Opinion | Column

Reflections of a compulsive goal-setter

According to a study conducted by Dave Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, 80 percent of Americans say they don’t have goals. Another 16 percent do have goals, but they don’t write them down. Less than 4 percent write down their goals, and less than 1 percent review them regularly. This small percentage of Americans earn nine times more, over the course of their lifetimes, than those who don’t set goals.

Clearly, the relationship between goal-setting and money-making isn’t a strictly causal one. But, hey, even if the mere act of setting goals causes your lifetime wealth to increase by 20 percent (instead of 900 percent), that still seems like a pretty good reason to start planning seriously for the future.

Setting goals is something most of us Duke students do obsessively, anyway. We’re notoriously driven and ambitious—I’m sure you know people who won’t be content unless they get into Yale Law, score 40 on the MCAT, make it to the Dean’s List every semester or become president of their student organizations.

These are all great goals to have, but I don’t believe that goals, regardless of what they are, have much intrinsic value.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty compulsive goal-setter myself: At last count I’ve written down 56 goals that I’d like to achieve in 2011. But if we think about some of the most inspiring goals we’ve already reached, I dare say they’ve been somewhat of a letdown. When we set a goal, we often think to ourselves, “Wow, it would be AMAZING if I pull this off!” When we actually do pull it off, however, the feeling is good and there’s definitely a sense of accomplishment—but it’s almost never as amazing as we thought it would be. We expected to feel like a 10, yet when it’s all said and done, we feel more like a seven or an eight.

Since achieving a goal, in and of itself, doesn’t bring us the fulfillment we desire, what then is the real purpose of setting goals, from an individual perspective? I’ve come up with three.

1. Having goals enhances the quality of your life right now.

Having something to reach for gives us a sense of anticipation about the future. Goals make it more enjoyable to live in the present, because you’re excited about what you’re working to achieve.

I spent two years in the military before coming to Duke. I served as an infantry battalion manpower officer, and many of my men were elementary and middle school dropouts. They felt like they had little to look forward to after their two years in the military were over. They were unlikely to attend college or land high-paying jobs, and had no idea how they were going to make a living. Many of them went AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) and as punishment their mandatory military service was extended. Because they didn’t have concrete goals they wanted to achieve once they left the army, they felt like serving more time wasn’t delaying the start of their actual adult lives. Understanding their thoughts reinforced my belief in goal-setting as a way to make your present reality more enjoyable.

2. Goals determine the kind of person you want to be.

For instance, if your goal is to speak to a crowd of 10,000 people, then you’re going to need to be someone who has a certain amount of courage. You’re also going to need to be someone who is sufficiently knowledgeable about a subject that 10,000 people would want to listen to you.

At the end of the day, it’s less about the goals you achieve, and more about the person you become through striving toward those goals. It’s satisfying when you work hard and attain success, but the true prize is how you’ve matured and grown.

3. Goals guide you toward your final destination.

Many of us have grand dreams of what our future looks like—what kind of family, career, car, house and influence we’d like to have. But grand dreams are realized by taking small, unassuming steps. Goals are precisely those steps that help us get to our fantastic final destination, although we need to keep in mind that fulfilling our wildest desires, on their own, will likely leave us feeling like a seven or an eight on the scale of fulfillment.

In closing, the US Army employs a model of leadership called “Be. Know. Do.” In essence, it states that you first need to be clear about exactly who you want to be before you can decide what you want to know. Only then should you decide what you want to do.

So go ahead and be an achiever. In fact, feel free to be an overachiever. Just be sure to put the “being” before the “knowing,” and the “knowing” before the “doing.” That’s the key to meaningful goal-setting.

Daniel Wong is a Pratt senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.


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