Goals are about as controversial as underwear--just about everyone agrees that, barring incredibly specific circumstances, you really should get yourself some. Visualizing where you want to go will help motivate you to action, direct your efforts, and spur you through tough times, according to the conventional wisdom.

The consensus on goals is so strong that plenty of young people even feel guilty or upset for not having the defined plans and clear-cut aims that society repeatedly suggests are necessary for success. But what if, instead of propelling graduates toward great things, the obsessive focus on goal-setting actually serves to limit their vision, blind them to opportunity, and hold them back?

Time to Junk Your Career Goals?

This point of view isn't the prevailing wisdom, but it does have backers. "At this point I've completely repudiated the concept of career goals. I think they're an exercise in futility," author Stever Robbins told me a few years back, explaining, "if you are 25 years old, unless you are a relatively unusual person with a lot of means, chances are really good that you've been exposed to an extraordinarily small fraction of the things there are to be exposed to. Think of your early career, if not your early life, as a succession of experiments."

Goals, in other words, can give you tunnel vision and blind you to productive possibilities. Which is a possibility not just for grads but also for whole teams and companies, according to research out of Harvard. An excessive focus on rigid goals can lead to, among other things, "a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation," one study found.

Welcome to the Anti-Goal Camp

This notion that goals are often counterproductive for young people might still horrify the average high school career counselor, but it just gained another prominent public backer. In a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times, Steven Mollenkopf, CEO of mobile phone tech company Qualcomm, offered his opinion on goals for grads. His view in essence: Who needs 'em?

"Don't have a plan, because you can underestimate what your abilities are, and you might limit yourself in some cases with a plan. I also think luck is very important. Be sure that you allow for luck to occur, and when it happens, run toward the fire, not run away from it. The people who are really good and the people you want on your team, are the ones who see an opportunity and they get excited about it versus shrinking away," he tells the paper. "You've also got to just trust in your own ability. You can fix everything, basically, so don't be afraid to make mistakes."

So if you're toward the beginning of your career and feeling a bit bad for your lack of direction, take heart. Your lack of strategy might end up being the best strategy after all. And if you're a parent or other adviser with an urge to nag the seemingly aimless young person in your life to hurry up and get some goals, think twice about whether ignoring alternate paths too early will really serve his or her interests.

Do you agree with Mollenkopf that grads should go commando when it comes to goals, storming at life without too many definite plans?

Published on: Sep 30, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.