15. May, 2018

The Limiting Paradigm of Goal Setting

[Or, what you think is what you get]

 A paper presenting the argument for NOT setting goals

 “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence …

Many highly respected business mentors and renowned coaches ~ including me, once upon a time ~ heavily endorsed setting goals as ‘the’ road to success. The necessity of goal setting seemed irrefutable as they Specifically Measure to Achieve Realistic and Time-bound outcomes (SMART) ~ right?

But what if setting goals per se is a limiting paradigm? What if the practice of goal setting interferes with more often than it contributes to accomplishment? What if those who advocate goals, don’t do it? And, is that OK?

Everyone ‘educated’ in the western world from primary through university is taught goal setting is a prerequisite to success. So what I’m about to argue should make you think again (or you’ll stop reading just about now).

“Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent …

More than half-a-century ago, the unquestionable advantage of setting goals was validated by an unimpeachable source! Harvard-Yale Business School studied a class where only 3% of that graduating year had set defined goals. Twenty years on, the traceable members of the class of ’53 were revisited and, no surprise, the net worth of those who had set defined goals was greater than the combined net worth of the other 97% ~ which tends to grab the attention of those who want to succeed.

Since 1973, hundreds of books, articles, corporate trainers and not a few accredited motivational speakers latched-on to the critical value of goal setting citing the Harvard-Yale experience. Yet, this study is pure fiction!? It never happened! Yale’s own library denies the story!

“So… you may ask … what does it really matter if this study has no authenticity? Everyone knows successful people set goals, don’t they?”

“Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb …

In his 2003 book, Vicarious Learning, Undersampling of Failure and the Myths of Management, Jerker Denrell reveals that success literature never investigates those who failed to succeed. And that successful people demonstrate the twin-characteristics of ‘single-mindedness and a total commitment to goals’.

This raises the question implied in Denrell’s book if single-mindedness and a total commitment to goals is the key to success, why do 80% of new business start-ups fail within the first 18-months (source Bloomberg) and, 80% of the remainder fail within the following 2-5 years? This means 96-out-of-every-100 doesn’t make it!

There are several classic failings that contribute to any business that collapses but did those eager new entrepreneurs lack single-mindedness? Did they not set SMART goals?

“Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts …

OK, if the principle of setting goals per se is at least debatable, is there any real harm done by setting goals anyway and, if so, what is it?

It is this: They are measurable. They are achievable. They are realistic. This means they don’t look beyond the horizon of existing paradigms. All too often goals are set within the limitations of an individual or the organisation. Therefore, goal setting must limit possibility-thinking! Albert Einstein [1879-1955] famously said, “Imagination is everything!” and I firmly believe Einstein was alluding to the higher paradigm of success, ‘dreaming’.

For example ~ picture a runner who wants to improve his 3-hour 30-minute best marathon time. He sets a specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and time-bound goal. Mathematically, he calculates he will break his personal best by 1-minute, so he focuses on his goal of 3:29. He demonstrates single-mindedness and total commitment to his goal by running in the early hours of every morning. He follows one of the numerous recommended diets for long distance runners. Weather permitting, and barring injury, he determines that an average speed of 7 minutes 57.6 seconds per mile will achieve his goal over 26.371875 miles and it will if he sticks to it.

Now, imagine another athlete who wants to improve his personal best. He commences every morning by lying in bed, meditation. He dreams of his race. He visualises the best of his competitors. He visualises his strength and stamina training. He visualises the blast of the starting gun. He visualises every straight, curve, hill and descent along the 26.37185-mile course. He visualises his water stations. He visualises his powerful finish. He summons his whole mental and physical being every-day toward securing his dream. Only then does he commence his physical preparation. Can you imagine the outcome for these two athletes?

As you ponder this scenario consider the world’s first sub-4-minute miler, Roger Bannister [1929-2018], who achieved what had never been done before! Bannister’s record lasted only 46-days in 1954 as other athletes imagined ‘possibility thinking’. Yet this little-known junior doctor, without adequate race preparation, was the first to achieve the ‘impossible’ when he collapsed crossing the finishing line in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

As I write this paper, the current IAAF world record miler, Hicham El Guerrouj, knocked more than 16 seconds from that first sub-four-minute mile time. You figure out what the story might have been had Roger Bannister set limiting goals based on existing performance expectation?

“Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent …

You may be thinking that each athlete in the above comparison had set goals as even daily meditation was a goal. Putting one foot in front of the other has an intrinsic goal in-built whether we are conscious of it or not and you’d be right, to a point.

But believing and pursuing the ‘dream’ more fully engages heart, might, mind and spirit to accomplish (see Gestalt below). This is because every paradigm possesses within it the self-fulfilling prophecy of what you think is what you get. When you focus merely on the next goal, rather than remember your dream, whether you attain your goal or not, you will typically feel I could have done better?

 Limiting paradigms are also common in almost every organisation, large and small, which can lead to excuses at best or cheating at worst just for the sake of ticking a goal-box. Think of the 2007 global financial crisis as an extreme example. How many banks, driven by goals, lost sight of their integrity? (See the 2012 film, ‘Margin Call’)

Improving athletic performance, getting fitter, eating healthily, sustaining personal or organisational growth, as with all drive to accomplishment, is never a linear process and more often than not fails when striving to achieve a goal alone. So, let’s agree it is more effective to reach for the dream-paradigm with something the human spirit can feast upon intuitively, and let’s call it ‘passion’.

“The slogan “Press On” … will always solve the problems of the human race.”

Think of it this way ~ when you fall in love with that special someone, just as when you develop a passion in anything, nothing is too much trouble, no distance too far and no obstacle too great to overcome. You do it for love. You keep on keeping on because it makes you who you want to become!

Truly successful people possess huge reservoirs of ‘passion’ that spur them forward by maintaining the ‘dream’, and they almost never dream of external reward. They eat, drink and sleep their dream! They wake up thinking about their purpose! They put every thought and action into doing something meaningful during most of their waking hours. They strive continually to become the best they can be at what they do! They perceive setbacks as necessary steps forward. They look at what they can do every single day to make a difference and, over time, it adds up line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept, here a little, there a little. As Earl Nightingale [1921-1989] said, “We become what we think about most of the time”.

How about this? If you improve what you do by as little as 1/100th every day, in just 68-days you will be twice as productive as you were when you started, that’s a 5-fold improvement over a full calendar year. In Japan, they call this, Kaizen.

In conclusion, learn to love what you do and keep the limitations of goal-setting in sharp relief, even if others mock you for being a dreamer. If you don’t love what you do, find something you love to do! Mortality isn’t long enough to remain a slave to a false task-master who holds you to his ideal of your potential. This is especially true of your own self-talk!

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” … will always solve the problems of the human race.”  Calvin Coolidge [1872-1933], 30th US President 1923-29


Gestalt psychology ~ maintains that when the human mind (perceptual system) forms a percept or "Gestalt", the whole has a reality of its own, independent of the parts.

Also, see:

Desiderata ~ https://allpoetry.com/Desiderata---Words-for-Life

The Strangest Secret ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9PmuAFsQOM

Always Use Sunscreen ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI