The Goal Myth: Why Goal-Setting Leads to Failure

Goal setting strategies have become a mainstay in success programs being taught today. Many success trainers propose that you do everything possible to keep your goal in front of you. From pasting a picture of your goal on your bathroom mirror to carrying an 8 ½” by 11” picture around with you all day on your key chain.

Unfortunately, most success seekers who follow these teachings only realize after years of failure and missed opportunities that goal-setting strategies don’t work.

In fact, today’s goal-setting strategies do more to inhibit the advancement of your goal than to promote the realization of it.

Goal setting in the success-training world has become so accepted that very few people have bothered to question its validity. The goal-setting strategists have their facts and figures, and most of the formulas often quote a now familiar study to validate the importance of goals and goal-setting strategies. In this study, the 1953 Yale graduating class was surveyed as to whether or not they had specific goals, and if so, were they written down. A certain percentage said that they had goals, but only three percent of the entire graduating class had goals that were written down somewhere. After twenty years they contacted these graduates and found some amazing results. The percentage who had goals had done decidedly better financially than those who didn’t. But more shocking, the three percent who wrote down their goals were worth more financially than the other 97 percent combined!

There was only one problem with this amazing goal-setting validation study—it never happened! (Fast Company magazine, Dec/Jan 1997) Yale University has no record of any such study being done, and when researchers were asked to validate their source, they could not. They never verified the story as true. It never could be true, because as many success seekers have found out the hard way, goal setting doesn’t work.

Its not so much having a goal that is the problem, but the meaning today’s goal-setting strategists have given to the word “goal”. I don’t think anyone would argue about having a vision of a possible final outcome. You have to have some idea of where you’re going if you want to get somewhere.

One of the problems is that goal-setting strategies do not allow for flexibility.

When Columbus set out to discover new worlds, he didn’t stubbornly decide where he would land his ships. He didn’t define an exact course to a well-defined destination. He went with the flow of the winds and the currents and had a general idea of where he wanted to end up. If he was looking for India, he missed by a few miles! He did, however, make one of the most amazing discoveries of his time! Many successful people will tell you that you don’t always end up where you had planned. You have to be flexible, and many of today’s goal-setting strategies do not allow for flexibility.

Another problem with goal setting is that every time you focus on your goal, as many strategies prescribe today, you come face to face with the fact that you don’t have it.

This inadvertently conjures up all the power of negative thinking. The thoughts you hold in your mind become your reality, for better or for worse. So, if your focus is on failure, it’s not surprising that you are unlikely to achieve your goal.

Additionally, constant focus on a self-centered goal flirts with the danger of it becoming part of your ego.

Until you gain power over your ego, it has power over you. Focusing on what your ego wants, on your goal, creates fear—the fear of not achieving it. Before you know it you start creating excuses that you’ll use when your goal doesn’t materialize in order to protect your ego. And even if you do accomplish your goal, what will naturally continue is the fear. The fear of losing it. Not a very rewarding proposition, is it?

Instead of setting goals, try establishing objectives.

Objectives allow for flexibility, while goals are more rigid. However that is not the greatest difference between setting goals and establishing objectives. The major difference between them is how they’re formulated. The goal setting strategies today teach that when a person sets a goal, he or she should begin by deciding what they want (desire) and then figure out how to get it (thought). The strategy and the resulting goal has its roots in desire and is followed up by a thought process. Using that process, the goals are usually self-centered and egotistical.

Establishing an objective is different. In formulating an objective, the thought comes first, and then you back it up with emotion (desire). It’s exactly the opposite way that people are instructed to formulate their goals. The thoughts by which you establish your objective begin with the good you can bring to other people, the world, or the marketplace. You can set a goal to start a business to become rich, and you’ll probably fail (nine out of ten do), or you can start a business to help people by delivering the best (product) to the marketplace, and as a result, have a much better chance of becoming wealthy. In this way your objectives are no longer self-centered. They are other-centered.

With other-center objectives, the ego no longer has reign over your success.

It may seem like a fine point, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Goal-setting strategies don’t work because they are rigid and self-centered.

Establishing objectives allow for flexibility and, more importantly, the focus is on helping others. If you have an end result that helps people, in the end you will be helped.

So stop setting goals!

The next time you set out on a new endeavor, establish an objective with the benefit to others as your guide. Accept new opportunities and challenges with an open mind. You may not end up exactly where you had planned, but you will end up enjoying true success!

ACTION STEP: Redefine your goals into objectives.  List them below.  I’d love to hear them!






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3 thoughts on “The Goal Myth: Why Goal-Setting Leads to Failure

  1. Great article! Thank you so much, Vincent; now I feel vindicated, even if it’s no excuse to gloat! For years I’ve been made to feel that I’m an “uncoachable student” heading towards definite failure in life (and not only professionally) because I’ve always had this inexplicable but stubborn resistance towards setting goals…and especially writing them down. While my reasons for doing so have been nowhere near as clear and succinct as you’ve put them down in your article, I’ve somehow always felt that folks make more out of goal-setting than they need to, and now here is somebody who is giving voice to my sentiments. Surprised to learn that that much-trumped Yale study never happened (guess I could’ve found that out before now if I’d had the smarts to research it; shame on me!) but anyhow, here’s to smart, outside-the-box thinkers like you who help renegades like me realize we’re not so bad after all. Stay blessed!

    • In its purest form I agree with you about goal-setting, however it is impossible to find it taught that way almost anywhere. Well meaning trainers added what seemed to be logical strategies to goal-setting and in the process, made it a system for failure instead of the successful tool it originally was – Vinny

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