Context and Goal-Setting

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Wall Street Journal features an article on "The Power of Negative Thinking" adapted from a book titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. There are lots of interesting reasons to question much of the conventional wisdom about goal-setting therein, including the fact that almost none of a cohort of forty-five successful entrepreneurs in one study "embraced the idea of writing comprehensive business plans or conducting extensive market research".

What did these successful businessmen do, then?

They practiced instead what Prof. Sarasvathy calls "effectuation." Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes what she calls the "affordable loss principle." Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.
The article goes on to call this "realism", but I don't think this captures the whole picture. I also think this risks glossing over the fact that, rather than these businessmen not having goals, they chose their goals wisely. To see more clearly what I think is missing, it pays to look at an example of applying the opposite approach:
Focusing on one goal at the expense of all other factors also can distort a corporate mission or an individual life, says Christopher Kayes, an associate professor of management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Prof. Kayes, who has studied the "overpursuit" of goals, recalls a conversation with one executive who "told me his goal had been to become a millionaire by the age of 40…and he'd done it. [But] he was also divorced, and had health problems, and his kids didn't talk to him anymore." Behind our fixation on goals, Prof. Kayes's work suggests, is a deep unease with feelings of uncertainty. [bold and hyperlink added]
The choice isn't between having rigid goals bearing no relationship to anything else in life vs. no goals at all. It's establishing goals within the context of one's knowledge and prioritizing them according to how they further one's own life. This would include revisiting one's goals in terms of whether they really are achievable and whether they really are (still) worth it. An important part of whether some goal is worthwhile is whether it brings enjoyment to life. I seriously doubt that Steve Jobs, for example, went through life obsessed with building the most valuable computer company in the world. He clearly enjoyed what he did and made sure he did as much of that as possible. The rest was just a consequence.

It is fitting, then that, despite the incomplete picture the article gives of rational goal-setting, it provides a great quote from Steve Jobs on that very subject: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." I am confident that, even if Steve Jobs had not succeeded as spectaularly as he did, he would still have been a very happy man. He kept his goals in their proper perspective and, in doing so, could appreciate the actual value of his accomplishments and the true insignificance of his missteps.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

This article describes my personality and mindset pretty well. I do think it's more of a personality thing than anything against setting goals in particular. For some people, setting a goal organizes their thinking and helps them prioritize. For others (like me) the goal drives them into a nervous breakdown. Telling people with that kind of personality or mindset or whatever it is that they just don't understand how to set goals properly is akin to telling an obese person that they just need to hit the gym. If that strategy worked for them, they wouldn't be obese.

My problem with it is so pronounced that it becomes paralyzing. The only way for me to function is to immerse myself in my creative tools and the present, largely forgetting about the future. This even applies for ordinary day-to-day tasks like cleaning the house. I have to focus on doing the chore that I have in front of me. If I start thinking, okay, once I have this done, then I can do the dishes, and wash the floor, and dust, and vacuum, and . . . I shut down. It's too much. But if I just focus on what I'm doing now, I can proceed from task to task until they're *all* accomplished.

Now, what causes this mindset? I have no clue. It may be some strong differences in perception of time and effort. I have no consistent perception of time. I've spent an hour chasing a goal and it feels like it's never going to end, 40 minutes in and I was exhausted, fidgety, desperate for a break. I've spent 14 straight hours doing exactly the same thing without a clear goal and hardly been aware of it, in fact, I didn't want to stop even though I had eyestrain and body aches and *needed* a break. I was excited to pick it up again the next day.

There's just something in the way my subconscious frames "work" that makes some strategies functional and others not. Framing it as some kind of moral failure is not going to do any good.

Gus Van Horn said...

How did you go from interpreting this post as claiming that some people "don't understand how to set goals properly" to seeing it as, "[f]raming it as some kind of moral failure"?

Ignorance or lack of understanding is not necessarily a moral failure.

Jennifer Snow said...

It's not that some people "don't understand" i.e. FAIL to set goals. It's that the entire goal-setting mentality does not work for their mindset. At all. And when they try, over and over, to set goals, and fail, over and over, because the entire methodology of goal setting just doesn't work for them, you know what happens? Some smartass comes along and tells them that they're just not "trying hard enough" or "doing it right".

Goal-setting works for you, obviously, so the rest of us must just be crazy or stupid or ignorant. No. Some of us just don't function that way. I couldn't begin to explain *why* it doesn't work for me, but it doesn't. I have a fundamentally different reaction to the perception of having a goal or assignment, one which, in certain circumstances, can become so dysfunctional that it's perceived as mental illness.

The solution is not to learn how to set goals "properly", it's to learn how to finesse my temperament in such a way that I actually accomplish the work. Goal-setting is the way *some* people do this. It's not universal any more than a particular diet is.

Gus Van Horn said...

My point is more subtle than that I think all the people pushing the idea of "Set a Goal First" are actually correct. My personality is actually closer to yours in that regard: I often find that I don't know enough to be able to set a goal at the outset of many undertakings.

At the same time, the idea that the entrepreneurs who rightly question trendy goal-setting advice never have goals is hogwash. They DO have goals, but the goals are implicit and probably constantly under revision.

Don't throw out the whole idea of understanding goal setting just because people all seem to either think about it in the wrong way or pretend that it isn't necessary.