Setting goals

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
 ―     Joseph Campbell

I am a total planning freak. I once caught myself saying to a friend “spontaneity is much better when we plan for it — you know, when you plan to be spontaneous, then you can really let go”. In other words, I take planning to the absurd “next” level.

I remember reading, when I was still a kid, in a teenage magazine, the results of some study showing that people who wrote down their goals, were better off in life. The average income of participants who wrote down their goals was reported to be seven times higher than the average income of those who didn’t.

In addition to the obvious flawed thinking about income as a proxy for the quality of life, it was quite questionable whether the “study” was real. However, it got me started with writing my goals. I became fond of it, and later discovered the larger “thinking with the hand” concept.

After decades of writing goals and (excessive) planning, I came to formulate the following definition: planning is what differentiates a wish from a goal. It is when we get deliberate about a vision of reality that we want to see happen, and we commit to doing something about it.

Setting goals is an activity highly connected with disappointment, one of the key emotions that founders face. It takes a great deal of courage to set goals knowing that one might fail, end up disappointed, and disappoint others. Great disappointments can also get us totally stuck and make us almost unable to allow ourselves to imagine any vision and aim for it.

And courage, for a founder, is not a matter of choice. Choosing to be a founder is choosing courage. However, deploying courage in the right way takes practice and requires skills. Planning is one of those skills.

At work, I often model planning behaviour with my people. After I’ve set few goals with them, I let them set goals by themselves while I watch and give feedback. We use the S.M.A.R.T. paradigm (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-related) that George T. Dora introduced back in the 80’s in relationship to Peter Drucker’s concept of management by objectives.

I am yet to meet a person who won’t try and set their goals exclusively within the perimeter of things they fully control and can actually do themselves. When I tell them that those are not goals, but rather a to-do list, I get the “How can I set a goal on something if I don’t control the outcome?” question.

I compel you to try and imagine a person who can only achieve goals over which they have full control. The picture  fills me with sadness. Setting goals means embracing the uncertainty and committing effort towards a vision over which we don’t have full control. That’s why it is so scary. It is vulnerable. But the alternative — never aiming for something we don’t fully control — is much scarier.

Planning is one of the most fascinating functions of the human brain. We are yet to invent a machine that can go beyond rudimentary planning, and most animals are far behind us in their planning skills. Our ability to aim for complex visions of the future over which we have little control, is what makes us more human. In fact, the capacity to think ahead is considered to have been a prime mover in human evolution. Imagining and committing to actions to reach those visions of the future, is what made us rise from species to a civilization. It’s that fundamental.

I wouldn’t be writing about something so obvious, have I not experienced how easily our courage to set goals and make plans becomes a victim of failures, disappointments and other challenges inherent to startups. And I find that modern startup methodologies, dogmas and mantras (a.k.a. the bullshit) offer much less wisdom then simply reminding ourselves that planning is one of the essential functions of our brains that defines what it means to be a human. Setting a goal makes our actions towards the goal meaningful. And we all want and deserve to live meaningful experiences which is impossible without the courage to set goals.

Inability to set realistic goals leads to hopelessness which is, according to research, a feeling strongly related to suicidality. The ability to set realistic goals is learned at a high cost (of failure, disappointment, etc.), and I have to say that the whole startup ecosystem and the commonly shared beliefs about what it means to be a successful startup are not helping. There is a whole set of pret-à-porter goals that founders (myself included) often just adopt without much thinking. Becoming a unicorn, selling a startup, doing an IPO, having exponential growth are just some of the imperatives for startup self-worth.

Yet the truth is, many successful founders never fit into those pret-à-porter goals. Many make money without ever exiting. Some startups even start as publicly traded companies and have no IPO to look forward to while they grow. And for some, the unicorn status is just one of the milestones on which they actually never focus — they reach it by aiming for something else.

Adequate goals are more like haute couture then like pret-à-porter. They fit perfectly to your start-up, to the reality of its stage, market, capital, and people. More importantly they fit into your own definition of self-accomplishment. A proper goal, when achieved, is rewarding to you — it gives you something you want so hard that it justifies taking the risk of potential disappointment.

Normalizing goal-setting

Try to look at goals as a contract with yourself — a commitment that if those goals materialize, you’ll let yourself be really happy about it.

Now look at your list of goals, and try to answer the following questions:

  • If I reach this goal, will it make me truly happy?
  • Is my goal something I can just do, or does it involve the discomfort of circumstances I don’t fully control but want to see achieved?
  • Even if I don’t know how, and given best imaginable luck, do I believe this goal to be reachable?
  • Am I acting out of fear that someone (myself or someone else) might mistake my goal for a commitment to achieve it?
  • Do I really want this (or is it rather to meet the expectations of someone else or of the collective subconscious)?

If your answer is “no” to any of those questions, rethink your goals.

It’s also very helpful for your focus to look back at your week and look for all the things you spent time on that didn’t contribute to any of your goals. It might lead you to reconsider goals, but more often it will compel you to just learn to say “no” more often to people and commitments that really don’t push you forward.

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