You will not be surprised to learn that I read blogs which provide business advice and decided to hire a business coach to help me with my career.
Naomi Dunford at IttyBiz wrote a series about goal setting back in 2013 (it’s no longer available on her site). In her first post of the series she raises a very important point:
When you achieve a goal, what you are guaranteed to achieve is the goal, and only the goal.
Those are your only guarantees at the end of the goal.
However, it’s common to attach a magical ending to the end of the goal – a bonus, if you will – and believe that the magical ending is guaranteed, too.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those goals. They’re part of the equation, but they are only part of the equation.
Once the goal is achieved, it won’t make the magical ending happen “just because.”
This applies to your goals, too.
Some of the goals you might set yourself:
- Publish 2 articles in the next year.
- Use innovative methods in the class you are teaching.
- Finish the PhD.
All of these are good goals. All of them are achievable. And the only thing that is guaranteed if you achieve them is 2 published articles, a finished PhD, and a better idea of how those innovative methods work in practice.
Have you attached magical endings to any of these goals?
- … and then I’ll get a tenure-track job
- … and then I’ll be able to stop working 80-hour weeks
- … and then my colleagues will respect me
It’s not that your very specific, achievable goal is irrelevant to this bigger thing that you want. Your chances of getting a tenure-track job are certainly better if you’ve finished the PhD and published a couple of articles, for example.
It’s that doing the first thing doesn’t guarantee the second thing. It’s a piece of the puzzle. But it’s probably just one piece.
Some magical endings really do require something that looks like magic to happen. You can never control all the pieces.
Take the magic out of the ending and evaluate whether you still want the goal.
All of the sample goals I listed above have merit without the magical ending.
- Publishing gets the knowledge you have created into a wider conversation.
- Innovative teaching methods may improve learning.
- Finishing your PhD creates new knowledge and enables you to move on to new projects.
There is also the possibility that you might find some metaphorical jump boots while you are doing those things. Or even discover a secret door into an ending you couldn’t imagine.
Taking the magic out is a good thing.
I started with Naomi’s premise and I’m going to end with her conclusion.
When you realize why your goal won’t magically make things better all by itself, you’ll realize what else you can do to actually start making things better.
And then you’ve got a plan.
It may be less sexy. But it is also less likely to set you up for frustration and disappointment.
You don’t have to know what you’re going to be when you grow up (On not making the value of present actions dependent on future outcomes over which you don’t have control.)
This post was originally posted June 13, 2013. It has been edited originally and again in December 2021.