Funny You Should Say That! Set One Goal, Reach Another

Celebrating the first unfinished column ever written.

By John Cadley

This column won’t just be an essay on setting goals. It will be an actual demonstration. You will see a man (a) set a specific goal to write an 800-word column, (b) achieve it, and (c) do so without actually writing 800 words.

GOAL: I will finish my monthly column for the Toastmaster. If I don’t, they will send large, burly men to my house to “collect” it, and it’s hard writing humor when you’re being hung out of a third-story window by your ankles.

So now I am starting to write an 800-word column and I see that when I finish typing this sentence I will have 113 words so far. Only 687 to go. Well, now only 683 since I used four words to say how many more words I had to go.

Pretty good for just getting started. But then that’s always the easy part. Whenever I set a goal I always write “Set Goal” at the top of my list. Then I can cross it off and feel as if I’m well on my way. Which I am. We are now up to 193 words and counting.

Unfortunately, this is where resistance begins to set in, not because I’m afraid that I won’t reach my goal, but that I will. This is the problem with goal-setting. Goals don’t like it when you draw a big, black line through them, so they retaliate by making you feel that you must immediately set another. That’s just the way goals are.

Thus, my “reward” for finishing this column will be the thought: “Now you have to start on your next one.” And that’s not a very good feeling, especially when it evokes images of hanging upside down by your ankles.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m not going to write any more words for a little while, lest I reach my goal too soon. You might want to take this time to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom.

OK, I’m back. I’m leaving the blank area above to fill up some column space so I can get to the end without ever really having written 800 words. That means I will satisfy my editors (who are really nice people when they’re not threatening my life) without technically reaching my goal and thus immediately being faced with another one.

It’s not just the phenomenon that goals beget more goals ad infinitum. It’s what Oscar Wilde said: “There are only two great tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want, the other is getting it.” Goals can be deceiving. They promise you all sorts of satisfaction and fulfillment, and yet when you reach them they somehow fail to deliver all you were expecting. For instance, when I finish this column I will read it back and think, “Gee, this isn’t such a great column, I’d better write another one to make up for it.” And then I’m right back to worrying about burly men and defenestration.

I know many readers will disagree. Goal-setting is essential for success, they will say. It’s one of the 3,458 habits of high achievers. They will even quote the famous dictum: “He (or she) who fails to plan, plans to fail.” Perhaps. But history offers some unassailable evidence that things might just as easily be otherwise. The finding of America, the discoveries of penicillin, X-rays, microwave ovens and vulcanized rubber, the formulations for Silly Putty and artificial sweeteners – these are all the results of failures to reach some other goal. So perhaps what we should really say is: Set a goal, work hard to achieve it, and hope you don’t reach it because you’ll probably get something better instead. For instance, NASA has a goal to reach Mars. Let’s say they miss by a few billion miles and get sucked into a black hole and start sending back pictures of a parallel universe where pollution, poverty, sickness, global warming, crime, corruption and political advertising have all been eradicated, and where the Chicago Cubs actually win the World Series. Anybody got a problem with that?

So at 755 words, let this column “fail” to reach its goal of 800 words. It will, however, make history as The First Unfinished Column Ever Written, published by its editors, read by its readers, and exempting its author from having to reach any more goals as long as this one remains unfinished. That’s quite an achievement. 

John Cadley is an advertising copy-writer in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at