All goals are not made equal: Why you can't have a successful career without setting the right goals.
I recently read The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman where he talks a lot about the negative effects of goal setting. He suggests that goal setting can lead to a destructive and tunnel-visioned lack of perspective, an inability to embrace the inevitable uncertainties of life and that these goals can become adversely attached to a person's identity, leaving them distraught and demoralised when their goals don't eventuate. He cites, among other evidence, the author of destructive goal pursuits who links obsession goal orientation to the tragic deaths that occurred on Mount Everest in 1996 and states that 41% of people in one survey said that achieving their goals failed to make them happier, and 18% said that achieving their goals had destroyed a close relationship. These aren't great statistics in favour of goal setting! So why am I suggesting that goal setting is essential to a successful performance career?!?
"Without goals, you are like a ship without a rudder - heading in no particular direction."
Roy Williams - basketball coach at North Carolina University
In a nut shell: if you don't know where you are going, how can you know which path to take?
Of course, there is also a multitude of positive evidence for goal setting, suggesting that it improves performance as well as linking it to positive psychological changes in anxiety levels, confidence and motivation. But I think the most important factor to recognise is that all goals are not equal, and what Mr Burkeman is referring to is the wrong type of goal setting, which I completely agree is destructive, but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. It is not the goal itself that is significant, but the way it focuses our attention and keeps us growing, pushing boundaries and overcoming obstacles. ‘Correct’ goals lead to commitment and focus, which in turn leads to motivation and dedication - all essential features of a successful career.
So what makes some goals better than others? The following factors have been proven to increase the effectiveness of goals. Incorporating them into your goal setting will make sure your goals deliver.
"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined."
Henry David Thoreau
Research shows that we are more excited and motivated by our goals when they are extremely challenging, without being beyond our limits. Make a list of everything you would love to achieve. Think big, and don't let that nagging voice that says 'you are not good enough, it's impossible!' get in the road. Listen to what your instincts claim is your 'limit', and then give it a little shove over the line. We tend to underestimate what we are capable of!
"The greatest danger is not that your hopes are too high and you fail to reach them, but they are too low, and you do!" Michelangelo
Divide and conquer
When we set goals that are 'thinking big' and on the edge of our capacity, they can quickly start to feel overwhelming. Take your list and weed out anything that you thought you 'should do' or that other people think you should do. Focus only on what brings you true joy. Remember that the best attention of your time intersects between your strengths, and what gives you meaning and pleasure. Then break these goals down into smaller, short-term, goals and focus on each individual unit at a time, without getting bogged down in the enormity of what needs to be done. Consider what is standing in the way of you achieving these goals. This may be an external obstacle, like money, or an internal obstacle, like self-belief. What skills will you need to develop to get there?
"It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”
Clear, specific, detailed, measurable.
Make a plan for how you can overcome these obstacles, and be specific! Goals are most effective when they are clear, specific, detailed and measurable. A goal that is not specific has no direction, and it is the direction that is the essential value of setting goals. Break it down into months, weeks and days. Review your plan for each interval (day, month etc.) just before it starts, so that you always wake up knowing what your short-term goals are. Write each goal down, as this will aid memory and attention as well as cementing your commitment. For example: I will be able to sing the coloratura passage at the end of this aria by next Wednesday. For the sake of this example, let's define ‘able to sing’ as being in tune at least 4 out of 5 times.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Laozi, Chinese philosopher
Process goals vs. outcome goals
The essential factor to creating 'correct', healthy goals, as compared to the destructive kind mentioned previously, is to focus on the path instead of the destination (albeit with a destination in mind of course!) The best way to do this is to use process goals: 'I will sing with my best legato line', rather than outcome goals: 'I will win this competition'. The key to process goals is that they are within our control. Take for example the outcome goal ‘I will win this competition’ - you can’t control the opinions of the judges, or the performances of the other contestants, so you have no control over this goal, and can't 'action' the steps to achieving it. In fact, other outcome goals such as 'I want the audience to like me' can actually hinder our performance by placing all the power for a successful performance in someone else's hands! Outcome goals aren't inherently bad - it is great to have them, and they can be very motivating and inspiring - but if we only focus on these goals we have taken all our attention and placed it on the things we can’t control, leaving no available resources for what we can control... like our process goals. When it comes to performances and day-to-day practice, the research show that it is better to focus on process goals: ‘I will perform with a perfect legato line’ and keep your focus where it belongs - in the present. When we focus on the things that are within our control, our expectations are more realistic, and we become more confident and motivated, and less anxious. Ultimately, we perform better and hence are more successful!
“When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.”
Positive goals vs. negative goals
Positive goals are statements about what you want (e.g. play more in tune), while negative goals are statements about what you don’t want (e.g. play fewer notes out of tune). Get into the habit of stating your goals as statements of what you want, as opposed to what you don’t want. Our brains don't value negativity, so if you say 'I don't want to miss that high note' - you will more than likely miss that high note!
Parkinson’s Law states that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. Set time frames for your goals (and your practice!) and challenge yourself to complete them in this time. If you don’t, you will most likely take all day to complete what could have been done in a few hours, leaving you feeling guilty and short of leisure time!
And don't forget…
When you do achieve one of your goals, or if you decide it is no longer the goal you want, don’t forget to replace it with a new one as, ultimately, it is the process of striving for our goals and progressing towards them that brings true satisfaction in life, not achieving them.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of 'Flow'
Of course, it's one thing to set goals, and another thing to follow them through, right? Keep an eye out for my next post, where I will go through some techniques for ensuring that you stick to your goals.
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