The Power and Skill of Setting Goals

I first remember becoming aware of the meaning behind the word 'goal' when I was in elementary school shortly after having received my mid-semester report card. Everyone in the class took time to look through their grades and decided to either feel pleased with what they had achieved or disappointed. The teacher then handed each of us a sheet of paper that asked questions regarding what our goals were for the end of the year. I remember happily filling out these pieces of paper writing things like get an A in math, a B in German, or run the fastest mile time in PE class. Writing these "goals" down made me feel better about the grades I had just received because I could at least feel like I had the intention of improving. I remember feeling angry at the kids who had received an A but were crying because they hadn't gotten an A+. I remember feeling even more angry at those who would worry in front of as many people as possible and then act so surprised to when they got top marks. While I wouldn't say that I was bad in school, I definitely wasn't getting grades that reflected what I was capable of. I clearly remember the teachers telling my parents year after year at parent-teacher conferences that I wasn't putting enough effort into my studies and that I could get much better grades if I tried harder. Apparently, knowing that I could get A's if I wanted to was enough for me because I had the same range of grades throughout my entire school education, consistently achieving a result of average.

A goal is a desired outcome, the end result to a person's ambition and desire. Semester after semester I would write down my goals for the grades I wanted to see on my next report card. They really felt like goals, because I really did think I wanted to achieve them. So why did it take until my senior year to finally see an improvement in my results? It all comes down to a simple fact that I wasn't entirely sure why I wanted better grades. As my teachers made clear to me, better grades didn't indicate that I was smarter, it merely showed that I had put in more effort. I saw those who had achieved A's but still weren't happy with themselves because they weren't perfect. I witnessed students making themselves feel big by pretending to be worried like the rest of us when really they knew they had smashed it. Finally, I witnessed how those who did get good grades, were happy about it, and didn't bother anyone else would be called names like nerd and weirdo and would draw away socially and appear to be very unhappy. There are obviously many exceptions, but for me I think this overly negative view of what good grades looked like had a significant subconscious effect on me. Of course I knew intellectually that getting good grades was a desirable thing and something to be proud of, but I really didn't see or feel this around me. Interestingly, the goals that I did achieve were the mile run goals I wrote down right next to my academic goals. Why did I achieve these and not the others? Was it because I was really into sports? Yeah that was probably an important factor. However, I think that another factor played a much larger role. It is pretty simple when you look at how the mile run was regarded at the school I went to in Vienna. For some obscure reason it wasn't just portrayed as a test of running ability, but as a test of how good you were as a person. That is how much hype it received.

I remember that everyone in the school would run the mile in the same week and that this was a major point of discussion. The same way that it is natural to ask people how their summer was on the first day back to school, during the mile week everyone would be asking "Did you run the mile yet?", "How fast was your time?", "Who was the fastest in your class?", "Who has the time to beat so far?". An extraordinary amount of value was placed on this rather insignificant test of running ability. Why so much importance was placed on the mile and who started it, is the topic of another essay. Regardless of whether or not the mile was actually in any way important, it was perceived as being immensely important and this is crucial. I knew that getting a good mile time, and preferably the best mile time in my grade, would have measurable and immediate positive outcomes. I would be praised by my closest friends, feel confident and proud in answering when asked what my time was, and feel a true sense of accomplishment in being the best at something. Simultaneously, my competitive nature created a true attachment of negative emotions to the prospect of running a bad mile time. I wouldn't be the best, would feel embarrassed when asked about my time, and would have to witness someone else listed at the top of the white board in PE class. So, really my goal was to run the fasted mile in my grade, but the reason why I wanted to achieve it was because there was enough pleasure attached to attaining it and enough pain linked to failing at it. This is what was lacking when I made my goals of getting better grades.

This concept is even more clear to me when considering what happened when I moved to Frankfurt, and joined another school that also had the mile run as a fitness test in PE. Here the mile was not considered to be important, no one talked about it or cared to ask what my time was, and everyone seemed to have a pretty indifferent view of it. If anything it was a simple inconvenience to have to run. So what happened to me? I also started to not care about the mile run. It meant close to nothing as soon as I found myself in an environment where it wasn't held in such high regards and that running a good time would get me very little pleasure and really only make me soar the next day. The pleasure had gone and now I only saw the pain, so I stopped running fast mile times.  

There wasn't enough positive emotion attached to receiving better grades and certainly not enough negative emotion attached to remaining were I was. After all, I was told I was smart by my teachers, wasn't made fun of for being average, and even considered "cool" for being able to seemingly not care so much about my results. Fortunately, it looks like this tainted view of what good grades represent is starting to take a significant turn for the better. Working hard, caring about something, and being rewarded with good results is becoming the new and true "cool", which I find super exciting. This is exactly what happened to me back in my senior year in high school where I finally found myself studying harder and improving my results. Suddenly, having good grades was more than just a number or letter on a report card, it meant the difference between going to an exciting university that fit your ambitions and having to settle for a safety option that didn't have nearly as much to offer. Something else happened. Like the mile times from middle school being posted on a white board, the teachers started pinning up slips of paper on a giant board in the most traveled hallway in school that indicated what students had been accepted into what universities. Students had something to be proud of and that something would be seen by their peers and they would be congratulated for it publicly. Getting good grades suddenly had a very real and immediate desirable outcome.

There was also a serious amount of negative emotion attached to not getting good grades. For one you wouldn't get into your desired university, no one would congratulate you, and it would set you up with a disadvantage in regards to your future career. For me there were two more painful truths linked to getting bad grades. I wanted to go to the same university as my girlfriend. I was able to link very real emotions through the thought of not being with her to failing at getting the required entry results. I also distinctly remember a very motivating meeting I had with my IB Coordinator together with my mom. His job was to help students successfully apply to various universities. Wanting to study film I had researched the prestigious King's College University in London as it had a very exciting filmmaking program. When I told the coordinator this I was shocked to find him literally laughing in my face. He said that with my past grades there was absolutely no way that I could be accepted into that university. He was of course right, because we had to apply to universities only with our past results. Based on those results we would either be given an offer or not. To be able to accept that offer we then had to prove our capabilities in the exams by attaining the minimum requirement grades that they had set . So even if we achieved surprisingly amazing grades in our final exams it didn't make a difference in what offers we would receive, only in what offers we could choose to except. So, while it didn't make sense for me to apply to King's College because my past grades certainly wouldn't grant me an offer, the fact that the coordinator laughed at me for thinking I could, lit a fire beneath me. Even though I wasn't able to get an offer from King's College, I wanted to prove the coordinator wrong and show that I was smart enough and determined enough to get the entry requirements. The thought of his patronising laugh becoming a reality was a negative emotion I linked to not getting good grades. I was predicted a final grade of 32 out of a total 45 points by the coordinator, but was able to get a much higher total of 36 points, the exact requirements of King's College. 

Linking enough pleasure to achieving something and enough pain to not achieving it is the golden rule of setting and reaching goals. In school I was at the mercy of what was collectively perceived as good and bad, and I conformed to these views and acted accordingly. What if we were able to link enough pleasure to doing something and enough pain to not doing it completely by ourselves, without the need for collective opinions or existing beliefs. We could simply create these feelings by ourselves. Becoming aware of this very simple but immensely powerful concept, has enabled me to create and achieve goals that I set myself with an astonishingly high rate of success. It doesn't matter if it is a large goal of summiting mount Kilimanjaro or a small goal of finishing a book by the end of the week, there are 4 simple steps that I take to give myself the best chance of achieving them.

1. Write it down on paper.

If you have a goal, write it down. Make it real. Formulating your goal into words is often enough to make it a lot clearer. What is it that you actually want? Is your goal to lose some weight? If so losing one kilo would do it for you and could be achieved in 1-2 weeks. Or is your goal really to lose 20 kilos and to make a dramatic lifestyle change? Making your goal more focused will also make it more tangible and will start you on your journey toward achieving it.    

2. Come up with at least three compelling reasons WHY you want to achieve your goal. What will you gain or learn from it?

Training for and running my first marathon in Paris in under 3 hours and 45 minutes while simultaneously training to improve my level of physical strength in regards to lifting weights will....

  • strengthen my mental toughness because I will learn to keep going even when it starts to get hard. Weight lifting and long distance running do not go hand in hand and I will learn to keep going and feel stronger when people tell me that it isn't possible to combine the two. These skills of persistence and finding a way can be carried over to building my business because it represents the true spirit of innovation. 
  • allow me a lot of training time where I can be listening to podcasts and coaching audio programs that will teach me skills of mental and emotional focus. I will learn business strategy, tactics, and psychology that I can use in pursuing my passion of building a filmmaking production company that produces films about topics, ideas, and beliefs I am passionate about sharing.
  • provide me with a strong level of physical and mental fitness that will make me feel confident in perusing other physical challenge goals like completing a Tough Mudder race, triathlon, iron man, and summiting mountains.   

3. Identify at least 3 negative outcomes that will result if you fail at achieving your goal. 

If I fail to complete the Paris marathon in the desired time or under the desired circumstances I will...

  • feel like I have let myself down. I will not gain the confidence boost that I need in order to pursue other goals. I will feel like I didn't give my best effort.
  • I will have to tell all of my friends and family that I didn't achieve the goal I set out to achieve. Whether they want to or not they will have less confidence in me when I set future goals, which will in turn make me feel less confident as well. 
  • I won't be able to back up my firm beliefs that if you set your mind to something and want it badly enough then you can achieve it. I might begin to question the things I am most passionate about.

4. Commit!

Tell as many people as possible about your goal. Sign up to run the marathon and post your running number to social media. Decide to make a short documentary about your training process and the race itself, and write a long blog post about the whole thing. It would be pretty embarrassing if I didn't achieve my goal after all this talk don't you think? I am 100% committed to achieving it and will therefor do what it takes to see it through. Obviously I am a bit extreme but I hope you can see the point.

I go through the same process with all of the goals I set myself and I can promise you that it really works. You may be thinking that the pain I will experience if I fail at reaching my goals has been made to be incredibly high and that even beginning toward achieve the goal has become too much of a risk. I would agree with the first part. Not reaching my goal will be a very unpleasant experience. However, the joy and sense of fulfilment I will receive if I do reach it strongly outweighs the negative, and so justifies the risk. I will also have the plus of being able to learn from my failure and will have learnt a lot in the process regardless of whether or not I succeed. I hope that there is something you can take from this and apply to your own life! I would love to hear what some of your goals are and why you want to achieve them. Send me an email if you have any comments or questions. I'll make sure to reply!