Goal-People vs. River-People: Are You Future-Oriented or In-the-Moment?


Goal-People vs. River-People

Are you a goal person or a river person?

Goal people layout a roadmap of goals and set out to achieve them.

River people, on the other hand, go with the flow.  They live for the moment and don’t worry too much about the future.

Neither is good or bad, or right or wrong.  Both are appealing in different ways. They’re just different approaches for the journey of life.

In the book, Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!, Stephen M. Shapiro writes about goal people and river people.

Goal People Map Out the Future

Goal people create a path of goals, objectives and timetables.

Via Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!:

“Most of us are undoubtedly familiar with goal people.  They are the individuals who write down their objectives and timetables  for reaching them, and then focus on attaining them, one by one. 

By laying out a roadmap of future achievements in front of them, goal people give their creative minds a clear set of stimuli to work on.  T

Their subconscious minds can then go to work incubating ideas and insights that will help them to reach their goals.”

River People Explore and Experience Life

River people lead a more unstructured life.  They seek out learning opportunities and experiences.

Via Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!:

“River People, on the other hand, don’t like to follow such a structured route to success.  They are called river people because they are happiest and most fulfilled when they are wading in a rich river of interest – a subject or profession about which they are very passionate. 

While they may not have a concrete plan with measurable goals, rive people are often successful because they are so passionate about their area of interest. 

This, in turn, helps them to recognize, breakthrough opportunities that may not even be visible on the mental radar screens of the more narrowly focused goal people.  River people are explorer, continually seeking out learning opportunities and new experiences. 

For river people, joy comes from the journey, not from reaching the destination – exactly the opposite of goal people.  From the standpoint of creativity, river people are more likely to benefit from serendipity, because they tend to be more open to new ideas, points of view, and insights than single-minded, focused goal people.”

Goal-Free Living is About Experiences

Goal-free people choose a life of experience over achievement.

Via Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!:

River people are individuals who live life out of experience rather than achievement.  People driven by passion.  These are the goal-free people. 

Goal-free people don’t necessarily live a life free from all goals. 

They live from from the stranglehold of goals that grips so many people.  They live experientially in each moment.  A life of their design rather than that which society tells them to live.  They have a deep appreciation for what they are today; they avoid worrying about the future.”

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • There’s two types of people: goal people and river peopleEarl Nightingale, chairman of Nightingale-conant and personal development leader originally explained there are two types of people: goal people and river people.
  • Chuck Frey provides a good perspective on the differenceChuck Frey, founder of innovationtools.com explained the difference to Shapiro (below).
  • Goals vs. opportunities.  Goal people layout a roadmap of goals.  River people seek out learning opportunities and experiences.
  • Achievement vs. experience.  Goal people seek out achievement.  River people seek out experience.
  • Future-oriented vs. living in the moment.  Goal people are future oriented.  River people live for the moment.

On the river of life, which one are you?

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  1. After reading this I wonder if at heart I am a river person. I set goals and set out the steps to the destination, often to find that I am short of the target. If the goal/destination is one of interest to me I find that I enjoy the journey, stopping to make unscheduled side trips which is probably why I am often shy of the target… given a bit more time no doubt the destination would be reached. Maybe I am a combination, that is have a destination but don’t set a rigid time line by which to measure it…………..hmmmmm. thoughts to ponder on. Thank you for the stimulus


  2. Very interesting. I believe I’m definitely a river person.

    I think it is important for organization to recognize this difference and provide a path for the river people also. I say this because right now a good friend (goal person), who was hired at the same time as me, just got promoted to a high level management position. It’s not what I want but makes me question things since there isn’t an obvious career path for river people where I work.

  3. I think I’m a river person my nature and a goal person by profession. I work off of project plan and status reports Monday – Friday and seek out learning opportunities and experiences in the evenings and during the weekends. This is interesting insight about myself.

  4. i think i’m a river person, but at the moment i’m in highschool so i dont have much freedom for experience but when i’m out of school i want to get a job on an ocean liner and make some money with that and then that ocean liner will end up somewhere in asia at which point i will quit my job and travel through asia walking and hitch hiking during the day and camping at night. i’ll make my way over to japan if i dont starve to death or get kidnapped and then hopefully get a job at a mountain as a ski bum.

  5. I’m a river person who rows his boat in a particular direction.

    More and more I am becoming a river person but I think I will always row where I want.

  6. @ Valentina

    Very good question and I think there’s a quick way to test:
    – Do you only feel good if you achieve your goals? (then you’re more of a goal person)
    – If you miss your goals, do you still enjoy the ride? (you’re more of a river person)

    I know some goal people and they are always focused on the future and they aren’t happy unless they’re achieving a specific goal. They’re successful in terms of hitting goals, but not necessarily at enjoying the present.

    I think a combination is actually very effective. It’s like an adventurer that maps out journeys, but remembers to stop and smell the roses along the way.

    @ Frank

    That’s a really good point! One of the best ways to have smart people get results is turn them loose and let them explore. Confining goals for goal-free people can be incredibly counter-productive (I’ll post some lessons learned from the sports industry) What’s worse, is I don’t see very good goal setting techniques. People confuse goals vs. objectives all the time and get lost in the trees and miss the forest.

    @ Stacey

    That’s a good way to put it. I’m a fan of self-awareness and I think knowing your natural preference is a good thing.

    I think I started goal-oriented naturally and became river through enough life-changing events. On the job, goal-oriented serves me well. I’m in a super competitive environment where I have to demonstrate impact against goals and objectives. I’ve learned to be disciplined by design, but I flip it off just as easy on the weekends. I also make sure I savor the moments and reflect throughout the week. I get extreme results, but I spend a lot of time in my strengths and in the flow.

    @ anonymous

    I’ve met some very happy ski bums so you can’t go wrong there.

    It sounds like you have plenty of adventures planned, so you’ll have no problem building your experience base.

    @ Jarrod

    Well put. Being a river person that takes action and sets direction is a key success pattern for goal-free living.

    It reminds me of a lesson in baseball … either you play the ball, or the ball plays you.

  7. It turns out this is not a message that goal people feel like answering to. //lol

    It’s really a great thing to live the river way.

  8. Hey JD

    My family is split 2 to 3 with river people, my hubby and son.
    I am a goal person. Anyhow, I take pleasure that these 2 river people always depends on me to put all daily the nitty-gritties in order. Sometimes, they pretend to be a goal person for a day or two, just to humour me. 🙂

    Whatever the difference, success will still be within their own control, it’s just a method of getting there!

  9. As I’m reading this article I’m trying to think about who I am. I’m part river because I like my imagination to take over when I’m writing. I’m also part goal person because I feel a sense of accomplishment every time I reach a goal.

    I’m not sure if I could pick one or the other because it fluctuates from day to day. I think that’s a good thing. If we can fluctuate between river and goal we get the best of both worlds.

  10. @ Jay

    There’s a lot to be said for going with the flow.

    It also reminds me of a line from Surf’s Up … when there’s no wave, make one.

    @ Wenny

    Really good point on how success will still be within their own control, regardless of approach. Edward De Bono confirms that in his book Tactics, The Art and Science of Success. It really comes down to choices.

    @ Karl

    I think you nailed it.

    Goals are vehicles. Accomplishment is a great feeling. I think the trap is when people only feel good when they have accomplishments. Here’s why – we can’t control the results or the events in our lives. We influence them. We only control our responses, actions, and thoughts. I think that’s the tough lesson in life. Continuously give your best where you have your best to give, but roll with the punches when life throws the curve balls. I think the other key lesson is set out on your path, but stay flexible. Don’t let goals get in the way of seeing new opportunities.

  11. Hi I love the analogy river people..hmmmm
    Just because of the name I want to be the river though I completely love the feeling that accomplishment brings and the solidness off it.The stones in my river!!! Hee Hee…
    Recently I went through some very rough times and my affirmation was I am a river that keeps flowing…so I guess I am a river person foremost!
    Life is like a river sometimes you swim, sometimes you float along, other times you sit on the sidelines and observe…so onward you go!

  12. @ Diane

    Beautiful way to put it!

    There’s definitely something to be said for accomplishments. I was just thinking today how one of the ways I set my success for the year is to pick a small set of valuable projects … the vital few. I think in terms of what would I be proud to have under my belt.

    Next, I think in terms of who do I want to surround myself with. In other words, who do I want to go on the adventures with. It’s how I pick my team, my mentors, … etc. Between a meaningful path and meaningful people, it creates a lot of opportunities. No matter how much I set myself up for success, I have to stay flexible. Whitewater can spring up anywhere and some of those curves weren’t on the map! Being surrounded by the right people, also helps pick you up when you fall.

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