In Praise of Pointless Goals

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In July of last year, a grown man pulled on a giant bear costume and set out to walk across the country. Under the alias Bearsun, Jessy Larios, then 33, ambled from Los Angeles to New York, sweating and chafing and viewing the world through a mesh peephole. Larios told me that it was “kind of like carrying around your own prison,” and that despite the costume’s whimsical exterior, the interior experience was akin to “getting tortured.” But Bearsun prevailed, inspiring Instagram followers and news reporters alike as he walked in search of … um, why exactly did he do this?

“It seemed fun,” he says now, laughing. Prior to becoming Bearsun, Larios wasn’t an athlete or an influencer. He was a guy who sold health insurance. He made the decision to traverse the nation on impulse, and while he did raise money for five charities, and eventually conceived of a purpose—to spread joy—mid-walk, he felt no particularly lofty calling when he began. It was a personal adventure.

What Larios achieved is what I call a Big Pointless Goal: an aspiration that lacks grand purpose, yet requires substantial effort to attain. (An editor of mine also calls these “stupid quests.”) Many other examples are less extreme. The journalist Kim Cross once attempted 100 wheelies a day for 30 days on her bike. The professional runner Rickey Gates traveled every street in San Francisco. A friend of mine is making a five-foot-long rocking triceratops—think a prehistoric-themed rocking horse—in order to fulfill her childhood dream of riding a dinosaur.

[Read: What it’s like to carry on a tradition with a friend who can’t remember it]

At first, the inherent unimportance of these pursuits coupled with the grueling commitment required to attain them seem at odds: Why set a target and spend so much effort on something that doesn’t matter? But a good meaningless goal is an act of protest against the self-optimization hamster wheel. It subverts the cult of productivity by sneakily leveraging the tools of productivity.

We live in a culture that is highly motivated by the pursuit of money, prestige, or approval (usually in the form of social-media likes), Catherine Price, a science journalist and the author of the book The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again, told me. Traditional self-improvement goals, such as cutting out sugar or keeping a gratitude journal, are utilitarian and, most important in this context, not much fun.

Pointless goals, in contrast, are meant to be enjoyed. They trick us into doing the things we love, which can also put us in a flow state, where we’re deeply satisfied, present, and absorbed in the task at hand. (If you must justify the time, Price says, know that flow states can also boost creativity and serve as an antidote to the constant hijacking of our attention by our work, our devices, and our kids.)

The psychological trick of silly-goal setting is that its structure creates stakes, however arbitrary: You can succeed or you can fail. It generates something to be finished, and people like to finish things—the closer we get to completing a task, the harder we work at it, a phenomenon psychologists call the “goal gradient effect.” In other words, a goal gives us the sense of purpose that we all need, Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of the book Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation, told me. Having meaningless goals in your life can also work as a sort of insurance, she said: When you’re not hitting goals in one realm, like your work, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy in another, like your shadow life as a bicycling circus performer.

But best of all, chasing a pointless goal sends you on a journey, and people rally around journeys; a hero on a stupid quest is a magnet for helpers and co-conspirators. Cross, the journalist, never did nail the wheelie, but she won another prize instead—time with her 12-year-old son, who started learning the trick alongside her. Fans showed up along Bearsun’s route, too, to bring him food and escort him on busy roads. Their kindness moved him profoundly, he said. These pursuits often push us to engage with the world around us, instead of the one playing out on our screens. (As Price notes, your silly goal probably isn’t more pointless than scrolling through Twitter or Instagram.) A common aphorism says that we should enjoy the journeys in life, not just the destinations; big meaningless goals encourage this attitude because whether we reach the destination truly doesn’t matter.

[Read: ‘Workcations’ aren’t an escape. They’re practice.]

In his 2017 book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, the philosopher Iddo Landau posits that where one finds meaning in life is largely up to individuals to decide. If we value knowledge, learning will make life more purposeful. If we value pushing our physical boundaries and making people smile, then traversing the country in a bear suit could be part of what makes life worth living.

Hence, meaningless goals is probably a misnomer for these pursuits. Our spark for activities that others might label absurd are waypoints that can guide us to the areas of our lives that we value or find worthwhile. Turning them into goals forces us to prioritize these pursuits in our productive, overscheduled days. By getting us to care deeply about something seemingly trivial, they remind us what’s really important.