The Difference Between Goals and Values

“They will envy you for your success, your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status — but rarely for your wisdom.”

Nassim Taleb


It’s fair to say that we live in a very goal-driven, consumerist society. And this can easily be seen in our hustle culture, which is prevalent in many facets of our life — work, education, fitness, you name it.

It’s the “suffer now, enjoy later” mentality that we have, that we must work our asses off all day every day, because there’s always more that we can achieve — a bigger promotion at work, a bigger house, a nicer car, a more toned-up body.

You must have known that momentary feeling of joy that you get after you’ve achieved something you’ve longed so much for. You imagined that joy would stay forever, but a few moments later you’re back to feeling empty again.

So what do you do then? You set another goal, you look forward to having something bigger.

Life becomes an endless cycle of I want, I want, I want.

Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals. I’m saying that many of us tend to get so enmeshed in our goals and in our endless wants, that we lose sight of the values behind them.

Now that’s something you don’t hear every day.

Unlike goals, values aren’t things to achieve. Rather, values are simply ways of doing what you do and being who you are.

It has often been said that your values are like a compass, as it directs you towards your own path of feeling fulfilled. Goals are the things you want to do to get there, to be in line with those directions. 

Another way to think about it is that goals are what you want, and values are who you want to be.

Everyone has different values that are important to them. Fitness, for instance, might not be as important to you as wealth. And that’s fine.

That’s the thing about values. They don’t need to be justified, because they simply are, and they’re part of our individual make-up. It’s on you to figure out what your own values are.

My therapist Sophia once gave me this analogy. She asked me, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?”

“Chocolate mint,” I responded.

“Me too,” she said. “But why is it your favorite?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said. “That’s how values are.”

Anyway, the reason why it’s important to know your values well is to offer you some psychological flexibility. Because the thing is, goals aren’t always in your control. It’s for you to recognize that one goal isn’t the only way to live by the particular value behind it.

If an important value for you is to be loving, for example, being in a romantic relationship isn’t the only way for you to do that. You can join a community service organization, you can share your art, you can strengthen your relationships with your friends and family.

Or if your value is to be fit, you don’t necessarily need to win a marathon or get a black belt in taekwondo. You can have your own workout routines and stick to it as you compete with yourself and what you’re capable of, rather than trying to be the best in the world.

Keeping this in mind, it’s more doable to avoid the loopholes that can make you so depressed. It would be at least a little easier to remember that you don’t need to have what “everybody else” has in order to be happy — that it’s not a matter of life or death if you don’t get what you want.

I’m always reminded of that line from Fight Club, which I’ve quoted a lot in my posts: “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”

In the story, the narrator has a whole bunch of IKEA furniture in his apartment that he has bought as his sort of retail therapy. But once his apartment burns down, he is forced to look into himself and figure out who he really is, and what his values are.

In the rubbles of the world he had previously known, he finds meaningful personal progress. 

It’s okay to want and have things — be it titles, or material things, or whatever else you desire. But always remember the values behind them. 

Otherwise, you’d fall into the far too common trap of letting the things you own, own you.


  1. Another great topic. Reminds me of goals versus systems. Sometimes it pays to have a structure in place rather than a dream, but I think both paths are equally feasible. It’s just a matter of perspective. Keep the good posts coming!


    1. Izzat Zailan says:

      Thanks Stuart! Yep I agree, I believe there’s always a middle path to most things. Being too goal-oriented is one extreme, but it’s just as unfeasible to work without any goal in mind


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