Monday, June 13, 2005

Destinations, Goals, and Targets

I have been starting to think about our modern obsession with goal-setting. For a long time, I have been leery about this phenomenon. When I was a department head, I'd be asked to meet with the principal near the beginning of each year. We would chat and review my goals for the upcoming year. While my real goals were always to teach well and to, somehow, survive the ordeal, I always had to think of something more politically in tune with expectations.

I have come to believe that the current, goal-setting fad is somewhat of a sham. If you have to sit down, scratch your head, say "Hmmm, what shall my goals this year be?" then I don't think they are genuine goals. There temporary targets at best. You invent them to keep the boss happy because, at the end of the quarter, year, or what have you, they are somewhat measurable.

Somehow, I can't believe that past generations who have accomplished much, sat down and wrote out goals. (That's another thing. They are supposedly not real goals unless they have been written down and a time frame has been set.) I can't imagine that Einstein brainstormed and decided that "Say, I'd like to reinvent the discipline of physics by such and such a date." But he managed to do it.

Surely Einstein's intrinsic goal was to probe physics to its depth because that's what his intellect and inner desire drove him to do. He had real goals, a genuine inner drive to plumb the mysteries of the universe. That's my opinion anyway: that goals are real, part of the fibre of who we are. When we need to sit down and write our goals for the next semester, we are identifying targets of some description, but they exist mainly as justifications or placators of sorts.

I recently began to renew my contemplation of all this while I was riding the local bicycle trail the other day. I thought of how we had been content to do our 30 klicks last year. We never even contemplated pedalling any further than that. Part of the reason was that was how far the trail went and that there was a town at the end where we could grab a coffee and sit by the lake before turning back home. It was a tangible destination.

That the trail and the trail-ending-town existed where they did was very good in a way. We were provided with a destination that, perhaps, caused us to pedal further than we might otherwise have done. I can recall our first trip out there; we would pedal for five klicks or so and stop to evaluate. "I'm feeling fine, How are you? Do you want to keep going?" If there hadn't been a discernible destination awaiting us, we might never have ridden that far.

On the other hand, that same destination probably kept us from expanding our horizons. It put a cap on our thinking. That's where the trail ends, so that's, obviously, where we should stop. It wasn't until this year that a new destination began to emerge. I began to think: "It would be nice to take a group bicycle trip ... someday." It was then that I realized that they would go a lot further than 30 klicks per day. So, we thought that, perhaps, we should make it a target to try to go 50 klicks, just to see if we could and to see how we might stand up to the increased distance.

Once we broke past the mental barrier that the town at the end of the trail erected in our minds, the horizon began to seem limitless. Well, why not try 60 klicks? "Hmmm ... we were fine at sixty, so let's go for seventy." Now that we've gone past the trail onto rural roads, there are all sorts of possibilities.

Anyway, to work towards some sort of conclusion (for any bloggers who might possibly have stuck with this rather lengthy ramble — and thanks for that by the way), it was this that got me to wondering about goals in general: are goals, destinations, and targets good or bad, helpful or limiting, genuine or false constructions that serve to appease modern management theories? I suppose that they are or can be all of these things.

I tend to conclude, however, that what passes for goal-setting in modern parlance has to do with our superficial need to make progress, our need to get somewhere and to measure our success. It seems to me that we people of the modern rat race pant to reach destinations but that we are seldom content to stop and enjoy ourselves once we have reached our goals. We fall prey to the well-seeded myth that the next purchase or the next holiday or the next promotion will bring satisfaction. Actually, each of these things might help to satisfy, or at least help to be part of our satisfaction with life and with ourselves, if given half a chance, but it seems that most people just keep on striving and striving and that they seldom stop to appreciate where they are, what they have, or what they have achieved.



swamp4me said...

I had never really thought about it, but I agree with you.

Written down goals seem to me to be too artificial and, well, "corporate." I prefer to be open to opportunity rather than locked into a constructed goal.

Rainypete said...

I've made it a goal of mine to not make goals. While I don't settle for life as it is and try to constantly improve, I also am sure to take time to appreciate the life I have. The closest I'll get to a goal is a to-do list, but they're mostly in my head and as such are terrfyingly fluid creatures at best.

Christi said...

Yeah, I'm with Rainypete. I like to write To-Do lists, and that's about as far as I go with goal setting. I mean, I would like to move out of an apartment one day and back into a house, and I suppose that's a goal. However, I'm not going to sit down and write out a plan for it, b/c it would be just a waste of time. I know in my mind as long as we keep working toward getting out of this apt., then we will...

Ahh, but don't you just have to bring up Long Range Planning! I HATED doing that when I was teaching. It was the biggest waste of time, yet the principal acted like it was more important than the actual teaching you did! I don't think I ever stuck to one of them for even one week, much less the whole year!

Norma said...

Check out the book, "Stop setting goals," and you'll feel much better. There are problem solvers and there are goal setters, and we drive each other crazy. Actually there are more problem solvers. I felt totally vindicated after I read the book--of course, it was one month after I retired.

Heather said...

Great post, AV! It's rather apropos for me, 'cause I'm just preparing for the annual strategic planning session with my team (at work). As a manager, I have to inflict some of those mind-numbing goal-setting exercises on my staff. Hate to do it, but we're accountable to a board, so you have to have something to show them. The term I am coming to despise these days is RBM (results based management). BLECH!

I tend to think more in terms of "vision" than "goals". What are the possibilities out there BEYOND the goals?

Dale said...

You achieved your "goal", you and Cuppa, of 30 km on your bikes. Now you've improved your physical condition and increased that distance. Great!

But I like to think that you ride because you enjoy it. You feel the sun and wind on your face and inhale the fragrance of the wild flowers you pass. Sometimes, you stop and photograph something lovely to share with us.

Am I wrong to think that it was never the destination you craved, but rather the pleasure of the journey?

blue2go said...

Wow, I've been thinking along those exact same lines! I used to teach goalsetting to displaced homemakers and poor people. They had a lot of trouble with setting goals. Now that I'm older I can see why. As others said, it locks you in too much and are usually not very realistic to changing outside circumstances.

Lora said...

I think that goals that are personally motivated are quite helpful. They help you to clarify what's important to you and can lead you to great sucess. But I don't think they should be arifically or externally imposed, because then they serve little purpose.

On a more personal note: what did you teach?

Lynn said...

I once had a girlfriend who was a comic. Part of her routine went like this.

"I joined a gym the other week so I could lose some weight. On my first day there a trainer in a skimpy leotard came up to me and asked me what my goals were. I replied, 'goals, what are you talking about? My job is to stop the puck.'"