Goals Are Stupid

February 1, 2012

NOTE: This article is on the American Express OPEN Forum with the title “How to Make Goal-Setting Work for You.”  But the title I really wanted was “Goals Are Stupid.”  I’ll let you decide if they are or not.

We are a society obsessed with goals. Nearly everyone sets them. In fact, we just finished the most popular goal-setting day of the year: New Year’s Eve. This is when we establish our annual objectives, called resolutions.

Even though goal-setting is in vogue, is it good for us? Maybe, but not necessarily.

After studying goals for nearly 10 years, I have seen that for many, this ritual can lead to both failure and disappointment. Why? Goal-gurus often use words like “achievement,” “success” and “potential.” They position these concepts in a way that sounds appealing. “Get a better job.” “Make more money.” “Find the perfect partner.” Although our culture has placed a high value on success, money, status and fame, none of these are what we really want. I believe the ultimate goal for human beings is “happiness.”

So, what is it that makes people happy?

A few years ago, I commissioned a statistically valid study that uncovered some startling figures:

  • 58 percent of people admit to willingly sacrificing their happiness today in the belief that when they achieve their goals they will be happier. This means that over half of all goal-setters believe that happiness only exists in the future when they achieve their goals.
  • Sadly, according to the same study, 92 percent of people fail to achieve their annual goal—their New Year’s resolution. And it appears that this failure rate applies to all goal-setting.

But what about the 8 percent who achieved their goals? Clearly they must be happy with the results. But surprisingly, 41 percent of those who achieved their goals found that the accomplishment did little to improve their happiness. In fact, they were left disillusioned, dissatisfied and worse afterwards. Why? Many realized they inadvertently set the “wrong” goal. What’s the response? Set yet another goal, and allow the vicious cycle to continue.

If you do the math, this means that only about 5 percent of goal-setters both achieve their goals and are happy as a result. And many of those “successful” 5 percent become acclimated to the fruits of their labor and the happiness wears off. The more money you make, the more money you want. The bigger your house, the more space you desire. The more successes you obtain, the more success you want.

This acclimation perspective is supported by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, in an interview in the January/February 2012 Harvard Business Review. He says:

“A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up. When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.”

He contends that happiness is not linked to achievement. In fact, he provides striking examples of people who had experienced “horrible” circumstances yet were ultimately happier in the long run. Apparently, we are good at finding the “silver lining.” On a lighter note, he quotes Pete Best, the drummer in the Beatles who was replaced by Ringo Starr before the band became big. He is now a session drummer and said, “I am happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”

Achievement does not necessarily drive happiness—nor does having “more” or “less.” To be clear, I am not advocating that people sit idly while eating bonbons and watching Jerry Springer. A life like this is neither juicy nor exciting and will most likely lead to hedonistic tendencies and a feeling of being lost. You still need to have something pulling you forward; something that gets you energized.

So here is what I am suggesting…

Read my four counterintuitive tips for goal-setting and the #1 fallacy of goal-setting on the American Express OPEN Forum

If you enjoyed this article, please press the “like” button on the American Express OPEN Forum website and spread the love.  Also, please leave comments there.

My 2012 Themes Revealed

January 12, 2012

Anyone who follows this blog knows that the New Year is my favorite time for reflecting on the past and creating the future.

If you have not read my article on “Making Resolutions That Work,” please do so.  Or, if you prefer, you can read the variant of this article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal exactly one year ago today by clicking on the image.

The general premise is that instead of setting resolutions that are specific goals (e.g., lose 10 pounds), you want to create themes that help guide you and your decision making throughout the year.

After spending a week of reflection, I have settled upon three themes:

  • More Money, Less Work, Greater Impact – This is my business theme.  In particular, I expect to create passive income revenue streams (i.e., make money in my sleep) through repurposing my content and levering channel partners.  By doing this, I can then focus my energies on activities that will have the greatest impact on business and society.
  • Rituals – I usually joke that I lack discipline, so I considered that as my theme.  But “discipline” sounds so harsh and not something that inspires me.  Then it hit me.  While on vacation recently I had some rituals (e.g., reading an inspirational passage upon waking or drinking tea before going to sleep) that I loved.  I realized I could treat “the things I need to do” as rituals.  If I think of writing, calling clients, managing the books, and other tasks as rituals, maybe they will inspire me more.
  • Perfect – This theme may seem a bit odd.  But when on vacation (reflecting on my theme for the year), I used the word “perfect” at least 100 times to describe the trip.  I realized that perfect is a state of mind.  When you declare things to be perfect, they are perfect.  How you see things gives you the reality.  Therefore, by declaration, 2012 will be “perfect.”

These themes get me excited about the New Year.  They also make activities that might have seemed tedious, more enjoyable (in particular the ritual theme).

What are your themes for 2012?

Balance of Work and Life is a Myth

August 10, 2011

Many years back, I led classes on Stephen Covey’s “Principle Centered Leadership” for Accenture’s managers. Over 75 percent of the attendees said that achieving balance in their life was their number one reason for taking the course. This is not surprising given the fast pace of life today. But what does balance mean?

Balance implies two opposing forces that reach equilibrium. This is not easy to do. Remember when you were a kid trying to balance with someone else on a seesaw? Either you were up or you were down. But rarely were you balanced. In life, either we are working hard or playing hard at any given moment. But we rarely are in balance. And when most refer to work/life balance being out of alignment, it is typically not because they are enjoying too much play and not enough work.

Maybe balance is not the solution. So what’s the alternative? Integration.

Find ways of integrating your work and personal life together. In doing this, you free up more time, you gain new interests, and your life becomes whole rather than piecemeal. One simple example is that of a professional speaker who loves golf. He now includes golf lessons as one of his client offerings. He gets to do what he loves while making money.

This concept applies to increasing time for relationships. Find ways of doing things together with your partner: Hobbies, interests, chores, or even work. A husband and wife I know never had time for one another. But when they learned about integration, they began to get actively involved in each other’s interests. He now takes cooking lessons with her, and she goes golfing with him. They created time by integrating their activities, enabling them to have more time for their individual pursuits.

How can you begin to integrate the pieces of your life?

First, look at what things interest you most. Next, ask how you can shift your daily schedule to embed these activities into what you do regularly. This will require some creative thinking. Finally, have the courage to ask for what you want.

Many years ago, I decided I wanted to be a professional speaker and an author. Instead of leaving the security of my consulting job, I decided to shift my responsibilities to include writing and speaking as part of my job. Unfortunately, this role did not exist. I needed to create a position that was of value to the organization—and then have the courage to ask for it and make it happen. I did and my idea grew into a 20,000-person organization. As part of my job, I wrote a book that was sold to 40,000 consultants and clients. I was giving as many as 100 speeches a year to tens of thousands of people. This eventually led to a book deal with a major publisher, which I used to launch my professional speaker career.

I know of a young couple that radically integrated their passions with work. Gary is a door-to-door salesman. While enjoyable for him, admittedly his job was not his passion. His passion is travel, and like most Americans, he squeezes this love into one, maybe two weeks over the course of a year.

One night, after a particularly difficult day on the job, Gary and his wife Deb, engaged in a conversation as to how he could create more passion within his career. It was unacceptable for them to wait for retirement or a windfall of money to land in their account. They wanted to live their dreams now, while they could.

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

How to Always Be On Time

June 8, 2011

If you have been around for a while, you might recall the Hertz commercials from the 70s where the ex-football star and criminal, O.J. Simpson, is running through airports hurdling over rows of departure lounge seats and luggage. I know of other road warriors who also run through airports, priding themselves in being able to arrive at the gate just as the doors are closing.

Not me. In fact, I tend to get to most places early. And there is a good reason.

My background is in process design where there is a concept called “the theory of constraints.” The general idea is that success is limited by at least one constraining process—a bottleneck. In the business world, this means if you want to improve capacity, the most effective way is to increase the throughput at the bottleneck so that overall throughput is increased. You can think of this as strengthening the weakest link in the chain. Or to provide a more visual representation, by expanding the neck of an hourglass, throughput will be significantly improved allowing the sand to move more rapidly to its destination.

These bottlenecks aren’t too difficult to spot. As an example, XYZ company launches a huge marketing campaign for a new product, but the call center is inadequately staffed to handle the volume of incoming requests. This bottleneck will cost them potential customers. By improving the throughput of the call center, overall throughput for the company will be improved.

While it is common for companies to employ the theory of constraints to improve business results, I also use aspects of this model to increase success in my own personal life. Take flying—with over 1 million miles of flying under my belt, I have never missed a flight. How is this possible? I identified the places where bottlenecks typically occur, and I put those behind me first.

There are many potential logjams we can face when trying to catch a flight: traffic on the way to the airport and long lines at the check-in counter, baggage drop-off, or security. Any one of these could prevent me from getting to my plane on time. I can’t predict when it will happen nor do I have the capability to minimize any of these potential bottlenecks (although I do try to fly during slower times when traffic to and in the airport will be less)…

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

P.S. I’m curious.  Which do you think is a stronger title for this article – “How to Always Be On Time” or “How to Never Be Late”?  Please leave a comment with your thoughts.

When You Sit on the Fence, You Get Splinters in Your Ass!

June 1, 2011

This article was published on the American Express OPEN Forum.  The title you see here on this blog was rejected by them and replaced with “The Art of Decision Making.”  I decided to retain the original.

A couple months back, Accenture released the results of a survey of more than 3,400 professionals in 29 countries showing that fewer than half of all respondents are satisfied with their current jobs. I suspect these less than glowing findings are far from surprising.

Reading the results reminded of a conversation that surfaced during a Q&A section of a workshop of mine a while back. One of the attendees asked, “I work in a cubicle in a well-known technology firm and I am unhappy. How do I know if it is me or if it is my job? Do I need to change myself or change my job?”

I queried the audience to get their responses and the answers ranged from, “Stay at your job while you explore other options,” to “If you are really miserable, find another job quickly and quit this job,” to the most outspoken (and comedic) within the group, “Quit your job now! How could you work another day for the evil empire?”

After collecting the various responses, people looked anxiously to me for the “correct” answer.

My perspective was a bit different than the masses. My response was four words: “It doesn’t really matter.”

Very simply put, with the right mindset, any decision is the right decision. If you sincerely believe that the path you are on is the right one, then it is. Quitting your job doesn’t change things. You can switch jobs all you would like, but without the right attitude, it won’t make a bit of difference. Conversely you can alter your attitude and find new opportunities in staying where you are today, without ever changing jobs.

We often fail to make progress in life and in business because we postpone action until we feel as though we have the “right answer.” We painstakingly research all the facts, consider every angle and study each relevant detail. However, this quest for the “right answer” has us sitting on the fence in limbo, often without end.

Instead of answers, perhaps what we need are decisions.

Sadly, many of us suffer from a mild form of “decidophobia“—the fear of making decisions. No, I didn’t make up that work. It was coined by Princeton University philosopher Walter Kaufmann in his 1973 book, Without Guilt and Justice.

It is human nature to avoid putting ourselves into circumstances that we see as being risky, uncomfortable or scary. Therefore, we often decide to not decide. Many relate to decisions as having a “right or wrong” with an associated set of risks and rewards. By postponing decision-making, we mistakenly believe we are avoiding or minimizing the pain and risks of a wrong decision. However, indecision is a no man’s land with no direction, no progress and often more angst.

Without decision, there is no commitment. If you stay in a job yet do not commit to it, there is no way you can be satisfied. You will always be looking elsewhere. If you stay in a relationship but have one foot out the door all of the time, there is no hope for the future.

Should I change my job? Should I stay in my relationship? Should I buy a new house? What should I do with my life? These all seem like pretty big decisions. And for most people, they are.

We think “Oh, it’s so hard to make these big decisions,” when what’s really hard is the indecision.

In life there are no right or wrong decisions. There are only decisions. When we come to a fork in the road, we tend to overanalyze it. We might say, “I have an opportunity to create this new business venture BUT…” These are the considerations that have us stay upon the same path. Or how often do we choose a different path and then rethink our decision.

One of the reasons we worry so much and wonder whether we are on the right track is that we often see decisions as long term, semi-permanent decisions.

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

How Losing Personal Attachments Can Help You Realize Ambition

April 20, 2011

My friend Susanne and I were recently playing a trivia game, a game in which she excels. However, at one point, she got a couple wrong answers in row. “Urgh,” she blurted out, “every time I have a gut answer and change it, it was actually correct.”

This made me curious. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Blink, said that we make our best decisions in a blink of an eye. Was this true in Susanne’s case? Or was her mind playing tricks on her? To test this out, we did a little—admittedly unscientific—experiment.

We turned to a set of trivia questions where you had to guess the year that different events took place, like the year President Ford survived two assassination attempts (1975), or the year Pete Rose set a National League consecutive game hitting streak record of 44 (1978).

For our experiment, we took 10 questions. I would read aloud the name of an event (like the signing of the SALT II treaty) and Susanne would instantaneously give me her “gut” answer. I marked those down She would then take a bit more time to apply some analysis and come up with a final “logical” answer. In this case, the correct answer is 1979.

The results?

Out of 10 questions:

  • One of her “gut” answers was closer than her “logical” answer—but only by one year.
  • Four responses were unchanged after applying further reasoning. This means that 40% of the time, her “gut” answer and “logical” answer were the same.
  • Five times, when she changed her “gut” response, her “logical” answer proved to be closer to the real date, often significantly closer.

What does this mean? Well, given that our study was not statistically valid, not much. However, it does highlight an interesting point.

Humans get attached to things—in this particular case, it was Susanne’s gut responses.

Furthermore, when we change an answer that was originally correct to give a final answer that is wrong, we kick ourselves. The irony is that we are much less likely to remember the situations where our gut answer was wrong and our final answer was correct.

This correlates to a study done with college students who were given a multiple-choice exam. The test administrators developed it in such a way that they could track when a student changed an answer.

After the students received their results, the examiner asked if, when the student changed a particular answer, whether they believed that their first answer was correct more often or not. Nearly all of the students believed that their first answers, or “gut” answers, were in fact usually correct, and that when they changed their response they more often got it wrong. This was similar to Susanne’s initial belief.

However, the study showed that the students’ final answers were more often correct than their gut answers— and by a wide margin.

So why is it that these students believed that their initial reactions we more accurate?

One reason is attachment. In particular, we feel losses more powerfully than we notice gains. In fact, a recent study showed that a loss of a relationship activates the same parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain. Losses truly are painful.

The students and Susanne felt a “loss” when a correct gut answer was changed. But they barely noticed the “gain” associated with a wrong gut answer that was ultimately corrected. This is a small example of how attachment affects us, however if you really take an honest look, attachment permeates throughout our entire lives.

Human beings are like packrats. We collect everything: ideas, material possessions, and relationships. However, when packrats stumble across something new that they wish to acquire, they will drop what they are currently carrying and “trade” it for the new item. One might say that these tiny creates are free to explore the world unencumbered by the past. This is in complete contrast to what human’s do. It is rare for us to drop something once we have it. We find it difficult to let go.

What can we learn from this?

Take a look at what you have in your life. What are you attached to? Are you holding on to these things just because you already have them? Consider that these attachments may, in fact, be weighing you down and preventing you from being able to effectively operate or generate creative and fulfilling alternatives in your life. I suspect that people would love to reinvent their lives but haven’t done so because they are already invested in what they have.

How can you break free?

Take an inventory of your life: your belongings, your job, your friends, and your relationships. If you were to design your life from scratch, would you seek out these same things and people? Or, would you make different choices?

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

How to Be Selfless by Being Self-Centered

April 14, 2011

I travel the world extensively. And during these jaunts I am always interested to hear of the differing points of view held by others about American culture. One commonly-held perception is that Americans are self-centered, believing that they are the center of the universe.

There is some truth to this perspective. On the whole, American culture is individualistic.

Studies have been conducted illustrating the differing impact of independent versus interdependent cultures; Americans being independent and Asians, for example, being interdependent.

An article in New Scientist Magazine titled “Self-Centered Cultures Narrow Your Viewpoint” reported that cultures emphasizing individualism fail at being able to infer another person’s perspective. Cultures that emphasize interdependence, on the other hand, are easily able to put themselves in the shoes of others and be more empathetic. A lack of empathy can certainly give the perspective that an individualistic society is self-centered.

To illustrate the difference between individualistic and interdependent culture, the study used the example of a U.S.-based company that attempted to improve productivity by telling its employees to “look in the mirror and say ‘I am beautiful’ 100 times before coming to work.” In contrast, a Japanese supermarket instructed its employees to “begin their day by telling each other ‘you are beautiful’.”

But is being self-centered really all that bad?

Perhaps I can offer up a slightly different definition for self-centered. It depicts a way of being self-centered that might actually be beneficial.

To start off, I am not suggesting that people should be selfish. I think of selfish as being “exclusively concerned with oneself.” And while selfish and self-centered are found to be synonymous in the dictionary, being self-centered—in my opinion—is entirely different.

Centering is what you base your life on—what you focus your attention on.

My parents are children-centered. For them, my sister and I are the most important part of their lives. They live vicariously through us, listening intently as we share our day’s events or track our whereabouts via Facebook.

I have friends who are spouse-centered in that they do everything to please their partner.

Many of my friends are work-centered. Their job is the most important aspect in their life. They get meaning from their career. It is no surprise that men are twice as likely to die during their first five years of retirement, than they are prior to retirement. [NOTE: Being work-centered is different than “marrying your work.”]

Others are service-centered. They give their lives to charity and others. They sacrifice their own well-being for their cause of choice.

In fact, in an apparent attempt to shed the self-centered label, I have seen the pendulum swing so far over in some areas that there has become a complete disregard for one’s own self.

As a simple illustration, several years back, I had conducted a survey for a book that I was writing covering individual’s relationships to goals. The study uncovered that 53 percent of people agreed with the statement: “I sometimes get the feeling that I am living my life in a way that satisfies others (friends, family, co-workers) more than it satisfies me.”

Is this healthy?

This leads me to the benefits of self-centering…

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

Kit Kat Video on Working Hard

April 12, 2011

I love this video. I was just in Mexico on vacation and I saw all of the vacationers working hard while the locals were enjoying the sea and sun. It made me think about this commercial for Kit Kat. Ah, so true…

Making Resolutions that Work

January 3, 2011

It is that time of year when everyone sets their New Year’s Resolutions.

Here is an article a wrote a while ago, but is indeed timeless:

Resolutions That Work

I was going to post the entire article again, but I just received news that this will be published nationwide in a major newspaper in a couple of weeks.  So instead I am only including the link.

And if you like statistics and want to dig even deeper into them, be sure to check out this article:

Interesting New Year’s Resolution Statistics

Enjoy and Happy New Year!

Why We Crave Goals

December 23, 2010

As many of you may know, my second book was called “Goal-Free Living.”  Although it was originally going to be a book on how to be more creative, it morphed into a manifesto for a counter-cultural way of living.

In fact, the “goal-free” philosophy will be featured in a major newspaper early next year.  Stay tuned for that.

Someone once asked me why people crave goals.  It is a hard question to answer.  But an interesting point of view was sent to me by Antony Woods from Australia, and I wanted to share it with you…

He quotes a renowned 20th Century Burmese Meditation Master:

“The fourth protection for your psychological benefit is to reflect on the phenomenon of ever-approaching death. Buddhist teachings stress that life is uncertain, but death is certain; life is precarious but death is sure. Life has death as its goal. There is birth, disease, suffering, old age, and eventually, death. These are all aspects of the process of existence.”

From: Practical Vipassana Meditation Exercises by Mahasi Sayadaw

Antony then suggested that “people often set goals for their lives assuming that they won’t die in the foreseeable future. They assume that the New Year will come, tomorrow will come etc. The only thing one knows that is coming is death, but one doesn’t know when. Rather than thinking “death, death, death,” reflection helps one to appreciate the duration of each breath and have a playful, tentative and pragmatic attitude about the future.  I reckon this is what Goal-Free Living is all about.”

Interesting thing to consider as we get ready for New Year’s Eve and the goal-setting ritual known as “resolutions.”

« Previous PageNext Page »