How often are you engaging in destructive goal behavior?

Today is February 15 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you engaging in destructive goal behavior?” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well will require you to have a relationship with translating one dream after another into reality. While almost every successful person has set goals to work towards; rest assured there are also those who have engaged in achieving a goal at all costs-even their own life. As the adage goes “some people create their own storms then get upset when it rains.” Consider today’s reflection on navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well an example of what not to do. Mountain climbers and Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky have this trait in common.


The deaths of eight climbers very close to the summit of Mt. Everest in May 1996, symbolizes one example of destructive goal behavior. On May 11, 1996, different groups of climbers merged at the Hillary Step – close to the summit – but this caused a traffic jam. Instead of turning back when they should have, the climbers continued and reached the summit hours after what was considered a safe time. They then had to descend in darkness and in the worst of Everest weather. Eventually six climbers died within 24 hours.


As D. Christopher Kayes noted in his 2006 book Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster, reaching the summit was no longer just a big project outside them that they wanted to achieve…it was their main source of social identity. And so, the idea that much uncertainty could be associated with something so fundamental was unacceptable on a sort of subliminal level and led to this over commitment to the goal. Thus, destructive goal behavior demonstrates how goal setting can lead organizations down the wrong path.


In his 2005 article "The Destructive Pursuit of Idealized Goals," Kayes wrote “One of the Everest survivors reflected upon that day and said ‘You can over-pursue goals. You can become obsessed with goals.’ Goals provide the impetus to accomplish new heights, explore vast terrain, and seek new challenges, but the unbridled pursuit of idealized goals often leads to obsessive destruction. While leaders quickly extol the virtues of goals, they often fall blind to their unintended consequences. In a time when leaders extol setting and pursuing high goals, the unintended consequences of these actions deserve greater attention. Cultivating the positive effects of goals rather than falling prey to their destructive pursuit provides an alternative direction.”


British author Oliver Burkeman mentions this in a speech and said “For me I think what that story illustrates are that a lot of the time when we are being very, very driven by very specific goals, we’re not doing something as virtuous as we think. We’re actually in flight from uncertainty. We’re actually trying to find a way to feel like we know how the future is going to unfold, to exert control over something inherently uncontrollable.”


But trying to exert control over something inherently uncontrollable, like the weather at the summit of Mt. Everest, is a sure sign of destructive goal behavior. Much like the mountain climbers, Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky engaged in destructive goal behavior. Dostoevsky was one of the great writers of the 19th century. His image on a Russian lottery ticket is ironic considering his life-long gambling addiction.


Dostoevsky lived a tumultuous life, undergoing many personal tragedies. He often pawned his wedding rings and wife’s valuables to purchase a ticket home from gambling binges only to be swayed by what he described as a “fever” until he reached the table. He would then write his wife again when he gambled away the proceeds. Despite his success in writing, Fyodor persistently gambled his family into debt and frequently appealed to friends and relatives for money. Although he was desperately ashamed of his actions, he continued to spend his loans at the roulette wheel instead of on bills. These difficulties probably impacted numerous aspects of his life, from his writing to his addiction.


How often do you engage in destructive goal behavior? Have you ruined your life, or a part of it, in the pursuit of a goal? As you go about your day, consider asking yourself if you "create your own storm then get upset when it rains?"