Like most people, at any given time, I am achieving some of my goals and not achieving others. Part of the challenge is that goals come in different sizes. Some are small, tidy as an afternoon, things that you can just check off, like cleaning the garage. But others are large; they spread across the years, cast long shadows, and may be so big, so important, that you are reluctant even to say them aloud.
The term that I’ve heard used for goals on the bigger side of things is stretchy. Hard to nail down, hard to see across, and they may change over time. It’s these goals in particular that can have the biggest impact, cause the most growth, but they’re also the hardest to achieve.
Sitting down each year to meet with faculty about goals, I always find myself leaning forward a bit more when the conversations veer toward one of these big goals. There’s something exciting about the opportunities they present and the hopes that drive them. I work with eighth graders, too, on their goals, as part of a class called Capstone. Tasked with creating their own year-long project, the eighth graders will embark on projects driven by a stretchy goal, such as starting a business, creating a mural, or designing a go-kart.
In each instance, we do the normal things one does with goals — figure out how to break them into manageable pieces, how to get started, what to do next. But more than that, talking with hundreds of people over the years about their goals, there are other themes that emerge, which are just as important and can make a big difference.
- Goals need permission: How many times do you think of a goal then dismiss it out of hand? You decide it’s impractical, likely to fail, too out of the ordinary, impossible. The very act of setting a goal can sometimes feel presumptuous or extravagant. Who am I to think of such things? Over the years, meeting with faculty and students, the goals that in the end have been the most inspiring often began as little more than a whisper or a throwaway comment. In most cases, it took someone else listening, nodding, and agreeing for the goals take root. If you don’t have someone nodding or listening, you’ll have to do this yourself. Before you commit or plan—before you decide if the goal is good or bad—you first need to give the goal permission to speak.
- Questions are better: Go to the gym three times per week. Earn a million dollars. Read more books. If you approach your goals as if they are simply tasks to complete, then you back yourself into a corner. The assumption when you write your goals as a statement is that the only thing needed for success is commitment and willpower. In fact, what big goals really need is a question. How could I get in shape? is better than Go to the gym three times per week, for several reasons. First, questions engage our curiosity. They invite us in, get us thinking and wondering. They open up possibilities and different ways of accomplishing what’s important to us. Finally, when things don’t go as planned and the situation changes, questions are things that you can come back to, ideally with understanding and context gained through experience.
- Talk to a person: Big goals almost always require learning new stuff. While you can find out just about anything on the internet, people are always a better resource. If you have the opportunity to talk to someone about your business, about your garden, about running a marathon, you’ll learn more. And, you might even form a connection.
- Some goals catch fire. When goals fail, including our own, we often lay blame in predictable places — laziness, poor planning, bad circumstance. Many times, however, the issue is the goal itself. If a goal stops being meaningful to you (or, never was so to begin with) then everything becomes harder, everything moves slower. It’s important, though not always easy, to recognize when a goal isn’t for you — and the sooner that you can make that determination, the sooner you can move on to something meaningful. The best people at recognizing when a goal isn’t working are my eighth graders. Sometimes, they literally can’t do even one more thing. The advantage this gives them is that they are then freed up to find something that they are excited about, that they are interested in, that captures their curiosity. After all, there are some goals that spark, that catch fire, that make their own energy — and these are the ones that you want to find.
- But why goals anyway? Here’s a closing thought. A little while back I walked into a room used to train hospice workers. There was a hospital bed with a dummy, a table with plastic flowers, a walker, shelving, bedpans, a blood pressure cuff, and on a placard, hanging from the wall above the bed, a sign that read “People are worth more than their productivity.” It might be an odd message for an article on goal-setting, but it actually points right to the center of what goal-setting is about. We don’t pursue goals to measure our own worth or to prove it to others. We pursue goals as a way of engaging with life, of learning about ourselves, and of searching for what’s important.
Happy goal setting!
To visit the Peck News digital companion to learn more about Stretchy Goal at The Peck School, visit www.peckschool.org/pecknews