We're setting goals wrong, we're missing the point, and it's troubling

May 30, 2020

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I bet you've heard of S.M.A.R.T goals. If you haven't you should, and luckily enough I'm going to tell you about it here. But this article isn't about S.M.A.R.T goals. It's about what's underneath. It's about how we consistently miss the point of goals in our quest for success. It's about how that's toxic. And mostly, it's about celebrating ourselves a little more, because that's more important than we seem to want it to be.


I bet you've heard of S.M.A.R.T goals. If you haven't you should, and luckily enough I'm going to tell you about it shortly. This article isn't really about S.M.A.R.T goals, though. It's about what's underneath them. It's about how we consistently miss the point of goals in our various quests for success, driven by an overzealous success culture. It's about how that's toxic. And mostly, it's about celebrating ourselves a little more, because that's more important that we seem to want it to be.

The "S.M.A.R.T" in the S.M.A.R.T goal is an acronym that's supposed to remind us the composition of a ideal goal. We typically have something like:

  • Specific: the goal should have clear edges. Too broad and it's hard to reach.
  • Measurable: the goal should have a built in method of measuring progress. Without this, we can't judge whether we're progressing, stagnating, or regressing.
  • Achievable: the goal should be realistic, and something that can actually be done.
  • Relevant: the goal should be in alignment with some kind of broader goal or vision.
  • Time-limited: the goal should have some kind of end point on it, and not be allowed to drag on indefinitely.

There are variations. People are particularly fond of swapping out the R word and the A word (resourced, assignable, realistic, attainable, etc). But it's always something like this. It outlines goals that are clearly defined with a clear end point, with a way of measuring progress, and which aren't something that's out of reach. It's a good framework. It's both intuitively sensible, and with demonstrated effectiveness in the corporate world, in governmental policy, in the fitness industry, and beyond. And that's why the S.M.A.R.T goal, or at least the ideas it tries to convey, inhabit almost any motivational or success-oriented program we're exposed to. Poke around online a little and you'll see what I mean (or just read on).

What troubles me with the many implementations of the S.M.A.R.T goal is that the implied endstate is ignored.

The implications of the S.M.A.R.T goal and how we lost it.

All of the elements of the S.M.A.R.T goal point in one direction. The end. Achievable, realistic, time-limited, specific, measurable. All these words indicate a goal that can be accomplished.

This isn't an accident. Finishing is just as important as starting. It's not just that goals aren't particularly useful if you can't achieve them. It's crucial because the act of achieving a goal is a fundamental aspect of our motivation. If we don't experience the success of achievement, we have no fuel for the motivation to continue to the next goal. We don't develop our self-efficacy: our belief that we can achieve things--that we are competent. We don't percieve ourselves as achievers. This is a problem.

Success culture often misses this, and it's toxic

To demonstrate how this implication goes unrecognised, let me cut a little snippet from a typical example of a certain brand of success culture we often see scattered around our media streams. This is from a piece that first appeared in Men's Fitness from Mark Twight of fitness club Gym Jones fame. It reappears in slightly modified form on his newest project here.

This is a recipe. Some ingredients are hard to come by, and even more difficult to prepare.
Recognize the need for change.
Revolt against old behavior and habits.
Resolve to be consistent and persistent.
Define Point B: what you want to achieve, clearly.
Define Point A: an honest, unsentimental account of your present state.
Decide on a deadline, and give yourself a penalty for missing it. Be realistic.
Design the training program: seek guidance.

Mark Twight, both with Gym Jones and in his newer project, styles himself as a bit of a renegade. People are soft, weakened by complacency. Strength comes from discipline and struggle. And Mark wants to tell it to you straight because he's tired of people beating around the bush.

And to be honest, he's not wrong.

Strength does come from discipline. The more we push through the obstacles to our success, from procrastination, to fear, to boredom, the better we become at it. And those who are best as pushing are often the most successful. Angela Duckworth has centred her academic career on this idea. She calls it 'grit': the stamina to persevere in the face of odds. And the evidence she's collected indicates its often more important than, for example, IQ or the nature of our education. Stephen Pressfield's hugely popular "War of Art" is so popular because it attacks this very issue--overcoming what he calls 'resistance' through sheer will.

It's also true that this skill is rarely developed without a prompt in the form of difficulty. Many journeys lead people to a place where discipline is developed, and most involve some kind of struggle to prompt that discovery. We must discover this strength of will within us, to know it's there before we can develop it. The more opportunities we're afforded, through luck or money or social support, the less robust we become to the challenges we might be exposed to outside the safer harbours of our communities. I would suggest that the majority of people reading this are experiencing a time of unprecedented wealth and opportunity. The majority of people reading this are not facing wars being faught in their neighbourhoods, or infrastructure so poor that slums characterise vast swaths of our cities (as was the case in the UK as recently as 60 years ago). The systemic racism that has sparked a global civil unrest at the time of writing is not the racism of 100 years ago. That racism still exists. Poverty endures. Militaristic violence still flares. But on the whole we are more comfortable than ever before. The COVID19 pandemic is particularly illustrative--we have comfort delivered. Even in a time when we are forced to retreat from the comforts of our world, a surprising number of us are still capable of living comfortable lives. We have made this world safer, and we are thus less prepared when that fragile peace we have brokered is disrupted.

And finally, of course, too many people will obscure the truth from us with their courtesy or their malice or their indifference.

Which is why variations on the theme of Mark Twight's recipe are scattered throughout the internet. It speaks to us. And it sensibly, of course, incorporates our S.M.A.R.Ts.

The toxic part

It is a shame, then, that this kind of no shit, hard yakka narrative so often proceeds to derail itself. Let's see what Mark writes next:

In short, build a solid foundation, write a long training history, and accept a longer trajectory. If you need it three months from now you should have started three months ago. At least. There are no shortcuts. This is a long-term process and it should last for the rest of your life. You will not "arrive".

This is the kind of toxic thinking that brings down the whole structure. Our success culture spends so long focusing on the incremental improvements, the holding ourselves accountable, the exposure to difficulty to encourage growth, and the ongoing journey, that it never stops to recognise our achievements. You see it in the Silicon Valley style 'biohacking', where the vogue is to jump from improvement strategy to improvement strategy with no real end in sight. You hear it in the most popular podcasts--Joe Rogan has built an empire on discpline and persistance, with little in the way of appreciating how far we've come. Even less aggressive messaging, like that found in the advice of Kayla Itsines, fails to remind us to celebrate our achievements even as it encourages us to be forgiving of our failures.

And so this concentration on being S.M.A.R.T, on setting achievable, realistic, measurable goals; this emphasis on pushing through the struggle and the self-discovery that arises; these things are presented to us in a way that only fleetingly engages with the entire point of starting something: to finish it. So much of this process is the reflection on our successes. But not in the strange kind of superficial veneration of failure so recently popular. This isn't so much about learning from our successes (or lack thereof) to inform the next success. That's important of course. But reflecting on the achievement of a goal should also be about just that: we did it. We achieved something. We are able to achieve something. Feel that pleasure. You deserve it.

Indeed, one of the most fundamental aspects of our social relationships is tied deeply to this kind of celebration. It's called 'capitalization'. The sharing of our successes with others, and having them recognise that success, goes far beyond the positivity we feel in succeeding in the first place. Yet, Mark Twight helpfully goes on to demonstrate the kind of unfortunate blindness that falls naturally out of this fixed, forward-focused mindset:

Do you really need an audience? Do you need affirmation from others - who are probably lying anyway? Leave them out of it.

Don't leave them out of it. You might not need an audience, and you don't need to give your achievements the respect they deserve. But if you're the kind of person who is too busy planning the next goal that they fail to celebrate the one they just completed, you aren't making yourself stronger and more resilient. You're sabotaging the very process you're engaged in.

Outro

So, follow whatever motivation narrative you like. Perhaps, for you, humans are inherently weak. Many great thinkers have held this perspective throughout history. Or perhaps, for you, humans are inherently strong. Certainly one of the defining features of the human race, for better or for worse, is that we are robust--across climate, across upheaval, and across pain. Perhaps modern life is the problem, or perhaps it represents an opportunity. Again, both views have their merits.

The narrative probably doesn't matter, so much as how well it motivates you. Just take the time out to congratulate yourself. It's important.

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