On the Value of Not Reaching Your Goals
What I learned from not becoming a New York Times best-selling author
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Becoming a New York Times best-selling author doesn’t bring you lasting fulfillment, endless riches, or a lifetime of good health. It doesn’t actually sell that many books. But it is a flex, a status symbol. Land a spot on The List once, and it’s in your bio forever. It’s what journalist David Brooks calls a résumé virtue: an accolade that might bring fleeting excitement, but not enduring contentment.
Alas, when I started to write my first book, I set the goal of making The List. (I am not above a good stroke of the ego.) There was a certain irony to my aim; my book is about the danger of tethering self-worth to professional accomplishments. Nevertheless, shoot for the stars and end up in the clouds, I thought. It was a long shot, especially for a first-timer like me, but why not strive for the top?
Well, my book has officially been out for a few weeks, and it appears I’ve fallen short. The general rule of thumb is that you need to sell 4,000–5,000 copies in a seven-day period to have a shot of appearing on The List. I sold 3,908 copies in week one, which is typically when a debut author has their best shot at making it, with the hype around the launch driving sales. Barring a phone call from Oprah or Good Morning America, I’ve likely missed the mark.
While doing the reporting for my book, I read a postmortem from a successful startup founder. They said something along the lines of: “One of the best things that can happen to you is to achieve professional success when you’re young. That way you can learn that it does little to change your happiness.” For better or worse, achieving your goals shows you that no material accomplishment will fundamentally alter who you are.
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There are countless examples of folks who have achieved their wildest professional dreams—from athletes like Michael Phelps to founders like Melissa Bernstein—only for that to lead to a spiral of depression. One study of nearly 250 successful entrepreneurs found that 72% suffered from mental health issues. The single-minded pursuit of success can be used as a crutch to distract from deeper insecurities.
I’m reminded of two seemingly contradictory insights I came across in my research. The first was from a study of NIH grant applicants, which concluded that scientists who nearly missed out on grants early in their careers systematically outperformed their peers who received the grants over the long term. “Overall, these findings are consistent with the concept that ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,’” the researchers wrote.
The second was a point from David Foster Wallace’s iconic This Is Water speech: Whatever you worship will eventually eat you alive. “If you worship money and things…then you will never feel you have enough,” he writes. “Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.”
If the NIH study concludes that setbacks are a vital part of success, Wallace argues that success is a false idol. There’s a paradox here, and yet I see both as true. Ambition—even when driven by the ego—isn’t inherently bad. Setting ambitious goals allowed us to create mRNA vaccines and put a man on the moon. The key is to balance the striving with the understanding that blind ambition often comes with a cost.
After falling short of my goal, I’m left with the question of where to go from here. One approach might be to use this setback as motivation. Now that the target is within reach, I can set my sights on book two. Much like an entrepreneur raising money, where each “no” from a potential investor can fuel the fire of the next pitch.
The alternative is to take a step back to reevaluate my goals and reconsider my motivations.
The greatest risk of a goal-oriented life is that we remove ourselves from our present experience. If we are always striving to grab the next rung on the career ladder or to achieve the next life milestone, we can miss out on where we are today. Lasting fulfillment is the result of presence, not checking off boxes from some achievement rubric.
The literature on hedonistic adaptation makes it clear that even if we achieve what we set out to do, we’ll likely just push our goalposts of desire further out. Intrinsic motivation tends to provide a more sustainable fuel source than external rewards.
Of course, I know all this. Hell, I wrote a book about these themes. The old cliché is that authors write the book they need to read, and I spent over three years researching the cost of success. And yet it doesn’t make missing my mark any less disappointing.
I wanted to share my experience because it paints a more nuanced picture than the “wisdom” dispelled on TikTok and LinkedIn. I, like you, contain multitudes, and reading an academic paper on the value of non-attachment is an unsatisfying balm for the existential reckoning of what could have been. I know I’m not the first or last person to fall short of their professional goals.
The developmental value of disappointment is that it forces you to slow down and ground in how you’re feeling right now. These feelings can clarify what you value. Said another way, we hurt in proportion with how much we care.
Not making The New York Times best-seller list provided me with an opportunity to interrogate the goal itself. There’s no silver lining my feelings away, but I can take a moment to recognize how far I have come. And even though dreaming a wildly ambitious dream might be a recipe for disappointment, I also feel an odd pleasure in knowing I gave it a shot.
Author bio: Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco–based author, journalist, and designer. His book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work is now available. If you liked this piece, you can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his free newsletter.