Happy New Year! For years I would take heed of the 1953 Yale study, which all the thought leaders referred to, about the power of setting goals. You may have heard of it … where the 1953 graduating class of Yale were asked who had set clear written goals for their future, and only 3% had written their goals down. Two decades later all the graduates were tracked down, and that 3% had amassed more wealth than the 97% combined.
I used to use that study as a spur to set clear business goals each 1st January … and then beat myself up throughout the year when my goals were not met. I used to be the poster girl for goal setting – who personally failed miserably each year with the goals I set.
The problem is that the study never happened. It was one of those great teaching stories that get passed down from speaker to speaker – much in the same way the starfish on the beach story, the beaker filled with rocks and sand, and the no “I” in team – gets passed down.
In other words, it is a parable – not a history lesson or scientifically proven fact. Sometimes parables are effective – and other times they are simply urban myths that gain traction in the same way that warnings about people being able to know who has looked at your profile on Facebook get traction.
Why Are Goals Bad?
Over the holidays I was reading The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, (great book by the way), and the writers went into depth on how the Yale study was discovered to be a myth. They also looked at a lot of other interesting research on goals – what does work and what doesn’t work.
And this is where your get out of jail free card comes in … Steve Shapiro did another study – and showed that the more goals you set, the more stressed you feel (even if you are setting a goal to reduce stress).
Ordonez in her 2009 study found that people who were given specific targets to reach, lied more frequently to reach their targets than were those instructed to “to their best”. Goals and targets can (and will) be gamed.
The Butterfly Effect
The book also talked about a Formula One pit crew who were told they would no longer be assessed on their speed – instead they would be rated on their smoothness. Guess what happened? They wound up performing faster.
Why? Because you can never just change one thing in isolation. Everything is intertwined. If you try and change one thing, then other things are impacted. Life is an organic system – not a machine.
We have all heard of the stories of people who set their targets to be a millionaire at 35 – they achieve it, but are divorced … with the kids not talking to them … and they have bad health.
By focussing only on one thing, other things by default are ignored or let slide. You could of course argue that people are simply setting the wrong sorts of goals, or measuring the wrong things.
I have some sympathy for that thinking, but also know that sticking too doggedly to goals, (even the right ones), often means you ignore some of the juiciest, most exciting and interesting experiences in life. You don’t allow space for miracles. It is sort of like driving the most direct route between Sydney and Brisbane without stopping. You quickly get to your destination, but you miss all the interesting people, towns and experiences along the way.
But Why Are We Tempted To Set Goals Anyway?
The main reason people set goals is the fear of uncertainty. Humans hate being uncertain. We hate not knowing – if we are unsure we crawl over broken glass to find some skerrick of certainty; some measure of control; some measure of knowing.
A New Year raises all our fears. We are unsure about what is ahead – so we set some goals or resolutions as a way of gaining control. The problem is our future is unknown. We never can plan all the twists and turns our life takes. Erich Fromm said it best. “Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting”.
So What Are The Alternatives To Traditional Goals?
One theorist, Saras Sarasvathy, provides an alternative to goals and talks about “effectuation”. Basically it means rather than setting clear goals and working backwards to figure out how to get there, you look at what you have available and imagine possible new directions from where you are.
She likens it to a home cook who looks in the pantry to work out how to combine foods together to create a meal. You start with what you have and what you know – and don’t wait for all of the perfect ingredients and commercial equipment to create a meal. You take action with what you have … and in the gap of unknowing, sometimes great things happen.
I discovered the same thing when learning internet marketing. You don’t start by writing a book and then trying to work out who will buy it. You start by working out what people are looking for, and comparing it with what you know and are passionate about. In the intersection is where the joy and money is.
So this year, instead of setting business goals – try turning the traditional approach on its head. Find out what you love and are great at. Work out your core values and how you bring these to the world. Become totally clear on your uniqueness – work out what you have, what you know and who you know. And then work out what people are looking for and how you will let them know you can help meet their needs.
The bottom line is to start with wherever you are. Don’t wait for the perfect model, the perfect idea, or the perfect business. Just take one little tiny action … then another little tiny action and see what happens. Adjust your actions based on the feedback you get – but keep taking little tiny actions.
Using this approach, you will allay your uncertainty fears – and potentially create a more effective, interesting and less stressed life.
PS: If you would like to work out what makes you Unique in your business – book a Uniqueness Session with me today!
- Posted by Ingrid Cliff
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