“I want to be happy and be able to financially provide for my family” is a common response to the question I pose to each of my students. That question is: “What would be your ideal job 20 years from now?”
Certainly there are more specific responses, and many have brought a true smile to my face through the years. Students aspire to be professional fishermen, chief executive officers of major corporations, professional athletes and even president. Many strive to return to the family farm immediately after graduation or down the road. In 20 years of asking this question, I have yet to encounter a student who aspires to be an economics instructor, but I remain hopeful. For now, I simply am thankful when those with whom I share my life have for themselves some specific goals.
There is plenty of information available on how to write goals and develop plans to achieve them. Most of us would agree that it is good to have goals. In reality, however, there are plenty of us whose experience in goal development is limited to the confines of an assignment in school, a workplace requirement or an organizational exercise. Even those who have at one time developed written goals, and even come up with a strategy to meet them, often stop there. There are plenty of theories about why. I will share with you my favorite.
One author argues that maintaining specific challenging goals is like improving your diet and exercise routine. It is widely accepted that this is a good thing, but we don’t go beyond complacency because we are happy enough where we are.
Our challenge is to change this. The good news is that most of us have goals. Our growth will come from putting them to paper, obtaining buy-in, developing and implementing a plan to achieve them, regularly assessing our progress and revising our goals or plan as needed. My goal is that one in four readers will sit down today and make a list of three personal and three professional goals. Let me know how we did in meeting this goal. Let’s start with the basics.
Where do goals come from? Ideally, goals should work toward a higher purpose. They should be consistent with the values, mission and intent of those to whom or what they are designed to contribute. If you are setting work goals, they should be consistent with the mission of your firm or organization. If your firm wants to increase market penetration, it is useful if your goals are oriented toward the same goal. You might aim toward calling on an average of 10 prospective customers each month this year.
How do we know if our goals contribute to the greater good? Your goal development process should result in written goals posted where they are accessible to many, including you. The benefits of sharing your intent are many. Declaring your goals will elicit feedback, allow for well-targeted support and serve as an achievement motivator.
Submitting your goals to others also can result in explicit or implicit concurrence. If those influenced by your goals declare them acceptable, you have a line in the sand to measure if you have met their expectations.
Our employers, family members and many others will provide us with feedback on the consistency of our goals toward the greater good of our unit. I am speaking from the experience about the overwhelming feedback I received from my family when I posted my goals on the refrigerator.
My most ambitious goal was to experience an electronics-free household one day a week during Lent. Based on the swift and pointed feedback, I revised that to one day during Lent (removing the “each week”). I may have settled for less than I had hoped, but I obtained family buy-in that we would go one day with just good old-fashioned conversation.
What makes a well-written goal? We regularly hear that goals should be specific and realistic and have an associated timeline. These characteristics have been articulated in management literature and in thousands of seminars. I personally have shared this information with students, corporations, soldiers and children. I figured most in my life had the “how to” part down pat, but I did the kid test to verify. I asked my son: “What are your goals for the day?” He said he was hoping to start with breakfast. He saw my expression and quickly recognized that his schooling would be starting early this morning at home.
I launched into my speech about how it was important to have goals because, to plan effectively and assess his progress, he needed to understand what he was trying to accomplish. I reminded him his goals had to be specific enough so that his results toward meeting them could be measured. I even quoted Lily Tomlin, who wrote: “When I was growing up, I always wanted to be someone. Now I realize I should have been more specific.” He asked me who Lily Tomlin was. I told him that perhaps the question demonstrates my point. I will give him credit; he did not ask me what was not specific about eating breakfast.
So what does it mean to be specific? If you and those around you can definitely agree if a goal was met, it passes as specific enough. While being happy is a worthwhile aim, laughing every day is a goal we can measure.
The next characteristic is realistic or achievable. It is nice if we specify something we can accomplish, but we also should challenge ourselves. At home, sometimes it is easier to use examples of what does not qualify. I continued our discussion by asking my son if he had thought through the decision about what challenge to face during the Lenten season. He smiled and shared his intent to adopt not one but two challenges. The challenges were the forgoing of carrots and shoveling snow.
I reminded him of a quote from the prolific writer Robert Heinlein: “Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy.” He was not impressed, but he did revise his goal. I am not sure if it was the motivating quote or my glare. Either way, I am sure he will thank me as an adult.
Finally, your goals should be defined with a date. To design a plan, overcome procrastination and help assess your progress, there should be a timeline at which point you can judge your movement toward accomplishing your goals. Now we were ready for our family goal-setting activity.
We agreed at home that we want to help others feel better about themselves. We set the following specific goals: write and deliver one card each week that identified for someone how he or she specifically had made a difference; nominate three individuals for societal contribution awards by August; invite over each month for dinner one family who we have not entertained this year; and do one special act of kindness each week.
This list is far different than the one I first proposed. It also is substantially different than the children’s first idea that we should put a “we love you all” poster in the window and call it good. In the end, these are our goals for helping others. They are posted and we are accountable. We have a plan that divides up our responsibilities, and has a regular assessment schedule and an incentive structure in place. We are good for now.
Finally, although they are worthy of separate articles, I would be errant here not to mention that the follow-up planning and assessment steps can and in many instances should lead to goal refinement. Granted, Confucius is noted for having said: “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
Admittedly, we should not give up on ourselves easily. However, the assessment of your progress toward achieving your goals should not be simply to check yourself. It might lead you to accept that your goals may need to be revised or even abandoned. If you don’t have them prominently displayed and widely shared, you won’t have to admit this to anyone, potentially not even yourself. You also won’t have had this opportunity for growth.
I ask that you consider starting your next dinner table conversation with the question: “Five years from today, where do you want to be?” At our home, this would no doubt elicit a response such as “I want to be in Hawaii.” However, in your home, farm or organizational boardroom, it may be the first step to goal development and open the door for true progress.