career

"One year ago, I started making 'anti-goals'. It made me quit my job."

Listen to this story being read by Clare Stephens, here.


It's August 2021, and I'm exhausted.

Unsurprising perhaps, given the state of the world, but that doesn't make it any easier. 

Almost every plan I've had for myself for the last 18 months has been thwarted. As a result, my day-to-day life is on autopilot, and I'm focusing only on what's directly in front of me: the next project, the next meeting, the next email. 

If someone were to ask me what my goals are, I don't know how I'd answer. They're everything and they're nothing. I want to write and speak and create and learn and take risks and contribute meaningfully to the world but it's all too much and none of it is specific or realistic enough to put down on paper, let alone come to fruition. 

I, therefore, take the easier route of following what I perceive to be the next logical step laid out before me. If I'm offered an opportunity, I accept. If I'm told I'm good at something, I do more of it. If there's a task everyone hates doing, I take it on, in a misguided, ill-fated attempt to be liked and to distract me from the bigger question of whether I'm happy.

There's nothing proactive about my approach. It's entirely passive. I'm making decisions – big ones – but not consciously or intentionally. 

Watch Clare and Jessie Stephen's on a first date. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

Then, on an otherwise nondescript weekday in winter, the question of the future does come up. What do I want? Where do I see myself in a few years' time? 

I don't have a set of goals written down in a diary, with timelines and actionable steps and measurable outcomes attached to them. But what I do have, suddenly, is an image.

Not of a goal. But of an anti-goal. 

I know, with clarity, what I don't want my life to look like a year from now. 

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I don't want it to look exactly the same. 

I don't want to live in the same apartment. 

I don't want to be doing the same job.

I don't want to be in the same routine, following the same trajectory, and no purpose. 

So I step down from my role as Editor-in-Chief. I move. I plan a six-week holiday. And a year later, I'm not where I didn't want to be. 

Without knowing it at the time, I'd adopted a strategy made popular by entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson. In 2017, Wilkinson wrote for Medium about "how I designed my perfect day by fixating on what I hate". 

He writes that when establishing his professional goals, he noticed that many of his peers were wealthier and more successful than he was, but led "objectively s**ttier lives". Their days were full of things they didn't want to do, and they were unfulfilled. Yes, they'd achieved the goals they'd set for themselves, but they'd never taken the time to identify what they didn't want.

Wilkinson was inspired by Charlie Munger, an investor and businessman known for being Warren Buffett's right-hand. Munger is quoted as saying, "tell me where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there," referring to the philosophy of 'inversion'. 

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"Problems frequently get easier if you turn them around in reverse," Munger says. "In other words, if you want to help India, the question you should ask is not 'how can I help India,' it’s 'what is doing the worst damage in India and how do I avoid it?'"

Adopting this strategy, Wilkinson started setting 'anti goals,' that is, the things he didn't want to happen. 

For him, the worst day imaginable was full of long meetings, had a packed calendar, was spent dealing with people he didn't trust, and so on. He, therefore, created anti-goals, such as:

Never schedule an in-person meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished via email or phone (or not at all).

In a Twitter thread about the benefits of this strategy, writer and investor Sahil Bloom says he thinks "of anti-goals as being about avoiding the 'Pyrrhic victory' – a victory that takes such a terrible toll on the victor that it might as well have been a defeat."

More simply, sometimes when we set goals without thinking about anti-goals, we "win the battle but lose the war". 

Maybe we get the promotion. Or the wealth. Or the house or the car or the fame. But we lose things that matter the most, or gain things we never wanted. Knowing what we don't want is just as important as knowing what we do.

Bloom outlines four steps for setting 'anti goals':

For example, say my goal is to run a half marathon (lol). That's a clear, traditional goal, and I can come up with actionable steps in order to achieve it (theoretically). 

But what happens when you invert the problem?

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As much as I want to run a half marathon, I also don't want to feel guilty for six months about not training enough. I don't want to get injured. I don't want to throw my life off balance and retreat socially. 

My anti goals might be:

- Don't feel guilty about not training enough. Research a realistic schedule and stick to it. 

- Don't get injured. Stretch regularly, have rest days, see a physio.

- Don't let this become all-consuming. Schedule regular catch-ups with friends.

Setting anti goals can help clarify your traditional goals, and ensure that you a) become who you want to be, and b) don't become who you don't want to be. 

For me, anti-goals were the starting point, because it was easier to picture what I didn't want. 

So if you're in that mid-year slump and don't know what to do next, ask yourself: Who don't you want to be a year from now?

What don't you want your life to look like? 

Because while traditional goal setting is undoubtedly powerful, what's the point of achieving what you want to, if it doesn't look how you imagined?

For more from Clare Stephens (and her very rare tidbits of wisdom), you can follow her on InstagramFacebook or TikTok

Feature Image: Supplied.

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