So much of what I see on the web are strategies for planning and controlling your life: 50 Ways Happier, Healthier, and More Successful People Live on Their Own Terms; How to Hack Your Brain to Destroy Procrastination; The 3 Stages of Failure in Life and Work (And How to Fix Them). And then there’s Tony Robbins podcast The Ultimate Success Formula, ‘the four step process that helps you take massive action to get what you really want.”


So it was a huge relief to read Kottke’s recent piece about how it can be better NOT to have goals. It was sparked by a post Jason Fried, founder of 37signals (which became Basecamp a few years back) wrote about his very clear-headed and accepting-of-himself approach. The gist:

I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

Kottke quotes Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, writing about why goals can be truly counter productive, even destructive.

It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.

The example he cites is worth reading.

Christoph Niemann
Christoph Niemann

The best part was Jason Kottke’s personal Update, tacked onto the end:

For the longest time, I thought I was wrong to not have goals. Setting goals is the only way of achieving things, right? When I was criticizing my goalless approach to my therapist a few years ago, he looked at me and said, “It seems like you’ve done pretty well for yourself so far without worrying about goals. That’s just the way you are and it’s working for you. You don’t have to change.” That was a huge realization for me and it’s really helped me become more comfortable with my approach.

It was an affirmation of my own strangely plan-less path which I often questioned, as though it were, ‘er, somehow not legit, or “grownup”. Yet I look back and find that I’ve written several award-winning cookbooks, numerous articles, had wondrous adventures traveling and in kitchens, not to mention many blessings, a space and partner I love, and…somehow creating Improvised Life…That’s not to say that I shouldn’t have planned certain things, but the natural tendency NOT to plan can yield quite a bit.

In the midst of doing what I loved, interested me, paid me or seemed right at the time, I often couldn’t see exactly where I was heading. That, to me, is how the creative process and life often are: They aren’t controllable. The heart, and often a lot of unconscious forces, come into play to impact plans and projects and big ideas. There’s a good amount of mystery involved. 

There are lot is unknowns…stuff happens…

Christoph Niemann
Christoph Niemann

Many of the people I know aren’t aware of the wonderful things they’ve created, while they bemoan not achieving “goals” or having their “plans” go awry…

After all, what is the real goal? Perhaps, Susan Sontag understands the most essential principle*:

I must change my life so that I can live it, not wait for it. 

Christoph Niemann
Christoph Niemann


The great visual storyteller Christoph Niemann, who created the three images, above, and an astonishing trove of illuminating images for the New York Times and The New Yorker, among others, has illustrated the wondrous, strange, at times frustrating path of the creative better than anybody. I figure he’s been there, too…


(His Instagram is a treat.)


*from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1964

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5 replies on “The Best Plan Might Be NOT Having One

  1. Next goal : not having one …

    ‘Positive Thinking’, seems like a religion
    also more like chasing than letting it come to you

    Well, it is in your name, improvise : )

  2. My wonderful teacher, the late Jenny Hunter Groat, once told me, “Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is essential to creativity.” She was talking about the mysterious process of creating an artwork, but over the years since, I’ve found those words immensely valuable, and they’ve become a sort of credo for me…. I’m another person who’s never managed to set long-term goals, but who’s had a very interesting and rewarding life. (So far….It’s not over yet!

  3. Who said, if you want to make God laugh, make a plan ?
    Letting this text sink in though , i feel there is nothing wrong with a goal and a road map -one does not have to approach this in a fixed way : It is more like sending out an intent like an arrow shooting from a bow. This is the path . Yet keeping the eyes open and collecting the little diamonds along the way, looking past seeming nuisances , might be worthwhile .

    nuff said : )

  4. As usual, you got the nuances just right Sahana. I agree that IS nothing wrong with a goal or a road map. It’s really just a question of how you are made. SO many people have tried to put them into the crushing girdle of a “plan” only to have it not happen, or shift gears radically, and then they feel inadequate somehow. There are all sorts of plans, some even not conscious ones..

  5. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is my daily, very necessary practice. Thank you Jeanne. How lucky you are to have had such a teacher.

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