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Jack Dunigan


Success Secret No. 4: Don’t Set Goals

Without a big picture, all the goals in the world make little difference

Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2018 - 11:01

This is the next secret in our series, “The Secrets to Success You Don’t Know That You Already Know ” at The Practical Leader. Here we’re going to talk about Secret No. 4: Don’t Set Goals.

You’ve probably heard of that famous Yale research study, the one in 1953 that said of the graduating class, only 3 percent wrote down clear goals. Some 20 years later, those 3 percent that wrote down those clear goals had a greater combined net worth than the other 97 percent. The story’s been around for decades; more than a 1,000 articles cite it. Motivational speakers repeat it often, particularly those who are pushing goal setting. So often have they repeated it, that it’s become the mantra how to be successful for the business crowd.

Think of it: The simple task of writing down goals resulted in a career income greater than 97 percent of all Yale graduates that year. There is, however, a problem. It never happened. It did not happen. Even Yale’s library advises that it’s a myth. It’s been passed around, but it never happened.

Figure 1: Goal-setting: myth vs. reality

We’ve been told that setting goals is mandatory to achieve success. But in fact, most successful people don’t set goals first, if they set any at all. That’s because no strategy, no set of plans, no list of carefully thought-out goals ever survives contact with the real world without alteration. Because goals are subject to unforeseen events and the independent will of others. We’d like to think in goal-setting that we would be like the diagram on the left in figure 1. That you have a big idea, you set a goal, someone gives you some money, you build it, and success happens overnight.

However, the truth is far more likely to be like the picture on the right: You start, you get insecure a lot, you work really hard, you get lots of help, you fail a lot, life happens, you wiggle around, up and down, in and out, and then what seems like an overnight success took a lifetime to achieve. That’s because life gets in the way, people get in the way, things get in the way, and circumstances get in the way.

I gave up setting goals years ago because it just simply got in the way. The focus was on short-term thinking, and how to make this happen day by day, when the reality is that some men die of shrapnel, some go down in flames, but most men perish in the little game, in life’s game of inches.

Now I realize it requires some audacity to say that setting goals is a little game, but I think it is. I think we should focus instead on the big picture. Go focus on the vision for your life. Without a big picture, all the goals in the world make little difference. Sure, you get busy. Sure, you get things done. But are you making progress toward what you actually want to see happen through, for, and by your life?

What I recommend you do is determine the effects and changes that your actions and influence should make. This is also called vision. What vision do you have for your life? What is the desirable, attainable future state that is a result of you being alive, of consuming oxygen and food here on Earth, of interacting and interfacing with other people? What’s going to happen over the long haul for you? Then define, refine, articulate, and broadcast those effects, the objectives of what you want to see happen.

Don’t try to build a long-term future on short-term thinking. Don’t let setting goals become the main goal. And never forget that what’s so important now too often turns out to not be very important later on. There is an overwhelming desire in your life to leave an impact as a result of who you are and what you’ve done. That’s what you need to focus on, not the goals.

Don’t set goals. It’s far more effective to focus on objectives and impact, on the qualitative rather than the quantitative facets of success.


About The Author

Jack Dunigan’s picture

Jack Dunigan

For more than four decades, Jack Dunigan has been leading, consulting, training, and writing. His experience is varied and comprehensive. His training and consulting clients are as varied as the Chief Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court to a top-rated campsite management company. But his advice is not merely academic. His blog, www.ThePracticalLeader.com, is focused on practical advice for leaders and managers of businesses, corporations, nonprofit agencies, families, organizations, departments, anywhere and anytime a person leads others. His latest book is Three Absolutely Necessary, Always Present Skills of an Effective, Successful Leader (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012).