I was told so many times as a young person that I needed to ‘Shoot for the Stars!” and that “Anything is possible!”. My mom and dad used to tell me all the time that I could do “anything I set my mind to”. I was encouraged to set the loftiest of goals, and even if I didn’t hit that mark, I will probably achieve something great. Well, I am here to argue that oftentimes unrealistic goal-setting can actually do serious damage to our psyche and have the opposite effect that we hope for. Bear with me as I flesh this out a bit more.
I have coached boys basketball at the high school level for the past 8 years, and have had countless conversations with my players in which one or more will tell me that their life plan is to make it to the NBA. They are going to get drafted, sign that million-dollar paycheck, and their family will be set for life. Meanwhile, they are 5’ 7” and averaging about 6 points a game at the JV level. The gap between the unrealistic goal and this kid’s reality is massive. What often happens then, is that I witness my players’ burnout, get jaded, and lose their love and passion for the game as they start to realize how far away they are from where they want to end up.
Setting unrealistic goals prevents us from growth because we get paralyzed by the gap from where we are now, to where we want to be. We can even internalize these goals so much that if we don’t reach them we begin to feel shame, failure, and disappointment. For example, how many people have set the goal for themselves to ‘be the best parent in the world’. What does this even mean? And if we make one mistake along the way, are we a failure? Parents putting that much pressure on themselves to be perfect creates unhealthy relational dynamics within a family. Parents might spoil their kids to make them happier, or parents might not discuss hard topics with their kids because they are afraid to be vulnerable. Setting the goal of being the ‘world’s best parent’ is a dangerous one.
So what can we do about it? Well first, we need to stop setting specific achievements as a success, and instead, redefine success as growth. We need to start setting small tangible goals that give us practical steps to take so that we can actually move in the direction we are trying to go. Imagining and brainstorming a future you want for yourself is not in itself wrong or the issue… the issue is making THAT your goal. Goals need to be grounded in our current reality and help to inch us in the right direction.
For example – as many of you know I started writing a novel about 8 years ago. I had dreams of it being published and rising up the charts. But rather than set a near-impossible goal to become a New York Times Bestseller, what I did was set goals to write 1000 words a day, attend 2 writing workshops a year, read five of the best books on writing I could find, watch my favorite author’s MasterClass, and many more. See the difference?
What if instead of setting a goal of being the best parent in the world (how would one even measure or define this ludicrous title), we make it a point to have lunch once a month with a couple whose parenting style I really admire and ask questions and learn from them. What if we start a book club and read some of the highest-rated books on parenting? What if we agree to go to therapy regularly to ensure we are emotionally healthy? And last but not least, how can we make sure to spend as much quality time with our child as possible?
What if instead of setting a goal to become an NBA basketball player (especially when both your parents are under 6 feet tall) you set the goal of shooting 500 shots a day over the summer, attending two or more basketball skills clinics a year, read a set number books and articles on player development, and create a weekly routine for the weight room?
Are we seeing the differences in approach?
This is a skill I am still learning. I start back in the high school math classroom next Wednesday for my 8th year of teaching, and it is guaranteed to be difficult. So much unknown. I had to talk myself off the ledge the other day as I planned my lessons and realized just how challenging it will be to pull off. Maybe this isn’t the year that I shoot for the Teacher of the Year award. Instead, I need to give myself grace. I need to set small, manageable, realistic goals. I need to collaborate with my peers and not isolate myself when things get hard. I need to be vulnerable with my students and prioritize love and care over content and test scores. And what do you know, after a little bit of reframing, I found myself at peace and chomping at the bit to be back in the classroom this fall. Let’s roll.
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” — Tony Robbins
“Stop setting goals. Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.” — Stephen Covey
“Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.” — Theodore Roosevelt