“Without goals, you become what you were. With goals, you become what you wish.”
— James Fadiman
As I’ve grown in my personal life and as a businessperson, I’ve come to recognize a powerful relationship between basic axioms (such as the one just above from James Fadiman) and the setting of my own goals.
To paraphrase Mr. Webster, an axiom is a self-evident truth or proposition. Many are quite familiar, so much so that phrases including “Honesty is the best policy” or “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” have become ingrained in our minds.
If you approach them the right way, goals can become just as ingrained as these common axioms, especially if we embrace them, internalize them and allow them to inform how we conduct our lives and how we think about what we’re doing.
Believe it or not, goals can guide almost everything we do, from how we schedule our time to how we establish our business and personal relationships or determine the things we choose to learn. In other words, when we turn to them as a way of guiding ourselves and as a method of achieving and attaining the things we want, goals become powerful tools indeed.
A LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Trouble is, axioms and goals often cut both ways and can open doors for us or, when misapplied or mismanaged, will set limits on what we can accomplish.
Consider the axiom, “Be careful what you wish for.” This chestnut points to the fact that when you wish for and attain something, sometimes things do not turn out as you’ve planned. Unfortunately, there’s truth to this saying for a great many people, and I’d like to suggest that we should examine why this is the case.
Personally, I believe that the unintended and often negative consequences of “getting what we want” come from setting goals without thought or at least without adequate thought. That’s why I believe that any time you’re establishing goals, you need to begin that process with a simple question: “Do I really want what I’m seeking?”
That may be an obvious point, but it seems to me that too many of us fail to consider our true desires in setting our minds on specific goals and end up wishing for things we don’t really want.
At times, in fact, there almost seems to be an element of predestination in what people pursue. I’ve often thought this is why so many children of doctors and lawyers become doctors or lawyers: Everyone involved makes assumptions based on life experiences and makes decisions based on a sense of obligation rather than true desires.
In addition and all too often, we see situations in which “force of habit” defines how we approach various aspects of our lives – from the big things, such as choosing a career, to the mundane ones, such as deciding what to eat for breakfast.
When it comes to our true desires, these senses of family tradition or force of habit really shouldn’t apply. Rather, the important thing is allowing yourself to step back and question what it is you really want and assess how well your habits serve your efforts to reach those desires.
If this seems overly philosophical, stop and think about how many people you know who don’t like what they do for a living. If you’ve ever found yourself in that situation where each day you face seems like a dreary extension of the one before it, I trust you came to recognize that you needed to make a change – and set yourself some new goals that better reflected your true desires.
Another difficulty of goals is that nothing about them is automatic or guaranteed. The plain fact, in other words, is that they don’t always work and become attainable.
A big part of why that’s so is that many people do not take the process far enough and establish specific-enough targets. Some goals, for example, sound very good but don’t really support a plan of action. These include some of the classics, such as “Someday I’d like to be rich and famous” or “My goal is to find happiness.”
Yes, prosperity and happiness are important, but without a foundation of specific, action-related goals, you’ll never reach them. They’re by-products of good, positive goal setting, not true goals in and of themselves. Another example is health: Often, people will set goals related to losing weight or increasing their energy levels – wonderful ideas, but unattainable without a specific, incremental, goal-oriented game plan.
(On a more practical, commercial level, setting a goal of doubling your company’s gross or output over a given period of time is meaningless without a specific game plan and subordinate goals that make the main goal workable.)
If you’ve been reading “Aqua Culture” for any stretch of time, you probably know that I’m someone who enjoys and values the good life.
I enjoy great dining, fine wine, golf and sailing, and I’m aware that “A-type” personalities might look at the way I conduct my life and suggest that I’m wasting time. I’m also aware that many of my friends comment on how fortunate I am to have time to indulge in these pleasures.
Frankly, I don’t have any more time for fun than most people. Where I differ is that I make enjoying my life one of my chief goals, an important part of my plan. Where I find tremendous satisfaction in moving forward toward my goals in business, I also find it supremely satisfying that I enjoy myself along the way.
A modest thought: Most people I know work way too hard and need to inject some fun and relaxation into their game plans here and there.
Another key to effective goal setting has to do with being able to express your goal concisely in an understandable, plausible way. Yes, almost anything is possible, but without clarity and realism in the planning process, the odds of your getting where you want to be will decrease dramatically.
You could, for example, set your sights on becoming a billionaire in a year’s time. That might be plausible for a couple of us, but for most of us it’s not and represents an unrealistic goal and a pathway to frustration and failure.
More reasonable might be setting your sights on becoming a millionaire in a five-year span. This is something that’s actually within reach for a great many people, even people in their twenties who achieve great financial success in short periods of time. In fact, I would argue that setting a goal for financial success or, more important, for finding satisfaction in your work is absolutely reachable by most everyone.
When you settle on a reasonable, reachable goal, a big part of realizing that goal is being able to visualize yourself achieving it. I’ve had a great deal of experience in public speaking, for example, and have been successful at it for a range of reasons. In this area, I’ve set myself three specific (and related) goals: I will be entertaining; I will be informative; and I will be engaging. No matter how often I’ve spoken to groups of people, I still take time to visualize myself being all three in front of an audience.
In setting your goals, whether business or personal, if you cannot easily see yourself doing what’s needed to achieve your goal, you might need to adjust your thinking.
This doesn’t mean abandoning your overall goal – quite the contrary. Instead, all it might mean is that you need to be realistic about your current level of preparedness for success and insert more interim goals for the short term as you pursue the ultimate goal.
As an example, I’m very interested in taking on landscape lighting as an adjunct to my work in designing and building watershapes and have accordingly set it as one of my goals.
Goals in Context
Goal setting can become very complicated when others are involved.
There are many people, for example, who make it their business to set goals for other people. We call them managers, and there’s no escaping their need to set goals for those around them. This causes conflicts, however, because most people who work under those managers are not so good at accepting agendas imposed upon them from above.
The more a manager tries to force a vision of how things should be onto others, the more resistant those others tend to become. And this principle applies with employees as well as subcontractors, especially when the manager uses fear (of dismissal or loss of income or some other negative effect) as a motivational tool. This is poor management strategy: Ultimately, fear cannot inspire others to embrace your long-term game plan as their own.
A better way to go is to lead people to see your goals in the same light as you see them. For example, if we’re talking about a time frame on a watershape installation, rather than simply state how long you think a given portion of the job should take, try asking your subcontractors what they think is reasonable in light of the client’s desire for speedy completion and superior quality.
When goals extend from their idea of what makes sense, now your goal is their goal, they’re bought into the process of establishing the goal and they’re far more likely to see it through without resentment or hesitation. In other words, you’ve led them to conclusions that support the overall aim.
My ultimate goal of being a recognized authority on water and surrounding it with lights that accentuate its beauty and the appearance of the landscape around it is off in the distance. For right now, I have set up interim goals having to do with getting an education in lighting technology, basic electrical engineering and principles of landscape lighting design and application.
As I stand here today, I can’t visualize myself specifying a lighting plan for any of the projects I have on the table. What I can visualize is taking classes, reading books, talking with lighting designers and learning as much as possible about everything that goes into the expertise I seek. It’s an incremental process, and I’m realistic about what it will take to get what I want.
In “goal clusters” such as my pursuit of expertise in landscape lighting, the issue of time frames enters the picture. In many cases, time frames are essential – such as when you know a specific opportunity will become available at a certain time and the only way you can seize it is by being ready at a certain time.
In other cases, however, time frames are limiting and are too often used to avoid taking action. If, for example, you want to double your output in a five-year span, you might not implement certain key aspects of your plan because your generous timeline doesn’t require action just yet.
In my experience, improvement is not something that calls for waiting: If you set a goal of doubling your output with no time frame attached, you don’t have any excuse for procrastinating. I’m not saying you have to become obsessed with achieving your goals immediately: What you need instead is balance and an understanding and awareness of all the factors involved in success.
Nothing about this discussion is complicated or particularly difficult, but it’s amazing how we human beings have a capacity to place significant limits on our ability to set and reach goals.
Recognizing these tendencies (listed below) in yourself and working to overcome them can give you a real boost in your effort to set and obtain your goals:
[ ] Inhibitions: At the beginning of this column, I inserted a quote from James Fadiman, author of Un-limit Your Life: Setting and Getting Goals – a wonderful book I read in 1993 and upon which I’ve based much of my own approach to goal setting. His exploration of human limitations is particularly insightful. He says, for example, that “Inhibitions are like ‘Do Not Enter’ signs in front of unlocked doors.”
As some of you know, I’m an extremely uninhibited person, but like everyone else I’ve had to work at it. Ask yourself this: Do you ever say things such as “I can’t do this” or “I’m not really interested in trying to do that”? Many of us, even the uninhibited among us, do this all the time – and limit ourselves in the process.
This is where being realistic about goals can be misused as an excuse for not moving forward. You hear it in things we commonly say, such as “I’m just being realistic” or “You can’t get blood from a stone” or “I’m nobody’s fool.” Being realistic means finding a path to your goals. It does not mean coming up with excuses that prevent you from moving in the right direction.
[ ] Compulsions: These constitute another nasty form of limitation that can be remarkably detrimental. I’ve known people, for example, who are scrupulously clean and organized, and certainly there’s nothing at all wrong with being tidy and neat. But when you consistently focus on cleaning your desk instead of doing the work at hand, then the compulsion for cleanliness becomes an enormous roadblock.
[ ] Habitual Behaviors: Almost everyone I know has a bad habit or two – and many of them are things that have a way of limiting success in achieving goals by keeping you from moving toward your objective.
Habitual behaviors, whether implemented by individuals or organizations, are often used as a way to justify the status quo. In that context, even positive habits can get in the way if they become excuses for not trying new things or looking at something in a new way and end up trapping us in habitual rituals.
When you find yourself saying or thinking “That’s just the way we do things” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it’s time to look closely at the limitations these thought patterns are imposing.
[ ] Guilt: This is a big one – often one of the toughest limitations to identify and overcome: There are a great many people who for some reason believe they are unworthy of success or happiness.
Figuring out why we suffer guilt can require some serious soul searching and self-awareness. The plain fact is that many of us are reluctant to set goals for things we really want because we feel guilty about moving purposely toward fulfilling our own desires.
[ ] Fear: Nobody enjoys failing or being criticized, and I’ve known many people who will not venture into new territory in pursuit of a goal (or even set the goal in the first place) because the outcome of that journey is uncertain.
I’ve often heard it said that truly successful people have a failure-to-success ratio of about four to one, and history is peppered with stories of people from Thomas Edison to Henry Ford whose successes came on the heels of multiple failures. There is no shame in failing; in fact, I buy into the idea that the only true failure comes when you fail to try again.
Fear of criticism is another common phobia. Nobody likes it, whether it’s fair or not, but there’s no way to avoid it completely if you’re striving to accomplish something exceptional in your work or personal life. The trouble with this phobia is that it tends to make you fear making the mistakes that inevitably come in striving for your goals.
A big part of goal setting is shedding this fear of failure, criticism or mistakes. All three are inevitable – and each gives you the opportunity to learn and gain skills that will help you attain your goals.
Ultimately, our goals are only limited by our imaginations. People who have underdeveloped imaginations will have difficulty setting goals that are outside the proverbial box, while people who are comfortable imagining the future will have a much easier time setting and realizing goals.
Hard work, diligence and even luck play big roles, too, in how we reach our goals. Interestingly, I’ve found that the more I base what I do on both my long-range and short-term goals, the less what I do actually feels like “work.” I’ve toiled hard through the years and have run into my share of luck – but it wasn’t until I discovered the power of setting goals that my hard work and good fortune started to pay dividends.
If my own life is any evidence, through goals we unlock a world of potential in which our fondest dreams become our immediate reality.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].