Success in retrospect and why setting massive goals can be counterproductive

Big goals or steps to success?

Zap! I will jump-start my life into the next dimension where I will enjoy happiness, wealth, prosperity and fulfilment. Zap! I will show you the timeless secrets of success known only to a few. Zap! Secrets guaranteed to bring you wealth and happiness. Zap!

Have you noticed how much of the self-help literature is the same? There’s a lot about studying success and applying the lessons to your life, yet you can read 20 books and still not find happiness. Why not?

There is no magic formula. Every person is different in the same way that every circumstance and result differs from the last. For every person that achieves their goals there’s plenty taking massive action but not achieving their dream. You can give life everything but still miss the mark. What then?  

The self-help literature takes specific cases and generalises rules from them; set goals, be passionate, take action, never give up and you will succeed. It’s success by retrospect. We find someone in business, sport or the arts that have made it to the top. Perhaps someone has risen from adversary to success. We put them up as a model of success, create a ‘system’ from their actions and promote it as the success panacea.

We‘ve all heard this advice: set huge goals if you want to succeed, and then go for it. That advice comes from coaches, self-help gurus and consultants and is deeply imbedded in success literature. Yet goal setting may actually be counterproductive if the bar is set too high.

Many people don’t achieve the stretch goals they set. One of two things happens: either the goal is so difficult we become demoralised and give up; or, the goals are set, and then promptly forgotten because we didn’t really believe in them. To be successful you need to set realistic and achievable goals, and be prepared to change them along the way.

The following is a typical template for goal setting that can be found in many books:

  • Work out what you really want
  • Write it down as a measurable goal
  • Make your goal specific and clear
  • Understand what it will look like when you achieve it
  • Set deadlines
  • Take action
  • Review outcomes and change your approach if required
  • Never give up!

The inherent problem with goal setting is that most people are resistant to change. Therefore, goals that require substantial behaviour change, or thinking pattern change, will automatically be resisted.

When we repeatedly fail to reach stretch goals our performance invariably declines. That’s human nature. So why do we set ourselves up for failure? Is setting ‘big fat audacious goals’ really the path to success? I suggest a more realistic and systematic path.

So what should replace the process of setting goals, particularly stretch goals? Small improvements and incremental targets that are realistic and sustainable. This approach allows us to enjoy little wins and map our progress.

Smaller steps allow us to believe we can do it and get leverage from tiny victories. One day at a time, one more lap or a 5% improvement is the way to achieve the big goals in life. Add to that regular positive reinforcement and this type of goal setting is beneficial.

Another reason why many people are not successful in achieving goals is that their goals are not connected to their values and their sense of personal mission. Setting goals that run contrary to your personal beliefs create a conflict that will prevent you from achieving them. If your personal values dictate that you should spend as much time as possible with your family then having a goal of establishing a part-time business after hours that requires work in evenings and weekends will not work.

Check the outcome that you want and look to find another path in keeping with your personal value system. There are many paths to the same destination and these will vary depending on the individual. If you understand this you can then read about others’ successes and use that as direction and inspiration, rather than a ‘success system’ to follow to the letter.


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