Setting Goals and Realizing them is Critical to Success – Maybe

Sometimes the worst thing about having a goal is attaining it.

We live in a goal-oriented society. All of us – individuals and organizations – are expected to delineate, plan and commit to achieve certain specific, end-point goals. And if we don’t have these detailed goals or can’t explain what they are, it must be because we are a laggard at best, a shirker at worst. Not only that, but we are expected to advertise our goals like they were plastered on a sandwich board as we hawk our plans down Main Street.

The problem with all this frou-frou is that sometimes the worst thing about having a goal is attaining it.

Don’t get me wrong, specific objectives are important; they cause us to focus our vision and effort on a specific path to reach a predetermined goal. But as helpful as goals can be to identify what we want to accomplish, they can also inhibit our ability to achieve our true potential which is likely to be much greater.

This happens all the time when goals are viewed like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: When we find it, there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the spoils of success. In other words, all too often we mistakenly believe that achieving goals is the end of the effort, when goals  should be treated only as signposts on a long road that ends only when the future ends. In fact, the only goal that should be so finite is the goal to stay alive till we die.

The Ghost of Goals We Relied On

All too often we witness an individual or organization marshal their ideas, plan  their plans and work diligently to achieve the goal of success as they define it. Then, when the goal is reached and success achieved, they give it all back.  I call this the “agony of success.” What most don’t realize (especially those who have not been successful) is that as difficult as success is to achieve, it is even more difficult to maintain. Once a goal has been achieved, there is a natural inclination to ease up the throttle and become complacent. If you need any evidence of this phenomenon, just compare a list of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies of today with the same list 10, 15 or 25 years ago. This list is in a constant state of flux and new companies edge out old ones that have lost their way.

And it’s easy to identify individuals or companies who have lost their way. They are the ones that have set and attained specific goals for success, but then let up and lose it by falling prey to that aforementioned “agony.” They find that they are too busy with success to take the time to do the important little things they took the time to do in the past. They become smugly satisfied with what worked to achieve yesterday’s goals, rather than trying to find new things that will work tomorrow. They become more interested in process and procedure, than in performance. They begin to define success by what they have done, rather than what they could do.

Avoiding the Agony

The only way to avoid the “agony of success” is to set goals that are clear and understandable, but not actually attainable. Specific objectives should be set to measure explicit progress toward a goal, but the goal itself should always be illusive and just out of reach,  forcing you to always strive for more and to never be satisfied.

One example of just such a goal that would provide a target to aim for and, at the same time, inoculate against the “agony of success,” would be:

                     Always make history.

That means being focused on always doing something new, discovering a better way to do things, finding new challenges and never being satisfied with the history that you have already made. It is important to understand that if you are not making history, you are history. So having a goal of always making history imbues one with the understanding that continued success is not based on what you have done in the past, but what you will do in the future. The fact is, if your goal is to always “make history,” you will continue to win because you will never be content with what has been won.

Another example of a goal that is not specific or attainable, but which clearly offers an aiming-point for success is:

                       Always try to get better.

If you are constantly focused on the goal of “getting better” at everything you do, you will always be moving forward toward success. But because you have not limited yourself with a predetermined definition of success, the goal will always be in front of you; challenging you to do more and be better. If your goal is to always get better, no matter how successful you become, you will never fall prey to the “agony of success,” because success will be defined by how good you can be, not how good you have been.

Another big advantage that comes from having goals that can never be specifically quantified, copied or attained is that you are able to write your own rules and define your own success, rather than being influenced or controlled by the attitudes, expectations and actions of others. The most obvious example of this is the dreaded “peer group pressure.” Individuals and companies shackled to the traditional concept of setting specific, end-game goals become obsessed comparing their performance with those of peers in their group. Peer group comparison becomes an artificial – and often misleading – way to determine if their goals will lead to success, because it is a success defined by what others are doing. As if that were really important.

For those with goals such as “always making history” or “always getting better,” there is significant peer pressure, except the pressure comes from your own performance and your definition of success. Fact is, if you are always making history and always getting better at what you do and how you perform, there will never be a need to compare yourself with others. In reality, you will become the “peer pressure” for others who will never be able to keep up, because they are mired in the limitations of specific goals. With the right type of goals, you will win, not by being on a par with the competition, but by being the competition. And you will never fall prey to the complacency that can trigger the “agony of success.”

And the Moral of the Story …

It is great to have goals, but it is never good to have goals that are just goals. If a goal becomes the end, rather than a successful path to the end, it can inhibit, even limit the potential for true, lasting success. The most effective goal is one that you can explain and understand, but is never finite and constantly challenges you to do more. This allows you to measure yourself and your success based on the ultimate potential of your commitment and talent. When you do that, there is no limit to your success, because you have not put a limit on your success.


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