Seeking the Wrong Goal

If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system can’t possibly produce a desirable result. Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. Be careful what you ask them to produce.

Donella Meadows

And that’s the thing about this archetype of Seeking the Wrong Goal – sometimes we are aware that the goal we set is a shortcut that doesn’t truly give us what’s in our best interests. We set them regardless because they’re easier to accomplish, or easy to measure, or because someone else set them for us. We may spend years and make many sacrifices pursuing goals that ultimately lead us down paths that distract us from reaching our true vision.

If we look close enough, we see organizations, governments, and businesses seeking the wrong goal everywhere.

In the U.S. school system, if teachers are incentivized to maximize student test scores, then they will teach to the test. There are many things that are not well-captured in standardized tests such as students’ adaptability to change, creativity, ability to understand complexity, leadership, and teamwork skills.

If doctors are paid by the number of surgeries they perform, then we’ll see many surgeries scheduled. If doctors are given the goal of meeting a lower average time spent with a patient, then we will see the time go down. What does that do to quality of care?

If economies are judged by increasing Gross Domestic Product, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we see significant amounts of spending that don’t improve the quality of our lives and environments.

If CEO compensation is tied to annual company stock market value, then don’t be surprised if the leader pursues strategies that inflate short-run stock prices at the expense of the company’s long-run health.

If a prison system sets goals around punishment rather than rehabilitation, then prisoners will decline over time, psychologically, physically, and intellectually.

If someone identifies his self-worth to the amount of money he makes relative to his peers, then he’ll seek opportunities for more money, at the expense of other freedoms. If he identifies self-worth to how others perceive him, he may set goals of being liked by everyone and false into an exhausting pattern of seeking validation from everyone.

Goals are not always explicitly stated, but they are visible in your and others’ actions. When people act in ways that are confusing to you, it’s because you don’t understand their underlying goal.

How can you escape this trap? By clarifying your own vision. Set a vision that’s meaningful to you, that you want more than anything else. Think of it often, be uncompromising, and focus your energy and resources toward accomplishing it. Then and only then will you be able to consistently set goals that are “right”.


Index of Archetypes:

  1. Addiction
  2. Eroding Goals
  3. Escalation
  4. Limits to Growth
  5. Policy Resistance
  6. Seeking the Wrong Goal
  7. Exponential Success
  8. Tragedy of the Commons
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