‘You cannot be serious!’: What happens when we reach our goals

By Jim Bright

Perhaps the scariest thing that can happen to a person is to achieve a goal. Dumby in Wilde’s 1892 Lady Windermere’s Fan tells a love-lorn Lord Darlington “there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”. George Bernard Shaw paraphrased the line 11 years later in his Man and Superman.

It is probably true to say all of us want to be taken seriously. Even the very successful comedian Bob Monkhouse once observed “when I said I wanted to be a comedian, they laughed. They are not laughing now.”

Stan Laurel (left) and Oliver Hardy: most comedy would not be funny without a serious element.
Stan Laurel (left) and Oliver Hardy: most comedy would not be funny without a serious element.

In fact, most comedy and most comedians would not be funny if there was not a serious element in the mix. Classical comedy of the Greek or Shakespearean variety invariably is based upon the comic character’s serious intent and their lack of awareness of their folly. This is why Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau worked, whereas Steve Martin’s attempt was too winkingly self-aware.

The relationship between the serious and the comic is one many of us play with in our relationships with others, with reality and with of course our careers. We can hide behind the comic. Of course that immediately brings to mind images of lurking behind a copy of the Beano or Viz comics, or perhaps hiding behind rotund comedians such as Oliver Hardy or John Belushi.

The comic provides a deflection and, as Freud argues, a move from meaning to meaningless, while paradoxically moving us from bewilderment to enlightenment. When we “joke around”, others can find it frustrating, not only because we seemingly fail to respect the seriousness of the matter in hand, but also because we repeatedly walk them down the garden path.

The joker risks the irate judgement of John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious!”

We want to be taken seriously, but hold great fears that we might be. To be taken seriously is to be valued. To be valued is to be invested in. This can take many forms, it may involve the emotional commitment of a relationship or the time and money invested by others in lengthy training based on our perceived potential.

With the exception of general elections, we generally do not promote jokers.


To be taken seriously frequently is associated with expectation of performance as embodied in the saying “it is a job for a grown-up”. To be taken seriously is to be seen as a grown-up. That is scary, because it triggers our self-doubts about our competence and reliability. Fear of failure frequently trumps desire for success, so we defer, desist, deflect, delegate and self-deprecate in an attempt to assuage our fears.

In our careers, too frequently we live between the tragedies of failing to achieve our goals and achieving them. We feel frustration our careers have not reached the heights we desired. For some, this is related to a shaky sense of self-worth, whereas for others it is closer to the truly comic self-delusion of ability or grandeur.

Yet for others, by a mixture of luck, judgement and talent, they end up being taken seriously and achieving their goals. Only then they find out that what they had yearned for and had believed would bring them fulfillment and happiness turns out be not what they bargained for.

Who knows what my legacy will be. Perhaps, like Bob Monkhouse, it will be: Jim Bright, his career was a joke.

Jim Bright, FAPS is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy. Email [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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