Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work

If you’ve ever read a self help/personal development book I’m sure you’re familiar with the trite idea that people who set goals are more successful than those who do not.  You’re probably sick of hearing about it. I am not going to tell you to get your planner out and start writing down a bunch of goals to set for the new year.  Millions of people in this very moment are sitting at their kitchen table and listing out their goals for 2017. But how many will actually achieve what they put down on paper? It is likely that less than 3% will achieve their goals. In reality the number is probably closer to 1% or a fraction of that one percent.  The key to changing your life is not setting more goals and adding things to your to do list. It is much more simple than that.  It is about setting the context for your life and operating out of it. This process of establishing the context is what the masses fail to do.  However if you look at the most successful people in any industry, this process of creating the context of their life is the distinguishing factor that separates them from the rest. 


What is meant by setting the context? Let’s take a look at two different examples to shed some light on this and show the contrast in approaches.


In the first example, let’s look at Randy. Randy is 45 years old and makes 100,000$ a year working in sales. He is 30lbs overweight and his family life and relationship with his wife is average. They have good days and bad days. Today he sits down at his kitchen table and sets his goals for 2017. He says he wants to make $125,000 this year, lose thirty pounds and be a better husband and parent to his wife and kids. All respectable and very much attainable goals for 2017.  He even goes a step further and creates an action plan for how he can achieve these goals. He lists out various activities that will propel him to the success in each category. He says he will workout 5 times a week, make 5 extra sales calls a day, come home from work 30 minutes early to be with his family, etc. As the days pass by, Randy sees an overall leap in productivity throughout January and very much is acting in accordance with his goals. Then February and March come along and things start to get very busy at work. He starts eating out a lot more and spending less time with his family to meet the demands of his busy work schedule. By April his 2017 goals have gone down the drain. He’s added 5 pounds, his family life has gotten worse and he is struggling to meet his sales objectives.  This is the typical result when people set their new years resolutions and well-intentioned goals.


Rob on the other hand is a 35 year old middle manager at large manufacturing company. He makes 75,000$/year and works an average of 40-50 hours a week. He is not in love with his job, but understands he needs to pay the bills. He ultimately wants to get into coaching college football. Though he sees this as a challenging jump from a comfortable decent paying job to the uncertain terrain of college football, he has made the definite decision that he will do whatever it takes to become a college football coach. He is single and understands that in order to break into coaching, he might have to sacrifice his social life for the time being. Throughout 2016 he has filtered every decision through the context that he will do whatever it takes to break through and become a college football coach. He volunteered and was an assistant varsity football coach for the high school around the corner from his house. He also spent 20 hours on the week training high school players and preparing them for their transition to the college game.  Through this he made several contacts to various college coaches. In 2017, Rob has a discussion with a college coach about becoming a graduate assistant for their program. This would entail him quitting his job and moving 3 hours away to a different city. Just like in past decisions, Rob considers his ultimate destiny and his compelling vision of becoming a college football coach and decides to quit his job and take the leap into the coaching profession.


Compared to Randy, Rob did not set goals in the traditional sense. He did not write out his objectives in some systematic list. Rather he set the context for his life.  He created such a compelling future and subsequently made every decision through that very prism. Every decision in his life was made on the basis of one single question:


Is this taking me closer or further away from my ultimate destiny?


Rob sacrificed his dating life and social life for his compelling future. He quit his well paying job to pursue his dream. He relocated for it. This kind of definiteness of purpose is what setting the context is all about. Most people set goals and then when distractions come up during the day to day hustle and bustle of their everyday life, they forget what their ultimately after and they fall off the path.  Holding the greater context is about keeping one eye on the prize during even the most monotonous times.  Most people don’t fail to reach their goals because they make some fatal mistake or have some huge blunder. Rather they just lose focus during the small and seemingly meaningless minutia that takes place on a daily basis. They take their eye of the ball and after a few days of that, their goal slips right through their hands without them even realizing it. 


Creating a compelling vision and operating out of the context (the bigger picture) rather than the content (the moment to moment) is what separates a truly outstanding person from the pack. During every journey there will be setbacks, annoyances, mistakes and frustrations- that is a given. However someone who operates out of the context plows right through the difficult times because they have the big picture in mind. A person who operates out of the content will almost always quit and give up on their ultimate destiny because they are more concerned with being comfortable in the moment, then attaining their ultimate outcome. So while goal setting is important in the general sense, it is more important to create such a compelling future that you’re pulled to it- you’re so excited that you can’t wait to wake up in the morning.  And then when the difficulties and set backs come- you won’t be tempted to quit or take the easy road- you’ll know exactly what you want and more importantly- you’ll know exactly who you must become.  This leads me to the final part of this equation.


Once you have identified such a compelling future to the point where you’re willing to give up everything you own just to pursue it, the next question you must answer is “who must I become to get to my ultimate destiny?”  This question is not to be answered in an external sense like “I must be wealthy, have a lot of friends, etc”. Rather this question of “who must I become” should be answered in an internal sense.  What kind of person must you evolve into? What internal personality traits and qualities must you exude? What kind of habits must you cultivate? What kind of relationship would you have to have with yourself? And most importantly, what emotional states would you have to live in to reach this place?  People tend to evaluate themselves on external factors like appearance, relationships, connections, resume and background. These are the least important things in the process of attaining your ultimate vision.  If there is one quote to live by during this process of transformation, it is one by David Hawkins:


“We change the world not by what we say or do, but as a consequence of what we have become.” 


Greater knowledge, connections, opportunities aren’t going to do it. Your ‘beingness’ will determine your ultimate destiny. And one’s ‘way of being’ is a direct result of one’s internal relationship with them self, as well as the emotional states they consistently live in. 


Goal setting is all fine and dandy if you are pretty content and satisfied with your current life and just want to make it 5-10% better. But if you want to completely overhaul and absolutely transform yourself into the person you must become, then you must create such a clear and compelling long term vision that you’re pulled to it, so you don’t have to push yourself toward it. Then from here you will automatically be operating out of the context rather than the content.  The next time some little hiccup happens or some annoyance gets in your way- it doesn’t fucking matter. It becomes a trivial and meaningless event because you know you are have bigger and better things to focus your attention on. This level of 100% certainty, commitment and definiteness of purpose is what separates someone who is outstanding from someone who is good. Commitment engenders passion. Not the other way around. Commit yourself to your ultimate destiny and make every decision in your life through that lens and you’ll find a way to get their.  That’s the secret to massive success- operating out of the context, rather than the content. 


The perfect example of this was the former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley who won two national championships, played in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings and is the all time NCAA assist leader.  Here is an excerpt from Adrian Wojnarowski’s book The Miracle of St. Anthony about how Hurley was operating out of the greater context as an eighth grader:


“The balls would stay locked in the steel bin for most of the next hour. They were going to hear about the St. Anthony standard for dedication and determination, the story of squeezing the last drop of potential out of a young man’s body, about how a five-foot-four, 110 pound eight grader who told his teacher and classmates what he wanted to be when the subject of goals came up one day, told them point by point, laid it all out for everyone. And they laughed at him. They laughed when he said he was going to break David Rivers’s assists record at St. Anthony, when he said he was going to earn a big-time basketball scholarship to college and when he said he would someday play point guard for the Boston Celtics.  They laughed him all the way out of school that day, all the way down to the projects, where he want back to work on his game. The St. Anthony Friars were going to hear the legend of Bobby Hurley.  Three quarters of an hour later, they were still sitting mesmerized at mid-court, and the balls hadn’t come out of the bin since the Hillside scrimmage. There was one thing that the coach swore for sure: If Bobby walked into this team as a freshman that moment, he would’ve gone after someone. ‘There would have been a problem here.  Bobby would’ve told somebody, “You’re messing with my dream”.



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