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Rethinking goals

posted on February 3, 2020

One of the most popular strategies in personal achievement as well as managerial motivation is to create goals, specifically SMART goals, to encourage certain behaviors and habits. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. This means that your goals should be purely objective without any way to insert subjectivity. Black and white. No gray.



Ever since I learned about SMART strategies, something about them didn’t sit well with me. I thought they would work for occupations with checklists and strict protocols, but they seemed too rigid when it came to innovation and artistic creativity. I wondered if there was another way.



Many times, we have a specific thing in mind that we want. However, many times our desires can be ambiguous and vague. How many of you reading this right now have followed your 5 year plan perfectly? Or are you doing something completely different than what you thought you would be? Play-doh was initially designed to clean wallpaper. No one expected to create one of the most popular and iconic toys of all time. Joseph Needham was a brilliant British biochemist, but did a 180 degree turn and became the premier authority on the history of Chinese science and technology simply because he was curious. It can be hard to tell where our interests and passions will take us. 



The Western world is obsessed with reductionist science. Break this thing down to its most fundamental, indivisible parts to find out what it is. It has to be quantified. If you can’t measure it, then it doesn’t matter. The problem is, there are whole fields of science that rely on subjective, qualitative data. How do you objectively measure well-being? Or leadership ability? What scale would you use? What are the components of well-being or leadership? How do you quantify a piece of art? These are questions that come from reductionism, but they can have little meaning when it comes to complex dynamical systems such as human beings. 



Research has supported the idea for a long time now that we are very poor at estimating our highest potential in any given task or skill. This makes knowing what is achievable and realistic very difficult. Many of our greatest athletes, artist, thinkers, etc. were thought to have very little potential. Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin were very average in their abilities in their youth. No one predicted that they would become two of the greatest minds to ever grace the earth. Long-term success is especially murky, but even short-term changes can be tough to nail down. We lift weights and expect to get stronger. Sometimes the results are overwhelmingly positive in a short amount of time. Other times, we are disappointed with the pitiful outcome after a training block. If we don’t achieve our goal, are we worth less? How tempting is it to judge ourselves based on the outcomes we are chasing? But if our goals don’t align with what is possible, we are constantly falling short of our/other’s expectations. 



It’s good to have a direction that you want to go. I think it’s paramount. That doesn’t mean you have to scrutinize every detail along the journey. Instead of being obsessed with outcomes, I propose that we focus on the system. What are you doing to advance in the direction you desire? How can our process be refined? Focus less on the “what”, and more on the “why” and “how”. This allows for recalibration when new information arises, and keeps you grounded when things don’t go your way. It also encourages you to enjoy what you’re doing. Have you ever set SMART goals when you went out for a dip in the ocean? Or when you went on a stroll with a loved one? I would guess not. You were more focused on enjoying the experience. Goals wouldn’t seem appropriate because they would steal from the moment. We can do the same thing in many other aspects of our lives. Focus on process enjoyment and refinement. If you can do that, the outcomes will take care of themselves. 


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