Moving the Goalposts

Luke Smith

EARLY IN MY CAREER, I pursued a rigorous financial industry certification. Among the hoops I had to jump through: passing a seven-hour exam.

For 18 months, I woke up every day before work and studied for an hour. I found that consistency far more helpful than eight-hour weekend study sessions. Thanks to my daily commitment through the workweek, I only had to study for one to three hours each Saturday and Sunday.

Still, I didn’t want to get up most mornings. I’d lament to my wife, “When this is over, I’ll start working out so much more. I’ll start cooking breakfast every day. I’ll do yoga on the porch. I’ll be so much happier.”

Then came the exam. I was nervous. I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could move on with my life without any more formal education tests.

I completed the exam in half the time allotted. I passed. I was so prepared it even felt easy. My wife had champagne waiting for me in the parking lot, and we popped it right there.

Then, on the three-hour car ride home, it hit me: It’s over. No more studying. No more early morning grind. I was pumped. But then something I didn’t expect occurred. The next day, my mind began to race. What now? I had jumped out of bed every morning to study, to compete, to win. But now, what’s my next aim? What’s my next purpose?

Anyone who has achieved something of great rigor understands this feeling. Lost. Aimless. Bored. A lot of the time, achieving our goals is the wrong goal.

We often hear, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” We’re told, “Always striving, never arriving.” We hear platitudes about smelling the flowers along the way. Sometimes, clichés exist for a reason. They’re true in the highest form of the word.

We humans are insatiable. We aren’t content for long with completion. We need a new aim, a new target, a new goal, no matter what our realm of pursuit. Ran a 5k in 20 minutes? Now, we want 19:30. Got a promotion? Great. Now, we want another. Have a $500,000 net worth? Next up is $1 million. On and on it goes. We hit the next pinnacle and find ourselves wanting more.

What can we do about it? Here are three options I believe to be effective, depending on your personality.

1. Don’t have goals. This is a new-age philosophy circulating on the internet right now. I think it has some merit. By having a direction, but not necessarily a destination, we leave the door open to a never-ending moving forward, not necessarily “arriving.” If we don’t have an end goal, then the journey gets to last forever.

This also frees us up to accomplish more than our measly goals. Often, we set goals that we know we can achieve—because we’re afraid of coming up short. This sets a cap on our achievements. Once we accomplish the goal, we step back and ease up.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set goals in my professional, financial and fitness journeys, only to adjust them higher because gains happened faster than anticipated. It’s human nature to set easy goals. We don’t want to fail.

The next pursuit you have, don’t put the destination in your motivational GPS. Simply choose your direction and go forward. Act. Do. Move. When you come to a crossroads in your journey, choose the path that excites you the most, rather than the path that stops at a dead end.

2. If we must set goals, make them audacious. Some people can’t help themselves. Without a well-defined target, they’re completely lost. Direction is not enough for these folks. They want to know, “Where am I going and how do I get there as fast as possible?” I have a solution for this one as well: B-I-G goals.

I’m talking as big as we can imagine—goals that feel impossible. If we want to get the next promotion, set the goal to become CEO. If we want to complete a 5k, set a goal to run a marathon.

This again gives us the air cover to focus on the journey, the adventure, the pursuit. Small goals will always leave us wondering what’s next. It’s in our nature. That’s why we might set goals so big we think we might not be able to achieve them. That way, we stretch out the pursuit so far into the distance that the joy and excitement get stretched out as well.

3. Only pursue those things in life that excite us and can’t be finished. If we feel that having no goals is too ephemeral and having big audacious goals is a recipe for disappointment, consider this third alternative.

Take golf. I don’t care how much you practice, or how good you get, you can’t win. One day, you’ll shoot your best round ever, and the next day you can’t remember how to hit the ball. One day, you hit every chip to one foot of the hole, and the next day you can’t stay on the putting green. Even professional players go through slumps and have bad days. The best players in the world often place well below 100th in tournaments.

For each of us, our life’s pursuits will be different. They might be art, work, relationships, gardening, fitness, writing, anything. But whatever we’re looking to accomplish, we must pursue those things without end.

Don’t just set the goal of running a 5k. Instead, set the goal of running a 5k on your path to “becoming a runner.” Don’t just set the goal of having date night once a week. Instead, set a goal of “being a better spouse.” Don’t just set a goal of amassing $1 million. Instead, set a goal of “being financially free.”

Good luck with your pursuits. I hope you won’t achieve them too fast.

Luke Smith is a CFP® professional and practicing financial planner. He creates customized financial plans for each family he works with around the country. Luke pursued financial planning to combine his two favorite passions: finance and people. He spends his free time with his wife Heather and their family in Maryland. Outside of work, Luke enjoys the outdoors, golf, reading and writing. You can reach him at

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6 months ago

It is very interesting how humans perform better when there are clear goals.

Moreover people seem to be happier in the chase of something.

But we seem to be in the perpetual chase and never satisfied.

Life seems to be unbearable standing still…just standing and breathing.

This to me is an amazing phenomenon.

In the Buddhist tradition, monks sit in meditation literally doing nothing, just breathing. They do this for hours, days, months, years.

I doubt most of them are unhappy.

I hear when folks return from a near death experience, their point of view changes.

The chase becomes less and the living becomes more.

So until now, I’ve chased financial freedom. (Madonna did say this is a material world.)

But sometimes I feel I don’t know what it is like to be just living.

Last edited 6 months ago by johny
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
6 months ago

After a 3 year CFA exam grind I had no problem redirecting my spare time.
#2. Recently heard the expression “Shoot for the stars-land on Mars”. Might not hit the target but will go far.
#3 Instead of golf I have pickleball tournaments-there is always room to improve and better players.

Sonja Haggert
Sonja Haggert
6 months ago

Insightful article. There’s nothing like having something to pursue. I think if there’s an end result, it should be-be grateful.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
6 months ago

I remember one time in college I was studying for an Economics exam. Not my favorite subject. I had kept up with the material but still needed to study for the exam. After studying several hours for the exam, I realized I did not have a good understanding of the material. I studied about 3 hours more and then I understood the material.

The average score for the exam was 60. I got 107 which included some extra credit for my answers.

Sometimes a little extra effort makes a lot of difference.

6 months ago

I once worked for a guy who said, “All I want is a little bit more than I’m ever going to get.”

Continuous improvement is what I’ve focused on. It goes in spurts. Sometimes I can’t miss the green, other times… I received a few company awards along the way, and then that company was sold. The owners could care less about those awards. I think I learned a lesson there.

I too worked on industry certification. Unlike you, I didn’t pass the first time. Immediately afterwards I reopened the books and started studying again. I think I’d rather have passed the first time and suffered through your conundrum.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
6 months ago

Nice article Luke. The first industry certification is the hardest – I hope passing it gives you confidence that you can accomplish others if you so choose. I took the RICP after the CFP and it was a good addition to my knowledge.

I can get caught up setting frequent, small goals. These are arbitrary, but frustrate me when I miss them. A health coach gave me good advice – focus on the process and the goals will follow. It has worked.

I did a lot of youth coaching when my sons were young. I found that if I focused on winning, we didn’t do as well. If I focused on teaching and improving all of the team members, the wins followed.

6 months ago

There were so many emotional conflicts rolling around inside my head while reading this post that I inevitably concluded there must be some valuable insights here. It will read (at first glance) like a bit of bold-faced heresy to the plan-oriented / goal-focused audience. But anything that tests conventional wisdom and gets you outside of your mental “comfort zone” usually has value, IMO.

I could personally relate to Luke’s first-person narrative around the daily slog through an industry certification exam (and the subsequent time void that appeared after completing it).

Thanks for pushing the envelope with this topic, Luke. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

R Quinn
R Quinn
6 months ago

I’m not so sure never being content is all that bad.

Yes, it can get out of control, perhaps even unhealthy, but on the whole always striving for more and better is how humans have progressed. Think of where we might be without all those A types in science, health, technology and even finance.

How smooth would the Tesla ride be without the wheel?😃

6 months ago

I like #3 a lot. Last year I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and #3 reminds me of his focus on identity rather than goals (“I’m a fit person” or “I’m a person who works out” rather than “I’ll work out 5 days a week for 30 minutes”).

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