When Goal-Setting Failed

Has our aversion to failure made goal-setting antiquated?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Are you a goal-setter?

If you are like me and you enjoy writing down things that you want to accomplish or ways that you see yourself getting better over time, then this article will push you to evaluate if you are actually getting the best out of your goal-setting.

If you don’t like goals, if even saying the phrase “goal-setting” makes your skin crawl and sucks the creativity out of that place in your soul that thrives on adaptability and unpredictability, then as hard as it might be to believe, this article is the perfect fit for you as well.

Whether we accept it or not, goal-setting has become a staple of the modern professional world and has often infiltrated our personal lives as well. I’m certainly guilty of it. I have goals for my marriage, my health, my spirituality, my work. I have goals of making more goals and goals of sticking to my goals. I am a goal-setter through and through.

In 1979, a group of researchers decided to do a study on Harvard Business School graduating class. The point of the study was to assess if and how goal-setting, in particular writing down goals, led to positive outcomes later in life. This study is often hailed as a catalyst for an entire world of studying and charting out goal-setting.

Today, you can’t be a business leader or organizational expert without having some input or advice on goal-setting. Sure there are agreed upon methods — many of us have heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals or have read about Warren Buffet’s 25 in 5 system. Even many Medium writers have written about goal-setting. But in the midst of so much information about goal-setting, I think that we have become complacent with how we set our goals.

In a culture that values participation and the maintenance of a perfected outward image, goal-setting is in danger of losings its potency as the trademark tool that propels us to accomplish difficult tasks. Instead, goal-setting can easily become the tool that aids our addiction to the small hits of dopamine we experience when we check off results that reflect participation and not true accomplishment.

When I was in college, I would have moments of random inspiration, often late in the night, where I would grab an 11x17 piece of paper and begin scribbling out my dreams, goals, or whatever random topic was most consuming my thoughts at that moment. I’ve always been someone who enjoys looking ahead and setting goals. I enjoy looking towards the future and dreaming about what could come and what experiences could define the next years of life.

In one such moment of inspiration, at 21 years old, I decided to make a 30 before 30 List. This list would include 30 things that I wanted to do before I was 30 years old. Some of them were individualistic, some were communal, some were between my wife and me or were reflective of what I thought were major milestones in life to come. Here are a few things that were on my list

  • Be a better husband than I have been before.
  • Have at least 1 child, hopefully, more.
  • Go to Europe and Backpack with Lindsey.
  • Buy our first car.
  • Write one book every year for the next seven years.
  • Perform a spoken word.
  • Take Lindsey to NYC to see a Broadway show.
  • Read through the bible at least 8 times.
  • Go back to one Summer Olympics.
  • Be able to play the guitar and piano.
  • Learn one new form of dance.
  • Write friends letters on their birthdays.
  • Develop a habit of waking up early.
  • Learn to have one great meal to cook (steak, ribs, burgers?)
  • Have a “usual” at a restaurant.
  • Have a great record collection with all the classics.
  • Give a Ted Talk / be a speaker for a national conference.
  • Mentor a younger couple / be mentored by an awesome older couple.
  • Go see Jimmy Fallon live or Saturday Night Live.
  • Plant and cultivate a garden.
  • Buy a house!

The items in bold are the items we have done so far. As you can see, there are a lot more not in bold than there are in bold. Some things will be evaluated when I get to 30 such as my musical talents. Some things aren’t actual priorities for Lindsey and I now that we are married and we know what our lives actually looks like. But others were just impossibly out of context — what kid writes 7 books in 7 years? That is laughable now.

Now that I am almost 27 years old, I’ve kept these goals and referred back to them from time to time. What strikes me the most about this list is not what I have or haven’t accomplished but at my willingness to set failure-minded goals and to not take myself too seriously if they weren’t accomplished.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

In the book How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg share briefly around this idea of how employees at Google are encouraged to set and track goals. With this in mind, this quote always stood out to me:

If your OKR’s (Objectives and Key Results) are all green, you aren’t setting them high enough. The best OKR’s are aggressive but realistic. Under this strange arithmetic, a score of 70% on a well-constructed OKR is often better than a 100% on a lesser one.

Goal-setting can be an incredible tool that helps us all accomplish some pretty amazing things. Yes, goal-setting can be taken too far (we don’t need a literal goal for everything). But as goal-setting continues to get bigger and bigger, it is almost equally important for us to not be lulled into only setting goals that we already know we can fairly easily accomplish. Even though it feels great to check off in my day planner that I “mowed the grass,” is that really a worthy goal? How hard is it to mow the grass? And yes you could argue against this not be a proper goal, but it’s meant to be hyperbole. Overall, we like being successful, we like accomplishing things and we don’t enjoy failing. Those are pieces of human nature in our society. But if you set 10 goals for this month and you accomplish all 10 goals, did you really push yourself as hard as you could have been pushed? I would say no.

In this way, failure is not a measuring stick against other people but becomes a flashlight that shows you that you still have room to run. We spend so much time trying to avoid failure that we often adapt our goals to become more manageable so that we can feel good about “accomplishing” that which we should have always been accomplishing in the first place. Goal-setting and the focus on hitting all of your supposed goals can become a tool that reinforces this idea that failure is not acceptable. Which is crazy.

If you don’t fail, how do you ever know you are improving? How do you ever learn? How do you grow in humility or understanding that there are multiple ways to solve every problem? I am an advocate for goal-setting, and probably will be for a long time to come. I still think that goals are one of the best ways to do hard things and to make progress towards our ambitions. But our goal-setting plans need to become more familiar with failure. Of the 5 goals you set, you should fail at 1–2 of them. Of the 10 goals you set up for 2019, maybe you don’t hit 3. Missing your goals, if you worked hard and tried your best, isn’t failure. It’s valuable intelligence.

So the next time you go to set goals, don’t set them too small. Stretch yourself and have some failure-minded goals in play with some of your easier ones. Become the best version of yourself that you can become.

Written by

Creative Engineer writing working hypotheses. Husband. Dishwasher. I write what I wish I could have read when I was younger. For more visit jakedaghe.com

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