The thing about goal setting

The thing about goal setting

My main motivator for going to Tesco is knowing you can get two books for £7, and then maybe a browse around the clothes section – it’s certainly not the prospect of a food shop. I hate how they chuck everything through the till at lightning speed as you try to shove it in a bag. And don’t get me started on the checkouts at Aldi and Lidl, that’s enough to bring on a mild panic attack. If I’ve not scooped everything into my trolly before they ask for my money I feel like a bad person.  

Anyway back to this book I spotted. It was bright blue with the word ‘Happy’ in big yellow letters across it.

Dubiously, I decided to take a closer look – I’m tired of the wave of positive self-help books that clutter the shelves – but the tagline captured my interest:

“Why more or less everything is absolutely fine.”

Then I noticed the author was Derren Brown. I’ve long been a fan of Derren’s straight-talking truthfulness. I wondered what he had to say about happiness?

Apparently he’s here to tell us that “…many of self-help’s suggested routes to happiness and success – such as positive thinking, self-belief and setting goals can be disastrous to follow and, indeed, actually cause anxiety.”


And I agree. In fact it’s something I’ve been thinking for a while. I’ve read a lot of the self-help stuff out there (mostly through the recommendation of others) but nothing has stopped my inner pessimist. I just find it so hard to believe that if you think positively about something for long enough the universe will magically bring it to you – just as Rhonda Bryne would have us believe in The Secret.

Before you ask, yes I’ve read The Secret, yes I tried to be positive (as it suggests) but this lasted for about a week before I gave up. I didn’t like feeling like a bad person for having a negative thought that would undo all those positive things coming my way. I also didn’t like feeling that if nothing happened it was my fault. That I just wasn’t positive enough – which is what Rhonda tells us if The Secret doesn’t work.

It’s dangerous to think this way.

To assume responsibility over something we have no actual control over.

Surely the universe doesn’t realign itself to bring your deepest desires just because you’ve thought about them. It isn’t a catalogue. There must be more to it than that.

Derren confirmed that my hesitation to set goals, be positive all the time and occasional lack of self-belief is not actually a bad thing. My rejection of the self-help trend and all the books that go with it, has actually helped me more than any of the popular advice (or gurus) currently doing the rounds.

It’s okay not to be positive ALL the time.

It’s normal.

Single-minded goal-setting can make us prey to blaming ourselves if something doesn’t work out. Just like when we fail to ‘manifest’ something through positive thinking. Plus, as Derren points out; ‘we tend to grossly misunderstand what will make us happy.’

One mantra of the self-help revolution is to remove negative people from your life. I’ve read this countless times, in different formats including ‘you become like the five people you are around the most’ and I have some trouble with it.

I’m not saying you should put up with shitty people in your life – I’ve walked away from bad friendships in the past – but this rule seems to assume that our peers should be positive all the time otherwise we should cut them out of their lives.

Sometimes my sisters can really piss me off and say something harsh but does that mean I should dump them in the interests of my positivity? Of course not because I love them! If we act in this way we’ll soon be alone because no one is perfect.

Relationships have their ups and downs and to suggest throwing them away because someone has a period in their life where they’re not 100% or because they’re not a millionaire (and you need to be around 5 for you to become one too)is quite frankly, ridiculous.

Some of the people that have added the most richness to my life have not had much success or money, but this doesn’t devalue them. And they haven’t stopped me moving forward in my life.

Also, by ignoring our sources of honest feedback (good or bad) we deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re on the path to success and nothing can stop us – just like all those well known entrepreneurs. The trouble is, although some will find success, they are dramatically outnumbered by those who have failed because they ignored the advice of others who urged them to be more realistic. They carry their conviction that they know it all, even though they can’t possibly. More people will fail through blind self-belief than those who succeed. But we never hear these tales.

Please don’t take this as me saying you should never try. I’m all for people changing their lives and finding success, but sometimes we need people to tell us that maybe our first idea isn’t right and we should pivot, or that we’re in it for the wrong reasons. Listening to others can sometimes help us fail quicker and get us on the path to what does work.

If you really think about it, you’ll see that we don’t have control over events that we imagine would allow us to succeed through self-belief.

Most of what happens in life is entirely out of our control and blind self-belief won’t change this. It just masks it for a while. To stick blindly to the same goals ignores the elements in life that are out of our control. Focussing on the future and believing in ourselves at all costs, often results in frustration, and we miss out on the present and enjoying who we are in the current moment.

It’s about enjoying the journey after all.

Derren sums this up nicely when he says: ‘By trying to control what we can’t, we all but guarantee frustration and disappointment. Is this the life we wish to lead?’

Well is it?

I’ve spent my fair share of time feeling frustrated because I’m not where I want to be at the age of 31, but if I step back and take a look at what I’ve achieved it’s actually pretty good. I’ve just neglected to see it because I used to focus on why my life wasn’t unravelling exactly as I wanted it to.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since I’ve let this go and become less rigid in what I need to achieve I’m enjoying life a whole lot more, and opportunities are popping up that I would otherwise have ignored.

Ironically, I’m actually more positive when I’m not trying to be positive – and my god it’s a lot less pressure.


I’ve taken a lot of the ideas for this article from Derren’s book so if you want more detail you should grab a copy – the Kindle edition is only 99p right now. No I’m not on commission.

Ashley is a writer and B2C copywriter who works with a range of brands including Interflora. She loves words but also has a passion for branding, web design and music - life would be so dull without good music. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @Ashhoyland

One comment

  1. James Power says:

    Very good points there Ash, it is nice to read something that challenges the perceived wisdom yet also remains positive in tone and outlook.

    I do believe in positivity being a good thing – i.e. I think that being positive helps you deal with challenges better than wallowing in self pity and dreading the worst possible outcome. But I am also a bit cynical about the power of positivity and this perceived ‘wisdom’ that by challenging the universe to bring you a million quid, all you have to do is sit back and wait for it to drop in your lap!

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