Does Setting Goals Actually Help?

I am in the midst of a renovation project – the renovation of one of my early books, Supercoach, from how things looked like to me a decade ago to how they look to me now. Here’s a section from the chapter “The Problem With Goals”…

“Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I’ll give you a stock clerk.”  -J.C. Penney

A client once asked me if he should set big goals and strive to achieve them. By way of response, I shared a quote from Al Smith when he was running for governor of New York during the prohibition era and was asked if he was for or against the legal sale of alcohol:

“If by alcohol you mean that which is the defiler of innocence, the corrupter of chastity, the scourge of disease, the ruination of the mind and the cause of unemployment and broken families, then of course I oppose it with every resource of mind and body.

But if by alcohol you mean that spirit of fellowship; that oil of conversation which adds lilt to the lips and music to the mouth; that liquid warmth which gladdens the soul and cheers the heart; that benefit whose tax revenue has contributed countless millions into public treasuries to educate our children, to care for the blind, and treat our needy elder citizens—then with all the resources of my mind and body I favor it.”

I went on to say that if by ‘setting big goals’ he meant setting himself up for long periods of discontentedly chasing new circumstances in hopes of finally being happy when he achieved them, I was against them. But if by ‘setting big goals’ he meant simply clarifying what he wanted to create so that his innate intelligence could guide him to notice possibilities and take advantage of opportunities that might arise during the process of creation, I was all for it.

One of the most famous studies to support the value of goal setting as an essential part of success is the famous ‘Class of 1953 study at Yale University’ which followed the lives of a graduating class of Yale University over a twenty year period. At the end of that time, the 3% of graduates who had clear, written goals had out earned the other 97% of the class combined. An impressive statistic – if it were actually true.

In researching an earlier project, I discovered that there is no record of the study ever having been done at Yale, Princeton, or any other Ivy League university. Tony Robbins reported he had first heard the story from Zig Ziglar; Zig Ziglar couldn’t remember where he’d first heard it, but he thought it was from… wait for it… Tony Robbins!

Now that’s not to say that either of these people are dishonest, or to say that ‘goals are bad’.  But in a world where there’s nowhere for you to get, the trick to creating what you want is to fully involve yourself in making things happen without investing your self-worth or emotional well-being into their achievement.

I first learned this distinction from my friend and mentor George Pransky, and it helped me to understand this secret at a much deeper level.  In order to share the distinction with you, I’d like you to imagine there are two separate elements involved in creating any result we want to see in the world .  

The first is mental and physical involvement – the extent to which we engage our creative and physical energies into the creation of an outcome.

The second is an emotional investment – the extent to which we put our happiness, self-worth and well-being on the line in pursuit of that outcome.

There are essentially four ways in which these elements can combine in relation to any goal, problem or circumstance you can imagine in the world:

1. Low Investment/Low Involvement

Low investment/Low involvement is when you don’t particularly care (or even know) what happens and you’re doing pretty much nothing to influence the outcome in any way.

Someone who doesn’t care about sports will be unaffected by the outcome of a sporting match.  Someone who has no interest in a relationship, job or world situation not only won’t care how those things are going, they will do little or nothing to attempt to influence how things go in the future.

On the plus side, low investment/low involvement is an extremely low stress and relatively easy way to be; the down side is you miss out on both the fun of creation and the potential impact you could be having in your life and in the world.

2. High Investment/Low Involvement

One of the few fistfights I’ve ever found myself in came when I misguidedly suggested to a British soccer fan that his team’s loss that day to their cross-town rivals didn’t really merit the amount of moral outrage he was expressing in the pub that night.  This is, in fact, the lot of all true fans  – their moods rise and fall with their team’s fortunes, yet apart from cheering loudly and offering up the occasional fervent prayer, there’s nothing they can do to affect the outcome.

This is the high investment/low involvement dilemma – you care too much and do too little.  While in some situations this is necessitated by circumstance (i.e. it’s unlikely your favorite team will ever let you out onto the field to make the game winning play), the lack of action is more often due to learned helplessness and emotional paralysis – it seems as though there’s so much to be done that you wind up feeling overwhelmed and doing nothing.

3. High Investment/High Involvement

Graduates of motivational seminars, social and political activists, and high-flying entrepreneurs and careerists tend to pursue their goals from a high investment/high involvement point of view.  They work long hours, take massive action, do whatever it takes, and then ride the emotional rollercoaster up through the thrill of victory and down into the agony of defeat. One minute they’re on top of the world; the next they’re down in the pits of despair.  

In fact, how well they’re doing often comes down not so much with whether you happen to catch them in an up or a down than with how long they’ve been riding the coaster. For while this can be an effective approach in the short-term, it often leads to the burn-out/drop-out mentality that stops so many people from actually reaching their goals and even generates an actual fear of goal setting.

“Oh, no – I’m not putting myself through that again” the former eco-warrior or bankrupt businessperson will say.  Yet lowering your involvement (i.e. doing less, dropping out, not playing anymore, etc.) will not ultimately resolve your desire for change.  It will simply give you a bit of time to lick your wounds and recover your spirit before throwing yourself back into the arena in the only way you know how.

4. Low Investment/High Involvement

The two best ways I know to lower your level of emotional investment in an outcome are:

1. Get as clear as you can about what is within your control and what is not.

2. Really see that you’ll be OK regardless of what happens and how things turn out – that your ultimate happiness and well-being is not at stake.

Years ago, I decided to see what would happen if I engaged in an act of “happy activism” – that is, I would do anything I could think of to get our local council to put a pedestrian crossing in at the intersection near our house, but I’d completely let myself off the hook for how things turned out, which I recognized lay well outside my control.  While the process wound up taking more than a year, to my surprise the entire project was low-stress, extremely enjoyable, and as it happened resulted in a pedestrian crossing.

And this is the real pay-off of a low investment/high involvement/effortless success approach to goals – you get all the fun of being creatively engaged without any of the stress or pressure of being emotionally invested.  It’s completely sustainable because it’s not dependent on continual emotional refueling to keep you going.  And by letting go of trying to control the uncontrollable (i.e. what other people will do and how things ultimately turn out), you paradoxically increase your influence and the probability of getting what you want.

What’s your experience with setting goals? Do they help you engage more fully in creating what you want or become new obligations you feel you need to live up to and fulfill in order to be truly happy?

With all my love,