A goal post

To what extent is setting ambitious, distant goals a good idea? Should they be used? And if so, how?

We are problem solvers and so we can't do without goals. Whenever we try to solve a problem, we automatically have the goal of solving that problem.

But what about setting personal goals for the medium to long-term future? 

One argument against committing steadfastly to distant goals is that doing so involves determining in advance how you'll spend your time in the future. This is a problem because your future selves may well have different ideas about how to spend their time. And if these ideas are in conflict with your goal, then forcing yourself to pursue the goal anyway will hurt and could prevent you from noticing better ideas. Moreover, having reached your goal in this way, you may well discover that it doesn't give you anything like the satisfaction you'd expected. That's a long time to wait to realise you made a mistake.

I think these are good criticisms of a pretty common approach to goals. But they don't imply that we should completely do away with long-term goal-setting in our personal lives. After all, it's perfectly possible to be someone who sets long-term goals and who is careful not to develop tunnel vision when it comes to pursuing them. This is just the critical attitude applied to goals.

But on top of adopting a critical attitude, I think a more specific way to improve goal-setting is to only set goals whose realisation is within your control. For example, let's say you're a young person who wants to become a film actor. Rather than having the goal of becoming an Oscar-winning actor—the realisation of which would involve countless factors outside of your control—it makes more sense to work towards the goal of, say, becoming the best actor you can be. That is within your control (and to the extent that it's the best actors who win Oscars, then hey, becoming the best actor you can be may even improve your chances of becoming an Oscar-winner).