Stephen Shapiro began his career with the international consulting firm Accenture, where he established the firm's Global Process Excellence Practice in 1996. In 2001, with the publication of his first book, 24/7 Innovation: A Blueprint for Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Change, he launched The 24/7 Innovation Group, a management education and research organization concentrating on innovation and breakthrough thinking. Steve has contributed to national publications such as Investor's Business Daily and the New York Times. He is a frequent speaker and advisor to leading organizations such as Staples, General Electric, UPS, and Xerox.
In the summer of 2003, Steve set out to drive 12,000 miles around the U.S. and interview 150 people in preparation for his new book, Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW! The book is scheduled for publication this month, January 2006 (look for it next week), and it has already been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine.
tompeters.com asks ...
Hi, Steve. What is Goal-Free Living?
SS: Goal-Free Living is the antidote to our achievement-oriented society. Basically since birth, we've been taught that we should be setting and achieving goals, and working hard toward goals. And for some people, that works. Some people enjoy a goal-oriented life. But for many people, all that does is create stress and dissatisfaction.
I've done a number of surveys on the relationship between people's goals and their happiness. What I've found is that most people keep sacrificing "today" for "tomorrow." They'll set a goal, plan it out, work hard, achieve the goal, and then say, "Okay, that was great; what's next?" They're constantly striving to achieve these goals in the belief that life's going to get better.
Goal-Free Living, quite simply, is having a powerful future that is a context for how you live your life today. That is, you get satisfaction today instead of achieving it in the future.
Why is this important to you?
SS: Personally, it's how I live my life. There was a time when I was what I would call a "goalaholic," where I got caught up in achievement, status, making money, and all that. It destroyed a marriage and ruined some relationships, and then I realized I wasn't really living the life I wanted.
So I went through a period of introspection and discovered a different way to live. Essentially, I found that if I do the things I enjoy and live much more experientially, I feel much more fulfilled. It's something I've been doing for roughly the last 10 years now—living a goal-free existence. So about two years ago, I sought out other people who are also goal-free, and that's really how the book came together.
It seems the first objection here must be, "Well, I have to make a living; I have a family to support. I can't just go off and do whatever the hell I want." How do you respond to that?
SS: The first thing is to clarify that sometimes we create these perceptions of what our needs are. There's a saying I like: "I used to dream of making the money that I now am struggling to get by on," or something to that effect. We get caught up in all the things we think we need—a bigger TV, a nicer car, a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, and more. Sometimes if you just live a little more simply, you won't have so many needs.
One of the secrets in the book is to "want what you have." Once you really have a sense of appreciation of what you have, then you can move forward in finding things that may get you more jazzed up. It doesn't mean you have to quit your job. Sometimes it's just changing your attitude towards your job. If you're doing your job just because it pays the bills, that's probably not very satisfying. You're telling yourself, "I'm doing this because my life will be better in the future." But if you can create a powerful context for the way you relate to your job, you may find yourself saying, "I'm doing this because there's actually fulfillment today. And I can grow and develop, and it will take me to new and different places." Sometimes all it takes is a shift in attitude.
That's an interesting shift. How do you find those people, or how do they find you? It's very appealing to think that you just have to shift your attitude. It's a small thing, and yet, it's a huge thing. But it seems like you would have to encounter something that would make you question your current status.
SS: And that's the challenge. For a number of the people, the shift resulted from some type of traumatic experience: losing their job, coming down with some kind of debilitating disease, etc. Other people had something of an epiphany where they suddenly realized, "Wow, I can actually make a living doing that? I never really thought that was possible!"
It may be a matter of somehow creating "deliberate accidents" in your life. After September 11 four years ago, there was a bit of an attitudinal shift, and people started to question what was important to them. Now I think we've gone back to more of the "nose-to-the-grindstone" attitude.
So you really have to step back and look at your life. One of the challenges of being goal-oriented is that you set this target and get myopically focused on it. You block out everything else, and you move forward, pushing through obstacles. The Old English origin of the word "goal" comes from "obstacle, hindrance or barrier." So it's really pushing hard.
What I'm trying to do is create a future that pulls you forward instead of requiring all that pushing.
"Goal" actually looks like the Old English word for "jail," doesn't it?
SS: It's funny that you say that. I lived in England for three years, and one of the guys there said, "Hey, you should have a sequel—G-A-O-Lâ€"Free Living." And I said, "Well, look at Martha Stewart." One of the things I did was to commission a number of surveys to get a sense of people's relationships to their goals. I found that roughly one in seven people said that they've done something illegal or immoral in order to achieve their goals.
SS: And so I thought of the Martha Stewart connection, and as you said, the Old English term. It all fits together quite nicely and comically at some level.
So your book has the eight ideas—you call them secrets—that help you on this path to Goal-Free Living. Can you talk about one or two of those?
SS: Sure. The first one is sort of a foundation, which is "use a compass, not a map." By that I mean, "Have a sense of direction—not a destination—and then set sail without plans. Life is not static, so your priorities are going to change and evolve as you evolve."
My suggestion is that we should have a sense of direction and let life unfold naturally, rather than trying to force it down a particular path, which is what we typically try to do. This will allow you to have a much more experiential view of life, allowing life to come to you. You will meander and weave, and change direction as you find the things you're really passionate about.
You also seem to advocate a certain level of risk-taking. In fact, the whole idea of writing a book about Goal-Free Living is, in a sense, an attack on the notion of finding that safe, stable job. There's a story in the book about the guy in the steel factory who wanted to be a consultant, but he thought he was doing the smart thing by keeping his management job.
And of course, the steel industry disappeared, and he was out on his rear. In fact, that ended up being a blessing, because he was forced to pursue his consulting work. And of course it worked; it seems that's what always happens. Whenever you take a chance, it pays off ten-fold at least, emotionally, spiritually, and oftentimes, financially.
SS: Right. There's this expression of "throwing your hat over the fence," where the idea is, "If I throw my hat over the fence, I'll have to find a way of getting over the fence." It's going to happen. But if you just sit there wondering how you're going to get over, and spend the next four years strategizing and studying the market, you'll never do it.
In my own case, when my first book came out in 2001, I was working for Accenture with a nice, stable, cushy job. I applied for a leave of absence for one year to promote the book. I wanted to do some speaking on the side, sort of test the waters, and maybe create a new business.
But my leave of absence was turned down because of client obligations, so I was forced to choose. We worked out a nice arrangement for me to leave, and now, looking back, I think I would have failed miserably in my new venture if I had that safety net. People say necessity is the mother of invention. That means when you're forced play big, you can do it. I find the "safety net" is one of the biggest illusions out there.
You said, in fact, that you did take a 90 percent pay cut that first year.
SS: I did.
How did you deal with that?
SS: Well, if you're going to do this, sometimes traveling lightly is a good thing. When I was moving to London, long before I decided to go out on my own, I realized that I felt bogged down by all the stuff I'd accumulated. The same is true of many organizations; they're bogged down by structures and bureaucracy.
I had to figure out how to create the simplest structures in my life so I could keep the most valuable and powerful things, and get rid of everything else. So when I moved to London, I made sure everything I owned fit into eight boxes. If I bought something new, I would have to get rid of something from this metaphorical box. And as time went on, I was able to use a smaller box.
I started renting furnished apartments on a month-to-month basis, because that gave me the ultimate in flexibility. Not everybody can do that, but it works for me. And what was really cool was that I could move all my stuff in the back of a black cab in London. I can go anywhere on a moment's notice; I can change direction any time.
London's not inexpensive, but there are lots of places you could live if you wanted. We tend to choose the nice neighborhoods in the expensive cities, and it's all a matter of choice. The choice is, "Do I want to drive the nice car and have a job that gives me ulcers? Or do I want to drive a much less expensive car and maybe have a house that's not quite as nice, but have a life that I love?" It's a choice.
Yes, it's a choice. And yet, as you say, we've been trained to aspire to achieve these goals. I don't think of myself as having been trained that way, but I know I went to school with a lot of guys who were on some kind of track. You could see it, even in 18-year-olds, and that always really frightened me.
SS: What I've found through my surveys is that people typically are heavily goal-oriented until their mid-thirties. And the 35 to 45 range is when people are least satisfied with their lives. I find that really ironic, because that's the time when you should be most satisfied with your life.
Some people—maybe like you—have gone through their entire lives being goal-free. But what seems to happen more often is that you almost have to be very goal-oriented and driven to be able to realize that there's an alternative way to live.
That makes sense; I can understand your argument here intellectually. I'm thinking, "Well, this doesn't apply to me personally," but you make an interesting point. In order to really understand what you're saying, a person has to have been driven, clearly, the way you were at a point in your life. But you had some kind of experience that sent you off in this new direction. Now that I'm thinking about it, your first book was on creativity and innovation, right?
SS: Yes, it was.
But then you have a story in here about what led to the writing of this book. Maybe you could relate that for our readers.
SS: Sure. In fact, the process for writing this book is just a fantastic metaphor for the way of living life. My first book was on innovation and creativity, more from the corporation's point of view than the individual's. So I got the idea of writing another book on creativity from an individual's perspective. And I was going to do this tour across the country and interview some creative people.
Instead of forcing my hypothesis and trying to plan out the details in advance, I really just let the trip unfold. I didn't know who I was going to interview half the time until I got to a city, and then one person would recommend someone else. I sent out press releases; I got hundreds of requests from people who wanted to be interviewed. And basically what happened was that I would go into cities and meet fantastic people.
It took my book in different directions. And the trip, as I said, was completely unplanned. Two hours before getting to a city, I wouldn't even know where I was staying. I'd pull over to the side of the road and hop on my computer to book a hotel. It was a completely spontaneous trip. I ended up interviewing 150 people and completely changing the premise of the book, because I was completely open to whatever new experiences came my way.
I can honestly say that if I had written the book I originally planned, it probably would have been a real stinker. But being open to different directions, and twists and turns, I learned another of the secrets: Trust that you're never lost. There were times when I was thinking, "Well, I'm talking to a voodoo priest; what does it have to do with anything?" But it all came together in the end, and it was quite a cool experience.
I'm guessing this voodoo priest was in New Orleans?
SS: He was, yes, and he's still alive.
And how did you come to that?
SS: I was in New Orleans, talking to people around Jackson Square, and I asked someone, "Who is the most interesting person in New Orleans?" She said, "Oh! That has to be John T., the voodoo priest, the curator of the Voodoo Museum."
Okay! So I went to the Voodoo Museum and met John T. It was really fascinating. He has some pretty out-there perspectives, but some of them are clearly related to the goal-free concept.
But you must have had a problem with your goal-oriented publishers when you set out to write a book on creativity, and instead this was the result? Is it the same publisher or did you have to switch?
SS: I did switch. The first book was McGraw-Hill; this book is with Wiley. And the Wiley deal came about in a pretty goal-free way. I didn't do the typical "write to a million agents or publishers and get rejected by most of them." I met somebody who liked the concept. She said, "Hey, I know one of the best agents out there. He turns down almost everything, but maybe he'll like this." He liked it and he became my agent.
So we started going down the traditional path of writing the proposal. And it just wasn't working for me. I was in Cancun and happened to meet an acquisition editor for Wiley there. He said, "Wow, this is great." I said, "Well, my agent will contact you." And eventually we just decided to skip the proposal and the usual procedure. He wanted the book, so he bought it with a preemptive offer. It was a completely unpredictable way of getting a book to market.
Of course, some people will say, "Well, isn't the book a goal?" But it really wasn't a goal until I signed the contract and began to realize there are serious repercussions for not turning in a manuscript on time.
It's at that point that I hire or collaborate with people who love goals. They're the ones who keep me on track; they're the ones who can provide specific structures and ways of doing things that I may not be as good at doing. Goal-free people love goal-oriented people, because we work really well together and complement each other.
So I'm not advocating a world of goal-free people.
SS: I think that would be horrendous!
Okay, that was going to be my next question.
SS: It's not even a desire, because there are different personality styles. One interesting thing I did was to predict people's Myers-Briggs type, if they didn't already know it. It was pretty interesting that nearly 100 percent of the successful goal-free people were Extroverted-Intuiter-Perceivers.
The people who were goal-free but not successful tend to be introverts. If you're not going to get out there and play big, and meet people and have fun, and really go full-out with passion and gusto, it's hard for you to allow things to come together in a synchronistic way. But the Judgers out there love their goals.
So you're not making any value judgments about people based on whether or not they can succeed in a goal-free environment?
SS: No, not at all. I do say there's a difference between being goal-free and goal-less. I'm definitely not an advocate of being goal-less, which is being lost and directionless, and sitting on your butt eating bon-bons, watching Jerry Springer. To me, goal-free is moving forward through life with purpose and passion, but not knowing how it's going to turn out. And not caring how it turns out, I guess, is probably even more important.
Well, when you differentiate between "goal-free" and "goal-less," I'm wondering if there's some kind of semantic discussion about this word "goal," and what different meaning it might have to different people. Is there any worry that you're going to send somebody off on the wrong path because they don't clearly understand what you mean by goal-free?
SS: There is that risk. I try to at least explain what I mean by a goal. Quite simply, I define it with the acronym SMART, which is what people who are trained in the goal area tend to use. Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Results-oriented. Time-based. It means basically that you know where you're going and you'll know when you get there. So if something's SMART, you know if you've succeeded; you know if you've failed. Very simple.
In a workshop I took this weekend, goal-oriented people would plan out, for instance, "Where do you want to be 30 days from now, 90 days from now? A year from now, five years from now? What do you want on your tombstone?" Well, I just want my tombstone to say, "Used Up," or "Had A Great Time."
To me, goal-oriented means you move forward with plans towards a specific target. Goal-free means you still have a sense of direction, but it's completely unplanned, unpredictable, with detours left and right. You're experiencing all that life has to offer, and changing direction whenever it seems appropriate.
Right. Because the goal is actually a limiter, oftentimes.
You wrote something about a former Red Sox sports psychology consultant?
SS: Yes. Dr. Doug Gardner, a very interesting guy. Every sports psychologist I talk to is always a strong advocate of goals. But Dr. Gardner's perspective is that goals, especially as you are developing yourself, can be quite detrimental because you end up beating yourself up and not dealing with what you need to do each and every moment. You start focusing too much on your batting average or your ERA, for instance, without considering all the other factors that came into play.
Dr. Gardner's also now coaching high school baseball teams. One of the things he tells them during a game is, "Don't worry about the scoreboard. I don't want you to worry about how many hits or how many runs. Occasionally we need a strategy for what we're going to do in the next play, but don't worry about any of the numbers. Just do each and every play the best you can."
Then at the end of the game he brings the team out toward the scoreboard. They turn around and they look at it. They say, "Oh hey, we won! Why?" or "We lost! Why?" And it's really that looking back and saying, "What worked and what didn't work?" that I think is really important. I guess what I like about what he says is that numbers and statistics and such just set you up for failure anyway. So I like to say that if you live a goal-free existence, you can never fail.
Although there's a lot to be said for failure.
What, do you think failure's overrated?
SS: I guess it depends on how you define failure. To me, I just view everything as an experience. We label it "failure" or "success," when in fact it's just an experience. And we can learn from every experience—good, bad, or indifferent.
Ah, that's a good point, then. Actually, whenever I hear the word "experience," I think about how businesses these days aren't just selling a product or a service; they're "delivering an experience."
SS: Right. And that takes me back to the "use a compass, not a map" metaphor. Maps are really useful for getting from point A to point B as efficiently and quickly as possible. But life isn't about efficiency, and it's not about effectiveness. Life is about exuberance and passion and joy, and you can't map that out. You really can only experience it.
If we don't label experiences as successes or failures, we won't worry about making new decisions. You know, there's this concept of "decidophobia." People have a fear of making decisions, because they think it's a lifetime choice. But it really isn't; it's just another decision. You move down that path, but you can change direction. So I really don't feel I've ever, ever failed. I've had things that may not have gone as planned, but since I'm detached from the outcome, that's fine too.
What do you mean by that, "detached from the outcome"?
SS: The eighth secret of the book is "remain detached." Essentially that means that if you are trying too hard to achieve a particular goal or get a particular result, the odds are you'll be less likely to get it. People have seen this in sales, for example. If sales reps are pushing really hard to make sales, then they come across as sort of a used-car salesperson instead of somebody a customer would trust. There's no rapport.
Instead of being attached to the outcome of the sale, you may want to attach yourself to the customer, and serving the customer the best you can. Sometimes that means turning away a sale or sending them to another store. It's been shown over and over that the more you attach yourself to the service of others, the more likely you are to achieve the outcome you originally wanted. So the process of trying is one of the things that can stop you from achieving your goal.
That reminds me of a childhood memory of playing Monopoly with a friend who kept trying to give money away. Of course, the goal of Monopoly was to get as much property, and as much money, as possible. But this kid always seemed to succeed by trying to give money away. We were just kids, and I didn't even know what Eastern religion was at the time, but this was so counter-intuitive. It was just a game, of course, and yet it was peculiar. It really stood out in my mind.
SS: Hmm. I certainly don't know how to explain it.
Well, I think it sort of fits in with this idea of being detached. He clearly wasn't "attached" to the idea of having to accumulate all this money, yet it came to him. He had success by detaching himself, by not being single-mindedly focused on that outcome.
SS: Right. One of the stories I really enjoy from the book is about a group of guys I met in London who share tips on how to date. They're just guys, trying to be better daters because everybody wants to be in a relationship. So I asked them for their most important tip. And they said, "Don't try." If you're too focused on impressing somebody or too focused on the next date, you're not going to be focused on the person and you're not going to succeed. If you're there with the woman, having a great time, the worst that can happen is that the date ends and you never see each other. At least you had a fantastic time. And paradoxically, "not trying" will make you more likely to be somebody she'll want to go out with a second time.
And it's not just dating. It's sales, business, everything. The more you push, the less likely you are to get there. A corporate client of mine was really into the goal-free thing. He came up with an idea for a new business and had been working on it. I got an email from him saying, "Well as you can tell, I'm still with the company and I haven't made the leap yet. Everything's in place, but I just need somebody to give me a push."
And I wrote back and said, "That's the problem. You don't need somebody to give you a push; you need the future to give you a pull. Right now your current job is pulling harder than your future. And if you try to push yourself into the future, it just creates stress."
Right, and that can't come from someone else telling you, "Okay, quit your job tomorrow" if you're not really ready to make that new world happen yet.
SS: Exactly. One of the guys I interviewed is an adventurer who says, "Leap before you look." His point is that you don't jump off a tall building until maybe you've jumped off a building that's a foot shorter. So you have to know what your limits are, but always push yourself a little further. A friend of mine has a boat, and she was advised to try to get a new boat every year that's two feet longer. After a while you would have a nice, huge yacht if that's what you want. It's an easier way to do things: leaping before you look, as long as you know that you're not leaping to your death.
We hate it when that happens.
SS: Yeah, well, it does reduce the number of book readers, which is always a problem.
Steve, are you a list-maker?
SS: I am a list maker, but not a to-do list maker. I would say I create "could-do" lists. That is, lists of things that get me sparked and jazzed and excited. And I'm looking at it right now, and you know what? A lot of those things have been sitting there for a long time, but it doesn't matter. Because they're just things that make me say, "Oh yeah, that's cool! I might do that someday."
From time to time I'll pick one item and do it, and I'll be present in the moment. That's the whole thing—just be present and enjoy what you're doing right now. And sometimes I'll take things off the list. But it's really keeping possibility or passion, or whatever word you want to use, in front of you and just taking things off in small bits or pieces.
How often do you revise that "could-do" list?
SS: It's not a time-frame thing. It's more driven by my emotional barometer. I like to ask people, on a scale of 1 to 10, how's their life? And mine is typically hovering around a 9.5. If it gets to an 8—which most people think, "Wow, 8, that's great!" I did a survey, and the average I think was 5.4, which I found to be really depressing. Even some of the happier people say it's a 7. But if I get to an 8, that's usually the time I start to reshuffle.
That brings the things I'm really excited about back into existence, back in front of me, and I can play with it a bit. This is all a game I'm playing. If I can enjoy today and I can enjoy tomorrow, and I can enjoy the day after, and I can keep on enjoying every single day, well that's what the game is all about.
It's not about trying to get to my grave and have had this successful job, or to accumulate as much money as possible. So when my emotional level is low, I use my could-do list as a way of getting myself jazzed up again.
When you talk about accumulating money, of course I think of that poster that says something like, "He who dies with the most toys, wins." Do you have any favorite toys in the midst of your goal-free-ness?
SS: Oh, I've got lots of really cool toys. They tend to be small. I try not to have too many, but I do love my Blackberry. It's been really freeing, because I don't feel quite as tethered. The down side is that there are times when I'm more focused on my Blackberry than I am on my environment. Same thing with the iPod. It's a great thing, but I find some of my greatest experiences in life occur when I'm riding the T (the subway here in Boston), and I just start talking to random people. And if I'm listening to my iPod as I'm on the T, I'd miss those chances to meet some pretty interesting people at random times. So I love all those toys, but they have to be used in the right way.
When I was traveling the country, my GPS was definitely invaluable, because it at least kept me from ending up in Canada when I was trying to drive to Texas, or something like that.
Listening to you just now, it occurred to me that the theme here is really awareness. It's just being aware of everything you're doing, and being aware—like not listening to the iPod, but instead interacting with or maybe just observing people on the train. And it's not evaluating these things; it's just absorbing them.
It sounds very healthy.
SS: Well, I can only tell you based on the way I feel, but it works for me, and I know it works for some other people. I get emails all the time from people who say, "Wow, reading this stuff validates me."
I originally thought my target audience for this was going to be the goalaholics, and I would think, "Okay, I'm going to convert you." But I realize that's not it. There are so many people out there who are either at a transition point, where they lost their job or something's happened, and they're really saying, "Okay, what's next?" Or the people who've been living goal-free lives and have been ostracized by society.
Yesterday, a woman came up to me and said, "I'm really excited about your book, and I'm concerned about my son."
I said, "Why are you concerned about your son?"
She said, "Well, I keep telling him he needs goals. He's really successful and he's the happiest guy I've ever met in my life, but he doesn't have any goals! And it concerns me." So we talked for a bit, and then she said, "Wow, maybe I should buy your book for my son."
I said, "I think you should buy the book for yourself, so that you can understand him. And then give it to him just to say, 'Look, I understand you now. I wish I could do what you do.'"
Because I think sometimes people get envious of goal-free people. So I'd love to just be able to validate people and have them realize that the way they're living is really quite cool. And although we're in a society where goals and achievement and status are king, sometimes having a life that you absolutely love each and every day—well, I think that's a pretty good measure of success.
Well, that makes a perfect ending. So thank you.
SS: This was great fun. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Email: steve (at) - goalfree.com