Setting Goals and Expectations

Two interesting pieces have passed through my reader today that I wanted to share. Both have a common theme: how our happiness is being ruined by our expectations.

First up, the inimitable David Brain posts an excellent talk from TED by Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. Barry talks about how the sheer volume and breadth of choices available to us have only served to heighten our expectations to an unreasonable level – to the point where it is almost impossible to be delighted any more. The best you can hope for is for your expectations to be reached.

Which is a sad state of affairs to be in.

Please take some time to watch this excellent talk. As David points out, they are horrendous shorts. Which is ironic, considering he uses the example of jeans to prove his point.

Secondly, as I was waiting for my pizza, I read a great piece on Illuminated Mind from Jonathon Nasman about the perils of setting goals.

“While goals seem nice and pretty on the outside, not so nice on the inside. You think they’ll help you. After all, isn’t the point of having goals to help you create a better life?

But exactly the opposite happens. They end up owning you.

You measure how much you’ve done to meet your goals. You usually shoot for the moon. You aim high when you set your goals and that’s a good thing right? The problem is you usually fall short. Then you punish yourself for not achieving everything you wanted to. Your mind thinks “if you don’t achieve this, if you don’t live up to this image of perfection, you’re not allowed to be happy.”

Now, I am a firm believer in setting goals, in benchmarking in measuring improvement towards a clear goal. But Jonathon does make an important point as well as revealing an interesting paradox.

Every year, I sit down with my bosses and we agree on my goals and objectives. However, we both play a strange game, constrained by some interesting rules. The goal of the game, is to make sure my career is progressing at the right pace. Therefore, to show that progression to the powers that be, we’re not setting my real goals. We’re setting SMART goals: emphasis on the “A” (achievable).

Because my “real” goals are too outlandish to write down and be taken seriously. Plus, in such a large corporate environment, missing your goals by too much can be a death knell for your career. And I like it here.

So should we really do away with our personal goals? As always, the answer is “it depends”. Sometime, goals work for you – the act of just writing them down means that you are (extra) motivated to do what it takes. Sometimes, goals will have a negative effect – failing to achieve your goals leads to great bouts of introspection and depression.

My personal view of goals is that you should set them as high as possible. As high as you can imagine. But you should set them with the realisation if you reach for the stars, even if you miss, you’ll still get pretty high.

Jonathon and Barry seem to think we should realign our goals, to settle for less. The thing is, I’m just not ready to settle for less right now. Are you?

3 Responses to Setting Goals and Expectations

  1. Love the post. I’ve recently produced a lengthy personal document of my plans for the new year.

    I went pretty detailed with it, including pretty much everything I could think of. Money, happiness, success etc.

    I really hope I can make myself stick to it.

    What sort of goals do you set? Are they qualitative or quantitative?

  2. […] few days ago, I read Ed Lee’s post about Setting Goals and Expectations. He links to this video of Barry Schwartz speaking at TED about the Paradox of Choice. Considering […]

  3. Rich Orlesky says:

    Very interesting perspective.
    Having come through the ‘positive thinking’ era of the last couple of decades, and with the new ‘intentionality’ thinking (a modification of positive thinking) of today, I think we need to take a breath and look at our life.
    Now I mean ‘our’ life and not the life others may think we need to live.
    If we started from, “How can I be true to myself, do what I love and live the life I love” then we might have a different perspective on any importance in ‘shooting for the moon.’
    Who says that achievable is a ‘settle for’? Someone wanting to sell you a book or enroll you in some motivational (yeah, right!) seminar?
    Sometimes it isn’t about taking rapid steps but taking that step that may lead us into our shadow side, where maybe we have hidden our real life in favor of an acceptable one. Just a thought.
    Rich Orlesky

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