As he wrote in "The Snow Leopard", when Peter Matthiessen set off with his friend George Schaller, it is clear that spotting a snow leopard wasn't Matthiessen's ultimate goal. Rather, the goal was the expedition itself and whatever it brought.

There are lots of other examples where a single idea provides a focus or direction for an effort, but that single idea isn't really the ultimate goal.

I've often wondered if there's a word or phrase that captures that succinctly.

For example, imagine someone saying "My goal is to learn semiconductor physics" when instead they really mean is "I'm going to learn about semiconductor physics to see what I discover along the way".

Is there a more appropriate word for "goal" in that first sentence? Perhaps a word or phrase borrowed from some other language?


The word "lark" captures a hint of the idea, but is only appropriate when the undertaking is done purely out of fun or mischief. The word "ambition" is too heavily weighted to the outcome, suggesting that if you don't really attain that goal, then you haven't accomplished what you wanted.

  • A sojourn?
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 5, 2019 at 22:18
  • Enjoyment? "My enjoyment is learning..."
    – Boondoggle
    Jul 6, 2019 at 18:30
  • My rationale.
    – user205876
    Aug 5, 2019 at 5:16

2 Answers 2


See MacGuffin in Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin

The MacGuffin is a plot device that drives the action.

In itself, in the end, it is unimportant.

Otherwise, there’s a variety of stuff on thr internet about the journey being more important than the ultimate goal.

  • Describing the Holy Grail as a MacGuffin feels exactly right: The Holy Grail was the goal, but the journey more important than the goal. Aug 6, 2019 at 14:32

Ostensible is less romantic but would suffice. Meaning can be shown it would be used to imply the goal or object that I am saying but perhaps not intending.

  • Hi Elliot! Yes, one could say "my ostensible goal...", but I'm hoping for a noun to replace "goal" itself. "Escapade" might be closer but it still implies frivolity. Jul 6, 2019 at 3:37

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