better, with more commitment? Perhaps not. At a recent Superbowl game (the American football championship), the two teams were locked in a close tie to the finish. The TV commentator said, the teams are so well-matched, I think the one which will win is the one that wants it more badly! If that is true, then goals do seem to have a role, of just helping us go that little extra to achieve our potential. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction between having the lightness of no goals on the one hand and the heaviness of obligations on the other?
“Life is utterly simple and yet most complex……If you are only with simplicity ( read that as having no goals), it makes you lazy and dull. Being only with complexity ( read that as having obligations) makes you angry and frustrated. The intelligent ones balance them and rejoice in both. If you look only to simplicity, growth is not there. If you look only at the complexity, there is no life at all. All that you need is a skillful balance. If you recognize both the simplicity and complexity of life, you will be skillfully peaceful” - Sri Sri Ravishanker
Understanding when a goal being perceived as having the heaviness and pressure of an obligation can help a person change perspectives to make them empowering and inspiring instead. In the case study above, during a coaching session in his company, Vivek suddenly saw that the way he was responding to his goals i.e. by treating them as obligations was disempowering him. He realised that this had inhibited his ability to achieve, to create and to enjoy his work and life. By taking the obligation off his back and setting it in front of him as a goal, he felt lighter and more joyous in anticipation. He was less tense and yet more focused and this enabled his team to be the same and be more creative and relaxed. In addition, he could also see if the goal was right for him to achieve his ultimate purpose (“the shore” in the metaphor) or whether he should move to another place which was more in line with what he wanted. He could also be more “present” for his family, rather than seeming intense and lost in worry.
1. Think about how you approach goals that you set for yourself and for others ( e.g. your team-members or your children). Is the approach empowering? Is it a goal leading to a healthy life-balance and a sense of positive achievement? Or is it an obligation that is being carried around, creating negative pressure?
2. How can you balance the benefit of having healthy goals with the dis-empowering impact of making them heavy obligations?
Goals vs. Obligations can be used to help clients who seem too worried and obsessed with their goals get a perspective of how they are viewing it and the benefit it can have for them by treating goals as “beacons” rather than as “cargo”. One way to handle this is to ask powerful questions, such as:
“ How does having this goal make you feel?”
If the response is in the area of “intense” or “heavy” or “pressured”, then help explore further if this is because the client is seeing this really as an obligation, either to himself or to others. Questions that could arise are:
“What does feeling obliged to do this do to you? Does it make the task more pleasant or unpleasant? How does feeling like this help you achieve what you want?”
This could be followed up with questions about to help the client think about the task in a different way:
“ I am curious whether feeling like that about your goal helps you/ your team to reach it even more easily or more effectively or more happily?”
“What would happen if you released that feeling, while keeping the goal in front of you? How would you feel?”
Another way to support the client to explore could be through visualization. E.g. picture the goal as a lighthouse sitting on her boat and then help her take it off and put it on the shore as a beacon.
A third way could be through re-framing and thereby letting the client examine the goal from a different perspective.
“ How could you make this goal work to empower you rather than making it an obligation that worries you?”
“Goals vs. Obligations” could be a useful power tool to support clients who exhibit excessive intensity about their goals – to figure out the double-edged sword that goals and high expectations could be for them and to help them use these in an empowering way.
1. How can you identify how a client is approaching her/ his goals and whether it has a healthy balance?
2. How can you ensure that a client who sets goals during the coaching session sets them in a positive way, with enough intent to achieve them but with no heavy obligation?
3. What other tools can you use to get clients to lift the burden of dis-empowering obligations off their backs and put them in front as empowering beacons?