26 December 2009

Goal Setting Debunked

Traditionally, the start of a new year is a time to set goals. According to, top new year’s resolutions include the following:

- Lose Weight
- Manage Debt
- Save Money
- Get a Better Job
- Get Fit
- Get a Better Education
- Drink Less Alcohol
- Quit Smoking Now
- Reduce Stress Overall
- Reduce Stress at Work
- Take a Trip
- Volunteer to Help Others
- Health-e-Cards for Holidays and New Year

Their web page even has links to help you with each goal.

Many books, speeches, classes, websites, etc. have been dedicated to helping make and achieve personal goals. This article is not an attempt to duplicate any one of them in a thinly veiled act of plagiarism. Instead, I am here to debunk a common goal setting myth. What, you didn’t know there were any goal setting myths? Then you will be twice educated. First I will introduce the myth (you might have heard it before), then I will debunk it. No, this will not be as visually entertaining as say MythBusters; but then again their show sets about “busting” myths which is a highly visual term. Debunking, on the other hand, is my objective.

Interestingly, the word debunk originates from a speech given during the 16th Congress, but I will not bore you with the details here. According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (of course), to debunk is, “To expose or ridicule the falseness, sham, or exaggerated claims of.” I will focus primarily on the ridicule bit because it is of course so much more fun.

Common Goal Setting Myth: “Aim for the stars and maybe you’ll reach the sky.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, US Protestant theologian and critic, penned this quote in The Serenity Prayer (1934).

Taken literally, this makes no sense at all. First, let’s assume that when Niebuhr said “sky” he meant the beginning of outer space, which starts anywhere from 100 to 1000 kilometers (that’s 62.1 to 621 miles) from the Earth’s surface, depending on how you define the distinction between atmosphere and open space. Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, is 4.3 light years away. So, if NASA intended to reach Proxima Centauri and only made it to the sky, then their spacecraft would be 25283999999379 miles away from the intended destination. Put another way, this would be like setting a goal to earn one billion dollars and in fact earning just over two cents but being happy about the results anyway.

Some might cry foul here and argue that Niebuhr was not to be taken literally. Fair enough, as I have never read The Serinity Prayer, I do not know the context in which this was written. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and contemplate the “spirit” rather than the “letter” of the quote. The spirit of the quote would seem to say that when setting goals we should consider a suitable goal then aim so high above it that we eventually reach the aforementioned acceptable level and are satisfied. This is bunk. This is self-delusional and ultimately disappointing. If we make impossible goals that we never really intend on reaching we have defeated the primary purpose of goal setting – goal achievement. That said, if you had a reasonable end in mind to begin with, why not just set it as the goal itself? Granted, we should choose goals that stretch our abilities to the maximum, cause us to learn and grow, and are difficult, but obtainable. The ideal goal is something that if we try our absolute hardest we have about at 50 percent chance of achieving. Any better chance and we are not challenging ourselves enough. Anything less likely to result in success and we are only setting ourselves up for failure.

So the next time you set a goal, be it on New Year’s Day or not, do yourself a favor and put some thought and effort into setting a realistic goal. You will find that goal achievement is very rewarding and be more likely to continue setting and achieving productive goals for years to come.


Feywriter said...

Well said. I have been guilty of this myself.

Susanna said...

yeah...i agree with mary

Julie V. said...

good advice, and well said. Haven't even thought about setting new goals until I read this...guess I'll get serious and make some plans for 2010! I've always found that having a visual picture to represent my goals for the new year ups the chance of actually reaching the goal.


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