Goal setting is a powerful tool for achievement, but it isn’t the ultimate solution.
Some situations are perfectly suited for goal setting. Typically, these are times when there is a clearly defined vision of success, and when the path towards achieving that vision is relatively straightforward.
For example, academic goals for high school students make a lot of sense. If the ultimate vision is getting into a top college, it’s obvious that GPA will play a key role in that equation. And if you want a high GPA, the path is straightforward. Get good grades in every class and (if your school allows it) use AP/advanced classes to boost your GPA. Simple. So it makes perfect sense to set a goal each semester to get a certain grade in each class. If you reach that goal, you know you’re well on your way towards reaching your long-term aspiration of having a high GPA.
Sports also provide a great opportunity to effectively use goals to your advantage, both personally and within the team. Personally, you should think about what you want going into the season. Maybe your main goal is making the team. Then the path forward is clear. Put in the time during the off-season to work on the things you can control. The goal is to be so good by the time try-outs come around, that your coach can’t help but keep you.
This also works well for other personal goals (such as being a captain) or team goals. If you want your team to win the league championship, it all starts with you putting in the work in the off-season to make the best contribution you can. And then once the season starts, the focus shifts to how you can make the biggest impact to help your team reach its goals.
So regardless the exact situation, school (at any level) and sports offer great opportunities to effectively utilize goal-setting to improve your performance.
However, not everything in life is as straightforward as these two situations. And thus, goal-setting isn’t always the answer.
In general, goals are not the complete solution in overly complex, or uncertain situations. In these scenarios, it’s best to turn to what Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) calls systems instead of (or in addition to) using goals.
I’ll use my professional career as an example.
When I graduated from college with a BS in Mechanical Engineering and a Minor in Business, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew so little about all of the options out there, that I couldn’t possibly make an informed decision.
So I designed a system for myself with two key principles.
- In times of uncertainty, I would do whatever would best keep my options open in the future
- I would use every new experience as an opportunity to learn, and further refine my vision for the future
At the time of graduation, I had to decide between taking a job as an engineer, or in a business role. I thought that I ultimately wanted to work on the business side, but I chose instead to take my first job as an engineer at Boeing.
Why? It all comes down to Principle #1 above. I was uncertain what I wanted to do, so I chose the option that kept my future options open. Down the road, it’s difficult to jump from a business role to engineering. The further you get from college, the more outdated the tools and processes you learned become, and the more you forget about doing true engineering work.
However, there are plenty of opportunities to jump in the other direction. Spending time as an engineer helps to further your understanding of the field, and can teach skills that are applicable in just about any sense of business.
So it was clear to me that starting as an engineer was the better path.
Once I started my engineering job, I almost instantly knew that it wasn’t my long term career path. Yet I still enjoyed every day. I spent a year and a half working with great people, learning how to navigate an office environment, understanding how manufacturing and production works, and learning how to solve difficult problems – all while working on one of the coolest products in the world.
All in all, time very well spent.
But when the time came, I was ready to jump to a new role – one that I didn’t even know existed until just a few months before I interviewed for the position. And from all signs so far, it seems to be the perfect mix of engineering and business that I was looking for.
Honestly, I still don’t know what the long term looks like though. So, as stated in Principle #2, I use every day and every experience as a learning opportunity to help me understand what my future might look like.
I still don’t have any true career goals, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Because looking back at my decision coming out of college, it would have been foolish for me to try to set a goal for myself. What path would I have used for my goal setting – engineering or business? And how would I have any idea what I wanted to do?
Before I spent some time working as an engineer, there was no way for me to know whether I would like it. And to add an even higher level of complexity, who knows what the world will look like in 20 years, or even 5? No one knows what the next smartphone will be, and how that will impact your career path. Anybody whose role is dependent on the incredible technological revolution we’ve had over the past 40 or so years would have been ill-advised to plan out their career at any step of the way, and technology doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
So ultimately, goal-setting is a great technique, and it’s powerful when used in the right context.
But sometimes, goals alone aren’t enough. You need systems.
Note: Even in these complex situations, I’m not saying that goal-setting doesn’t have it’s value. On a small scale, I still think about why I’m taking certain actions, and what I want the outcome to be. I just don’t set long-term or big-picture goals around the complex or uncertain areas in my life.