Chasing the wrong goal

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It’s funny, I can’t tell you exactly what year it was, but I remember the precise moment I realized that I was pursuing the wrong goal. Here’s the story.

Isaac Asimov was one of my great writing heroes. He wrote amazing science fiction, but also novels and science and history and more. At the time I set my goal, he had written more than 100 books. I never thought I could match his quality or the ultimate number of books he wrote, but I figured writing 100 books was a good goal.

I pursued that goal doggedly for almost two decades. During that time, I wrote a lot of books because the goal concentrated my efforts and energy.

Goals Are Powerful

There’s a lot of nonsense that’s been written about goals, but there’s some good science, too. Gary Latham and Edwin Locke have made careers of studying goal-setting. Their 2002 article in American Psychologist outlines three ways that goals help you to do better and achieve more.

  • Setting goals forces you to make choices.
  • Setting goals gives you energy.
  • Setting goals makes you more persistent.

The problem is, that like any powerful force, it can be used for good or evil. I had just discovered the evil side

Bad Goals May Be Worse Than No Goals

If you don’t have any goals, you just kind of wander through life hoping that things get better. But if you have the wrong goal, a goal that doesn’t really achieve what you want to achieve, it’s like leaning a ladder against the wrong wall. Sure, you can climb it and make progress, but you’re going to wind up in a place you don’t necessarily want to be. That’s what happened to me.

The Problem with The Goal of Writing 100 Books

Writing 100 books was a powerful goal. Not only that, it was a countable goal. The day that I realized it was the wrong goal was a Saturday. I was doing what has been my habit for fifty years, reviewing my progress from the week before and thinking about how I could do things better in the future. That’s when it hit me.

Because my goal was writing 100 books, I was tweaking my measurement and choosing my projects in ways that increased the numbers without necessarily increasing the quality of the books I was writing.

I used the definition of a book that the Postal Service used at the time. It said that a book had to have at least 50 pages. “Great,” I thought. I started taking on shorter projects. I’d try a 75-page project that I could knock out quickly rather than a 100-page or 200-page project that required some real effort to do well. I started counting audio and video scripts as books that moved me count closer to 100. That was bad enough, but my goal put me in conflict two of my core values.

Since I started writing seriously, one of my values is to write great material. When I work with ghostwriting clients, that’s one of the conditions of an engagement, that they commit to working on a project that can become a great book. Doing quality work was and is a core value. The 100-book goal influenced my behavior so I wasn’t living that value.

I found myself recommending shorter “books” to clients. That’s violated another core value, the one about putting client needs first. Instead of concentrating on what was best for them and putting my clients first, my 100-book goal ruled the day.

The day that I realized what I was doing was the day I quit counting books.

What I Learned from My Goal-Setting Fiasco

I learned that values should trump goals. Goals might make me feel better because I could track progress toward them, but staying true to my values was more likely to make me happier and, I think, more successful over the long term.

I learned that countable goals are like performance-enhancing drugs. If you can count it, it seems ever so concrete and real. In fact, it’s not. You set your own goals, so you control your standards.

I learned that sometimes the most important things are not the things that you can count. I’ve never figured out how to count great work, but I can assess it. I know when I’m doing great work and when I’m not. Not having that countable, 100-book, goal makes it easier for me to do what’s right for my clients and for me.

Bottom Line

Goals can be powerful because they can influence your behavior, but that influence can be for either the right reasons or the wrong ones. Choose goals that support your core values, even if there’s not anything countable to be found.

Reading Resource

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson is easily the best book I have ever read about setting goals. She brings the understanding of science to the practical reality of setting goals in real life. No matter who you are, how successful you’ve been, or how much you know about goal-setting, you should buy and read this book.

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