"If life were a board game, moving the goalpost would be the equivalent of flipping the board and shouting, 'New rules, everyone!'"
Moving the goalpost
"Moving the goalpost" is an English expression for changing the terms of an agreement midway through a contract.
Imagine promising your child a dollar a week for additional household chores but not paying her for her work, or worse, expecting her to do more. You'd never do that, right? Right?
No one wants to be accused of moving the goalpost. And yet, we do it. All the time. Especially for contracts we make with ourselves. To see this playing out in real life, or if you want to take a peek at how fickle the human mind is, you just have to scroll through any online discussion forum on the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community.
The FIRE movement
For those familiar with the FIRE movement, the concept centers on achieving financial independence at an early age. The core idea is to accumulate enough savings and investments to support a comfortable lifestyle without the need for traditional employment, thus allowing people freedom and flexibility in how they choose to spend their time.
To get started on FIRE, you need to establish a financial goal that, once reached (and invested), you'd be comfortable living off of, which often means you commit to a savings goal while employed and pre-determine your average annual spending in retirement.
The concept of FIRE is attractive to many, especially those who aren't satisfied with their jobs or those who like to pursue passions that are rewarding in non-monetary ways. So, quite a few get started on the path. They run Monte Carlo simulations, talk to a financial advisor (or ask strangers on Reddit), and come up with their "Financial Freedom" number. So far, so good. Their excitement is palpable.
However, as they venture into the realm of financial independence, doubt creeps in, and they start questioning whether they overestimated their saving capabilities. The pervasive influence of social media triggers comparison games.
The allure of a friend's new house, complete with a pool, becomes enticing. The "You Only Live Once" (Yolo) mentality takes hold. Before long, they persuade themselves that moving the goalpost by enduring three more years of endless Zoom calls, difficult bosses, and hokey PowerPoint presentations is a small price to pay for the infinity pool. Except, it isn't.
The trouble is we live in a world that tends to get better for most people, and with it comes rising expectations.
Our goal is not just to be rich. But to be richer than our neighbors.
We wish not just to be happy. But to be happier than others.
We anchor ourselves to a hedonic treadmill and constantly come up short.
According to the US Census, the median household income was $74,580 in 2022. And based on this article, plenty of Americans are in the global 1 percent, even though most may vehemently disagree with such a caricature. Because the truth is, it's all relative to expectations, and our expectations, unfortunately, seem to be on a constantly rising trajectory.
Why moving the goalpost makes us unhappy
And here's why moving the goalpost becomes counterproductive to our happiness.
Frequently changing expectations can lead to a perpetual sense of discontent. When goalposts constantly shift, it's hard to feel satisfied with our achievements or circumstances because we're already focused on the next, often higher, goal.
Growing up, I was constantly told to "Aim for the sky to reach the tree-top." In hindsight, and as we learn more about human psychology, that seems to be patently bad advice. Setting expectations that are consistently hard to attain and finding ourselves always short of our goals can lead to frustration, a sense of failure, and a negative impact on overall well-being.
If none of this convinces you, let's turn to the legendary Stephen Hawking for inspiration.
In 1963, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig's disease. Twenty-one years old at that time, Hawking was pursuing his doctoral studies in theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge.
Suffice it to say: the diagnosis forever altered Hawking's life. His physical condition deteriorated over the years, and he eventually lost the ability to walk, speak without assistance, and perform many basic motor functions. However, his mental faculties remained sharp, and he continued to make groundbreaking contributions to theoretical physics.
My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Since then, everything has been a bonus. Stephen Hawking.
Reducing one's expectations to zero might sound like surrender, but in Hawking's case, it was an acknowledgment of the unpredictable nature of life. It's an acceptance that, at times, life doesn't unfold according to our meticulously crafted plans.
This mindset shift isn't about settling for less or resigning oneself to mediocrity. It's a profound understanding that the absence of predetermined expectations allows us to be open to the richness of the present moment. It's an invitation to find joy in the journey rather than fixating on a destination that may forever remain elusive.
Remember, folks, moving the goalposts doesn't make you a soccer player; it just makes you that person no one wants on their team.