When goal setting goes wrong

I love goals.  This is probably because I have an unhealthy craving for external validation, and reaching a goal is something that gets you pats on the back from other people.

 

There’s an entire cottage industry on how to set and achieve goals, and they say things like, “Goals should be SMART: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, whatever the R means because I can’t remember right now, and Timed.”

 

And it actually does work.  It even works for fuzzy things like wanting a better relationship with your kid, because it forces you to think about what that would look like – spending half an hour reading to your kid before bed? Eating meals as a family several times a week?  It also gives you things to do – and so much of accomplishment in life is simply about doing things instead of thinking about them.

 

But I don’t think that goal-setting is always helpful or always gets you where you want to go.  Take a look at me: I’d been trying to figure out what the next part of my career was going to look like for years.  And it was an unexpected lunch with an acquaintance’s friend that brought me my new gig, the one that’s perfect for me.  “Have serendipitous conversation with new mentor at a moment when I’m open to anything” isn’t quite how you set goals, but it’s very often how you get what you want out of life.

 

It is always instructive to me that the people who make “become a black belt” as their goal often don’t make it.  They lose interest, other activities interfere, they go off and do something else instead.  Or they achieve their black belt and never come back to class.  Maybe they’ve gotten their black belt, but I would argue that they’re not martial artists. 

 

I’ve had a lot of years to ponder this conundrum, and what I’ve figured out is that you have to care about the martial arts, not the belt.  Certainly having goals along the way is helpful: setting goals about coming to class X number of times per week, or practicing your new form Y number of times per day, or attending Z number of tournaments this year – all of those can help you become a better martial artist.  But if they’re only in service of getting your black belt, you’re doing the right things for the wrong reason.  Your reason for training (it seems to me) should be to become the best martial artist you can be.

 

There’s a connection to writing and publishing here.  People who set getting published as the goal of their writing very often don’t succeed.  The competition is fierce, and it gets discouraging, and there are other more rewarding things to be doing with your time.  Or these people do succeed in getting published, but lose interest when they don’t immediately get what they think goes along with being published – fame, glory, large royalty checks.

 

Love the writing, and do the writing because you love it. Maybe the rest will follow and maybe the rest won’t, but do the right thing for the right reason, is what I’m saying.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

3 Comments



  1. Great article! I see it often that students earn their black belt and then never return. I encourage the black belts at the studio to come back and share their experiences, by assisting and teaching.

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