When you're good-looking, smart, hard-working, or lucky, good things just happen to you—or at least that's how it appears. The teenage entrepreneur who becomes a bazillionaire, the first-time author who sells 60 million copies of her novel, the ADD-afflicted kid who started swimming and took home eight Olympic gold medals—everywhere you turn you hear a story of someone who's achieved almost impossible goals, looking smug and untouchable in all their enviable glory. The part you don't hear, however, is about the moment those people made a decision to try to do something, got laughed at and talked about, doubted themselves because of it, but worked their arse off to get there anyway. That's what goal setting is, and that's why if you want to get anywhere you want to go, you've got to do the same thing.
However, the problem with goal-setting for skeptics is presentation. Do any kind of reading about personal productivity and self-improvement, and inevitably you run into That Guy who advocates the "power" of a "personal goal-setting program." You know That Guy—the one in the suit with the big toothy grin and a book to sell you, complete with a life-changing DVD, and a $5,000 workshop in a city near you. Yeah, that guy.
It's because of that guy and his over-the-top promises that the subject of personal goals is one of the most painful topics to broach in this "get better at doing stuff" arena. Unless you're in that $5,000 goal-setting workshop—and you're not, unless you're a CEO pulling down a salary Normals only dream of—feeling like a huge dork for even thinking about writing down one's personal goals is natural. Culturally, it's just not done.
Why "Goal Setting" Makes You Groan
What do you want to do with your life? Where do you see yourself in five years?
Only your mother or a job interviewer is going to ask you these questions, which is why hearing them makes you want to run and hide, or at least roll your eyes. Life goals are like religious views, salary, age, and weight—highly personal, rarely discussed, and for the ambitious and pie-in-the-sky among us, even embarrassing. But the fact that no one talks about goals means that you probably don't have any top of mind, written down, and stuck to your computer monitor. That, plus a few other convincing reasons keep skeptics from writing down goals.
First, there's the paradox of choice. In a media-saturated world where you see and hear about so many people doing so much interesting stuff day in and day out, it's even more difficult to settle down on one pursuit than it was 10 to 20 years ago, when people simply didn't have as many options. With so many things out there you could do, so much greener grass over the fence taunting you, it feels almost impossible to commit. Choosing one thing really means you're not choosing a million others, and for those of us with trouble in the commitment department, that can keep us being goal gigolos well into adulthood.
Then there's the ever-pleasant fear of failure. Everyone hates the feeling of falling flat on your face, and the glass-half-empty types will tell you that setting a goal is setting yourself up to do just that. Not reaching a goal doesn't only suck because other people see you fall short; you're also risking your own sense of self. You can do anything if you put your mind to it, so the saying goes. Following that line of thinking, trying your best and failing means you're broken, weak, dumb, or hopeless. When you're standing at the bottom of the mountain, climbing hooks in hand, looking up at that sheer wall, those kind of risks are potent. When the negative voices take you back to the humiliation of that time you peed your pants in front of everyone in kindergarten, it's easy to get convinced that the success isn't worth the risk of that possibility.
Finally, there's our old friend procrastination. Why do today what you can do tomorrow? Because there will always be a tomorrow! Except there won't, necessarily. Hand in hand with procrastination, over-estimating of how much time we have to make life decisions comes from a delusion of immortality. What's the rush? you think. I'm young! I've got my whole life to decide. I can do that tomorrow. Right after this episode of Mad Men. The sucky truth is that in between the cradle and grave, we've only got so many days on this planet, and dealing that reality means facing your mortality. I admit, it's not the most fun way to spend an afternoon.
Now that all this has darkened your day, there's some good news.
For the next week or so, we're going to take a look at personal goal setting from a non-toothy-grinned, suit-wearing self-improvement guru perspective. I'm a skeptic about "life-changing" goals programs, but I also really need goals, or else I'd spend most days chasing my tail. Keep an eye out for the next installment in this fly-by-the-seat of my goal-setting pants series, where we'll discuss what the point of goals are anyway in the face of all these cringe-worthy reasons not to think about them at all.
In the meantime, do tell: what is it about goal-setting that makes you cringe (or not)? Do you have goals? Actually written down? You highly evolved being, you! Do tell us about it in the comments.