Is your goal ladder leaning against the correct wall?

Do you think goal setting and achieving is a key to success? Let’s look at a few successful goal setters.

Ram had set a goal to buy a Maruti 800 by the next year so that he would not feel different from his neighbours. The next year when he accumulated enough money to buy the car, he found that most of his neighbours had bought SUVs by now. So, buying the Maruti 800 did not help him to match his neighbours.

Anant joined MBA-Finance to get a lucrative investment banking job. When he completed his MBA, he found himself out of a job due to the economic slowdown that led to lay-offs in the financial sector.

Mohinder went to Canada to become rich by working as an engineer. His uncle in Canada convinced him to become a truck driver instead. Later on, Mohinder bought a fleet of trucks and became rich by giving up his engineering profession.

What you will see in all three cases is that goal accomplishment was useless as in the case of Ram and Anant, while not achieving the original goal helped as in the case of Mohinder, whose intent of becoming rich was fulfilled by chasing the goal.

Chetan Prabhu Desai
Chetan Prabhu Desai

Everything in the world is transitory. So even the goal that gives you meaning changes as the circumstances, over which you have no control, change. In most cases, even when you accomplish these goals, your purpose behind these goals—the original needs that triggered these goals—remains unfulfilled. Either you changed or your association of these needs with the external goals changed, rendering their accomplishments useless.

Now let’s look at another issue with the goals – short term vs long term. What will the homeless in Mumbai do if you give them money to find a home? In the case of Chicago street kids, they spent $1000 from the government benefits in buying iPhones rather than looking for accommodation, as reported by a study. Their want of instant pleasure satisfied by having an iPhone superseded their long term need of finding shelter.

Another issue is that the attachment to exact goals in themselves is counterproductive because not reaching them causes disappointment. Focusing on specific goals can lead to a strained, tense life and make you blind to better and more suitable opportunities. Psychologists William D. McIntosh and Leonard L. Martin theorised that people who repeatedly focus on attaining goals are less likely to be happy. Persons linking happiness to goal attainment have been found to have an obsessive focus on meeting the specific goals. This causes continued anxiety and pressure, until goals are reached.

So, what’s the solution?

The following three steps will help you to ensure that your goal ladder is leaning against the right wall.

  1. Use your uniqueness and your unique situation – Your uniqueness as an individual and the unique situation you are facing today make it necessary that your goal is also unique to your situation. It should not be derived because of comparison to other person who is different from you and who is in a different situation.
  2. Detachment from results – Without detachment from results you will risk constant setbacks. What you need is to ensure that you retain focus on intension, but you detach from the exact outcome. Otherwise, closer you reach the deadline, the more anxious you become, thereby losing your mental health.
  3. Monitor what is controllable – The accomplishment of goals depends on your own internal efforts which are primarily in your control, and the external circumstances which are not in your control. The simple way of orienting internally to monitor the controllable is to add the phrase “Am I Doing My Best” as suggested by Marshal Goldsmith. So, instead of “I want to own my own house in five years” you need to change to “Am I doing my best to have my own house in five years”. That way, you monitor your efforts to your goals, and not on the exterior uncontrolled elements.

The other problem with goals is you normally set generic goals based on peer pressure and what society believes you should do rather than based on your own uniqueness. A potential world class tabla player becomes an ordinary doctor, a potential world class painter becomes an ordinary engineer, and so on. Every person has unique potential based on her unique upbringing, her education and experiences of pain and pressure that makes her capable of giving to this world what only she can.

Chetan Prabhu Desai is a world renowed author, speaker and consultant

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