I am a goal setter. I set goals at the start of each year, each semester, even every weekend. What do I hope to accomplish? How much? How high? How far? I set goals in my work life, in my personal life, in my musical life, and in my running life. Goals help me stretch; goals help me go beyond where I have gone before. I want to run 250 miles in a month; I want to have a 50% response rate to an interest inventory; I want to reduce my email inbox to zero by Friday. Goals help me focus; goals help me envision success.
In a previous entry, I wrote about internal obstacles [link here]. Now, I’d like to focus on a particularly insidious internal obstacle–goals! It is insidious because one purpose of goals is to help us exceed our current limits. However, in some cases goals actually become the limits—self-imposed limits. Here are two examples, one personal and one professional.
A number of years ago some people in my town conducted a children’s book drive with the goal of collecting 500 books to be distributed to needy families in town. They ended up collecting a bit more than 500 books and were satisfied having met their goal. The next year I joined the effort because I wanted help extend the distribution of books to more of the economically challenged school districts in neighboring towns. During our first meeting we discussed what the goal should be. The original set of organizers suggested 600, which would be an impressive 20% increase in donations. I was a bit naïve and overly enthusiastic and suggested that we could collect several thousand. The coordinators asked how we could do that and I shared a variety of ideas, including getting donations from publishers.The challenge was energizing and we ended up collecting more than 5000 books—a 1000% increase. We had almost limited ourselves by setting a reasonable goal.
When I worked at Pace University (NYC) we created the Comprehensive Freshman Advising Program, which included having full-time faculty teach the semester-long UNV101 orientation course. The problem was that the year before the program kicked off, full-time faculty had taught only 4 of the 50 sections of UNV101. So, even though a faculty group had redeveloped the course and the sections were designed to have fewer students (expanding the number of sections to 68), we were still facing a daunting task recruiting faculty to teach a course most basically refused to teach. My staff came to me with a plan. The goal for the first year would be to recruit 15 faculty and expand that number to 25-30 in the second year
“How many sections do we need to staff?” I asked rhetorically. “68,” came the answer. “Then we will recruit 68 faculty,” I replied. I recall the looks on their faces going from shock and fear, to disbelief, to awe (as they absorbed the enormity of the challenge), and finally to hardened resolve. They were “in.” They knew I believed in them. They ended up recruiting 48 faculty to teach those
sections and yes they didn’t reach the goal of 68, but if they had established 15 as their goal, that’s precisely what they would have recruited—15 faculty. They would have been pleased to have almost quadrupled the number of faculty teaching this course. They never would have recognized that setting a faux ambitious goal could have contributed to the possible failure of the overall program.
How often do we undermine ourselves by setting reasonable goals? The problem is that we may never see that they were reasonable because we will attain them and never think about going beyond them or that we may have sold ourselves or our staff short. The goals themselves are the limits that stop us from succeeding even more. Basically, setting goals that you know you can accomplish can defeat the purpose of setting goals. Instead, I encourage you to consider the notion of Unreasonable Goals.
What are Unreasonable Goals? They are goals that scare you at least a little, that you resist saying out loud, but also set you on fire, light you up, or generate energy and inspiration just by saying them out loud. They will require you and your staff to go “all in;” you can’t reach unreasonable goals with ordinary efforts and actions.
Set Unreasonable Goals, not Impossible Goals – Setting goals that require 100% of your time and energy over a period of time are not unreasonable; they will serve to actually undermine what you are attempting to accomplish. For example, it is an unreasonable goal to become conversant in a different language in a year; it is impossible to do that in a month (unless that was all you did). Another way to say this is that there are no unreasonable goals, only unreasonable time frames.
Having Only S.M.A.R.T. Goals Isn’t Smart – Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Specific are reasonable goals. They have their place, but they should not be the only goals you set.
Finally, don’t pay attention to the goal setting websites and advisors that warn you to avoid unreasonable goals. They argue that striving for such goals can be paralyzing and lead to feelings of failure and how to save money on car repairs depression if they aren’t reached. However, setting only reasonable goals is settling for what is already in reach, rather than reaching for accomplishment that can result in incredible experiences of fulfillment.
I would love for you to share some of your Unreasonable Goals.