The Heart and Science of Winning Goals, Part 1

I’ve been failing at goal setting since my 6th birthday party. My parents created thoughtful birthday games to keep everyone entertained. We started with a round of pin the tail on the donkey in the yard. They surrounded me with my friends, spun me till I was dizzy, and set me loose to pin the tail on the paper donkey—or the closest person to me. The game was fun but the reward wasn’t fulfilling.

The next game seemed better. Mom and dad setup a piñata full of candy. Sign me up! They gave me clear instructions, “Smash the piñata hard enough to create a candy shower”. It was go time. They again blindfolded me and spun me in circles. With some help I turned in the right direction and I started swinging. Every time I stepped up to bat my parents would pull the string. I’d swing at the air and fall to the ground. I kept swinging, sometimes grazing the piñata, occasionally getting a solid hit. Visions of the candy shower kept me going. Every kid took a swing but none of us could make sugar rain from the sky. Finally, the piñata broke—maybe because my dad was yanking the string so hard—and we all scrambled to fill our little hands with loot.

Is goal setting worthwhile?

When I coach people on setting goals, sometimes it feels just like the piñata at a birthday party. People start with excitement but they give up after a few swings at their goal, even if the reward seems sweet. This is why some people hate setting New Year’s resolutions and why lots of organizations spin their tires with new priorities seemingly every minute. So why do people make such a big deal about goal setting? The short answer is that goals work and goals win. The trick is that not all goals are created equally. It turns out that most people set goals that suck, if they set any at all. The good news is that setting strong goals can accelerate and equip you to cascade that motivation to others leaders who get busy developing even more leaders. Crafting energizing goals can propel all of you forward to create more health and flourishing while building resilience for setbacks. Goals set your leaders up for success. To set goals that work and win you need to tap into the heart and science of setting goals. Let’s start with heart.

What do you truly love? 

“Follow your heart” is the some of the worst, potentially misleading advice that people give on a regular basis. Here’s the problem. Sometimes your heart wants the right thing for you and other times your heart can get you in a lot of trouble. When I mention the heart, I’m referring to the core of who you are as a person. I’m not talking about the blood pumping organ that beats over 3 billion times times if you live to be 80 years old. I’m focusing on the place where your deepest emotions and affections live. Your heart is a wildcard that can equally drive human potential or pathology. This is dangerous. It means that it’s possible to set strong goals in the wrong direction and cause a lot of collateral damage along the way. You can be effective and evil at the same time—all in good faith. We don’t need to look too far into the past to prove this. Adolf Hitler was arguably very effective at carrying out some of the most terrible atrocities in the history of humanity. The worst part was that in his heart he believed that he was creating a better world.

Even though your heart can be deceptive, when it comes to setting goals, your heart is a good place to begin. Starting with heart reveals what you deeply love and what you identify with most closely. Once you begin to explore your core driving forces you can harness them to focus on building the right goals. At the end of the day, running after goals is all about love. We prioritize the things that we love the most. If your heart is invested in something, if you love it a lot, you’ll make it a priority with your calendar and your credit card.

Think about it, why do new parents sacrifice precious sleep for small, helpless humans? Because they love their baby son or daughter more than their own comfort and they are committed to caring for the little person even above their own well-being.  Or think about advancing your career. We all know people who’ve endured long-hours or intensive training to achieve a promotion or earn a credential. Why? Because the reward was greater than the cost.

On the flipside, do you have a “friend” who regularly loves catching up on shows more than consistently going to the gym? Your “friend’s” problem isn’t about getting a bit of down-time, the problem is a stronger love for the comfort of a comfy couch and tasty snacks than the energy and self-confidence that comes with staying active and healthy. The same thing holds true for your conscientious, overcommitted coworker who can’t say no to extra assignments at work even at the expense of family involvement. Why? Because the love for affirmation outweighs the desire for a healthy family legacy. We all have aspirations that we really want to invest in but our efforts get diminished because there is something else that we love more. Forward motion is blocked until we reorient our desires.

This might seem radical to you. How could there be anything wrong with catching movie, or becoming recognized as the reliable person who gets things done? You’re right. Sort of. These things aren’t bad in and of themselves. The danger is when we love the wrong things too much—when we consistently prioritize good things over the best things—to the point that our misaligned affections begin to hurt ourselves and other people.

How do you know if you’re going in the right direction?

How do you know if your desires and goals are rightly aligned? How do you know if you love the wrong things too much? Ultimately, you can test the direction of your heart and the goodness of your objectives by the drawing the line of sight between your goals and human flourishing—yours and other peoples. If your heart loves the wrong things they will eventually harm you and corrode or break relationships with other people.

So, what if you love the wrong things? How do you love the best things so that they get your attention, affection, and energy? You replace them with a greater love. Humans aren’t wired to unlearn something. Trying to stop focusing on something never achieves the desired result. Try it. Don’t think about pink elephants flying around. Serious, stop thinking about pink elephants. You’re welcome. Now tell a child to try as hard as possible not to press a button or not to eat a cookie. Stand back, watch and wait. Working to avoid it only causes them to fixate harder. We can’t just stop focusing on something and we can’t just stop loving something. We need to find something else to focus on, something that we desire more. This is one potential explanation for why people who engage in volunteering and community service experience multiple mental and physical health benefits as well as an increased sense of purpose. Connecting with and serving others and engaging in relationships can help replace our natural inward bent. A person struggling with depression who is focusing on other people instead of their symptoms doesn’t have the time or space in that moment to fixate on their struggles. We don’t undo things, we can’t undo things. But we can replace them over time with the power of a new desire.

Where do you have energy?

Start with heart and consider what you really love before you set any goals. Pause to evaluate your motives and be honest about your true loves. Focus on your loves and consider which ones can help humans grow and flourish. Then harness the power of those deep loves as you start to build your goals. Greco-Roman wrestlers and Jiu-Jitsu practitioners learn early on that one of the best ways to sustain energy is to leverage the drive of their opponent. When pushed, they pull. When pulled, they push, accelerating their power toward the winning pin or submission. If you already have momentum you’re a lot more likely to keep pursuing your goals. A goal isn’t worth pursuing if you if you don’t care a about it. Goals that win already have energy or commitment for you to harness.

OK, are you being honest with yourself about what you really love? Are your motives pure? If the answer is yes, then you’re ready to dissect the anatomy of goals to build some goals that work and win in Part 2 of The Heart and Science of Winning Goals. Check back soon.

By | 2017-12-28T18:39:00+00:00 December 28th, 2017|Leadership, Motivation|

About the Author:

Nothing gets me more excited than helping people and leaders discover who they are, where they’re going, and how to get there. Over the last decade, I’ve had the delight of coaching countless people as they navigate their future. I’ve served a diverse spectrum of individuals including young professionals and graduate students, scientists and engineers, and senior leaders and executives. My personal mission is to help people discover and develop their full potential. I approach my work with clients with energy, enthusiasm and positivity. The solutions I bring are practical and driven by evidence, not the latest fad. In addition to my coaching, I have the joy of building leadership development experiences for Slalom, an award-winning purpose-driven consulting firm that exists to help people love their work and their life. Before Slalom, I’ve had experiences as recruiter at Microsoft, a Career Management Consultant at Right Management Consultants, and as a coach, teacher, and advisor at three higher education institutions including Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business, Government, and Economics where I helped build a new graduate business program from the ground up. I’ve spoken at countless events, conferences, and professional associations. My research and writing focus on how to develop people and build authentic relationships founded on generosity. I earned my Ph.D. and M.A. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Seattle Pacific University, my B.A. in Psychology from Northwest University and my Eagle Scout Rank with the Boy Scouts of America.