What happens when you achieve your dream goal – and it’s not what you thought?

I was with a CEO I like and respect highly the other day. Let’s call him Steve. He was wondering what his next career move might be after realising his dream goal, only to find it wasn’t. In hindsight it’s a conversation Steve and I probably didn’t expect to have, as he’s achieved plenty, has a great reputation and is financially independent.

Steve had always dreamed of having his own farm since he was about 6 years old and now, 50 years later, having achieved that goal, found that he was unfulfilled, restless and itching to move on. And that got us wondering: How could he realise his life’s dream, only to find it unfulfilling?

As we spoke, it turned out that at school Steve looked up to the freedom and lifestyle he heard about from boys who lived on farms in the area – of adventure, independence and open spaces, and he decided that sounded much better than life in the suburbs with a 9-5 job. And when, over a decade later, he bought his first car, a well-used sedan that ran most of the time, his farm-based friend got a brand new one that ran all the time. Farming was clearly the thing for him.

Over the next 30 years, Steve worked hard to become successful and achieve great results for his employers, shareholders, customers and teams, specialising in difficult, challenging industries. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious as problems became opportunities, and red ink quickly turned black. He made a few mistakes along the way of course, but none for long and all were fixable. More commonly, his roadblocks were boredom or lack of challenge. Steve, for as long as I have known him, has always come across to me as a transformational leader, not a transactional one, so when major problems are fixed and the business moves from change to continuity, it’s time for him to move on to another challenge where he can create unique value and find fulfilment.

Eventually Steve bought his farm and set about making that into a success, just as he did with every other business he’d been involved with. In the end he had to walk away from corporate life to focus on getting the farming operation just right, and to enjoy the lifestyle he’d always wanted. But there was a problem. Within a year, despite being financially successful and the realisation of a lifelong dream and goal, farming was clearly NOT the thing for him.

So what happened? The answer mostly lies in the neuroscience of motivation and NEURO-M needs theory. As a child, he saw in someone else, through lifestyle and financial advantages, things that sounded more attractive than he was currently experiencing or anticipating, free to move around and act with plenty of interesting things to do without the confines of a suburban, closed-in and routine life. As a teenager, he also wanted to be the one with the new, reliable car for confidence and social status.

The impact of these experiences and perceptions was to allocate high anticipation value on rewards associated with a farming vocation and lifestyle when very young, reinforced through youth. The goal, and its rewards, remained in his thoughts over his lifetime as these neural pathways strengthened through imagining what that might be like over future years, despite success and fulfilment in the meantime. And, if given the chance, who wouldn’t want to imagine, plan for and pursue their dreams? The goal probably became so entrenched in well-myelinated pathways that it may have almost become a core belief, especially when he felt stressed from time to time – the familiar image of himself on a farm, away from pressures, totally autonomous and independent would have been highly attractive. Heck, I find it attractive too!

So why didn’t being a farmer work for Steve? The first thing is to consider his NEURO-M motivational needs.

  • The first is interpersonal connection, which, as an extrovert (I had tested Steve’s temperament and intrinsic motivations some years before) was utterly unfulfilled when driving a tractor for days on end at the farm, with grown-up family 2 hours away and friends often further afield.
  • The second is empowerment, which, despite his undoubted self-taught competence and complete autonomy as a farmer, was limited in scale and influence in comparison to what he had become used to. He was used to fixing organisational structural issues and P&Ls – now he was “limited” to fixing tyres, fences and hoses.
  • The third is identity, where he was no longer seeing himself as, and being seen by others, as an influential leader, where decisions went from impacts of millions and tens of millions of dollars at a time to much less than that. And, as much as there is a time for stepping back for most of us, he hasn’t yet reached it. He still has plenty to give, achieve and maybe even prove.
  • But, as much as these were all factors, the fourth NEURO-M motivational need was the decider. Steve was bored. You saw that coming too, didn’t you? The basic need for task reward, directly linked to the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, sees us seeking challenges, variety, new learning opportunities and simple enjoyment from our work. Together we scored the tractor-driving scenario on this and he scored about 12.5%, whereas his preferred transformational-CEO role would typically rate over 90%. Wow, no wonder he was restless. (This isn’t so unusual – our research shows task reward as the least fulfilled NEURO-M basic workplace need, and a common reason for disengagement and job change).

As we spoke, he realised that his dream of owning and running his own farm was not linked to his intrinsic motivations – rather, it was probably linked to his youthfully-interpreted aspirational drive for success, status and achievement, both in the doing (empowerment, task reward) and in identity (self-esteem, social role, status and purpose) as he assumed them to be, and of course, quite non-consciously. Further, as a naturally transformational leader he is likely to have more connections across his corpus callosum than a transactional leader, pretty much ensuring that he is “hard-wired” for leadership through times of change, complexity, innovation and problem-solving – none of which he experienced on the farm beyond the first few crops.

This also highlighted the difference between an intrinsic goal (mostly non-conscious, implicit) and an adopted (conscious, explicit) one. This won’t be the first story you’ve read where realisation of a goal led to disappointment, perhaps through unrealistic expectations (linked to reward anticipation), or perhaps through misleading information or assumptions (also linked to reward anticipation). And this is the point for all of us – are the goals we aspire to linked to our intrinsic motivations (as described for the workplace by NEURO-M needs), or are those goals ones that, while providing a usefully clear and convenient points of focus and measurements of success, ultimately disconnected from what really drives and rewards us? Is our goal our goal, or is it someone else’s? Does it resonate deeply within us, beyond social pressures or role models (remember, there was a role model in this story too)? Are our goals tied to extrinsically-biased pictures and symbols of success, or to intrinsic, deeply personal fulfilment?

After the sun had gone down, I think Steve and I both had a greater appreciation of his unique abilities and motivations, and in doing so a clearer picture of what his next ideal challenges might look like – and they were far broader in variety than either of us expected. With that knowledge in mind I know he’ll succeed in whatever he takes on next because he’ll make sure that the opportunities and challenges it presents will be well-matched to his deepest motivations and strongest skills, in turn granting him enhanced energy, resilience, success and, most importantly, fulfilment.