Understanding Goal Setting, Part 1


As far back as 1935, motivation and incentive learning has been studied. Cecil Alec Mace was a British philosopher and psychologist who studied how the type of goal influenced performance.[14] In the 1950’s, John W. Atkinson took an analytical view in his edited work, Motives in fantasy, action and society.[15]

It wasn’t until the end of the 1980’s that industrial and organizational psychologists began studying goal setting from multiple directions.[16]


Simply put, goal setting is the act of picturing what you want with microscopic clarity. Unfortunately, most people do not obtain their goals because of one of two reasons.


  1. They do not have clear goals.
  2. They give up as soon as an obstacle gets in their way.


However, when you ask them what happened to their goal, they tend to blame everyone or everything other than themselves. The reverse of this is when this same person talks about another’s success. You know what they say, “He was lucky.”

Highly effective people do not believe in luck when it comes to success. Highly effective people make thousands of well thought out decisions, develop strategies, follow plans, and stick to their goals. Then, years later, their brother-in-law says about them, “That Bob, he sure is damn lucky!”

What I have noticed is that in America opportunity, not only knocks, it practically bashes down the door trying to get attention. When opportunity finally does get someone’s attention, they can’t figure out how to open the door, or if they do get the door open, they are uncertain about what to do next. They stand in the doorway looking opportunity right in the face and don’t know what they are gazing upon.

The problem is that most people don’t know that opportunity shows up in the rough. They stand at the door, looking at this ragamuffin and converse with it:


Opportunity: Hi goal seeker, I’m glad you found me.

Goal seeker: Are you a hobo or something?

Opportunity: No, I’m opportunity and I came a-knocking.

Goal seeker: No seriously, are you homeless? Destitute?

Opportunity: No, I’m not kidding, I’m opportunity.

Goal seeker: You can’t be opportunity!

Opportunity: Why not?

Goal seeker: Well, nothing personal, but you don’t look like you have two nickels to rub together, let alone the millions I’m seeking. You look… well kind of like a ragamuffin.

Opportunity: What did you expect me to look like?

Goal seeker: Like opportunity, all spit shined, with jewels and maybe a tux.

Opportunity: Oh, I see. I think you have me confused with luck.

Goal seeker: Luck?

Opportunity: Oh yes indeed, I always show up in work clothes and you have to provide your own luck. When I show up, I’m a diamond in the rough. You have to shape me, grind me, polish me, nurture me, and love me.

This is a little known fact; opportunity knocks many times in a lifetime. You have to notice the knocking and open the door. And when you open the door, expect opportunity to be wearing work clothes. Opportunity is a work in progress; you have to roll up your sleeves and progress.

So, let’s move forward, next we will cover the pitfalls that keep people from obtaining their goals.

Avoiding the pitfalls

We are often our own worst enemy. Along with the Thought Mines discussed earlier, we often carry personal fears deep in our psyche. In this section, we will look at how to avoid this mess and get on with getting your goals met.

Cathie Black, in her book Basic Black, discusses fear in her experience in the newspaper and magazine publishing business.[17]

Fear–fear of someone’s reaction, fear of unexpected consequences, fear of failure–is a very real part of the work experience, and learning how to deal with it is one of the most empowering skills you can develop. In fact, you can learn not only to neutralize the harmful aspects of fear, but turn it around and use it for your benefit.

Avoid the fear of failure

Noted psychoanalyst, Harry Stack Sullivan, devoted his career to the study of interpersonal relationships. Dr. Sullivan taught that there are two generic causes for fear. The first, is that threat is either perceived or imminent. The second, is novelty.

Sullivan’s first category is easy to understand. People are afraid of being attacked, physically or emotionally. The second category is subtler and more important to our present conversation. Sullivan noted that people are fearful of something new, something less known or understood by them.[18] Simply, people don’t handle change well.

In an article in Psychology Today, Embracing the Fear of Failure, Frank Pittman discusses the fear of failure within the context of getting married.[19]

Look at the craziness of what we spend on weddings to try to make something spotless and flawless to start off the relationship.

And yet, you can be sure there will be a good fight and bad sex within 24 hours.


Pittman says that rather than working to achieve romantic perfection, people must learn to survive reality together. Failure is not the issue. How you deal with it is.

When I was a much younger, and if you don’t mind me saying—thinner therapist, I was assigned a teen group of juvenile delinquents with drinking problems. As excited as I was with having a job, I was unsure of how to deal with the inevitable question, “What do you know about my problems?”

On the first day, I joined the established group in the dingy cinder block room of a locked facility. The therapist who was turning the group over to me suggested that I introduce myself at the appropriate time. The folding chairs were positioned in a circle, and sixteen seemingly angry teens glared at each other. In typical AA fashion we went around the room each saying our names. “Hay, I’m Sawbone and I’m an alcoholic.” “I’m Robby and I’m an alcoholic.” When it got to my turn I said, “Good morning, I’m Phil and I’m a professional failure.” My confession lead to my explanation and eventually to an enthusiastic group discussion about our fear of failure. What I explained to the group was that I was a pro at failing. I had failed large and small. But, I was not my mistakes. I had failed a lot, but I was not a failure.

It is important to know, in your heart, that failure is a group of actions that ends up with an unexpected outcome. Failure is not a character flaw. Your plan can fail, but you cannot. Well, that is not entirely accurate. You cannot fail until you give up. If you learn from the failure, the failure was simply an obstacle unforeseen by your plan to get to your goal.

I saw an interview with J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. She explained that her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was rejected five times. Publishers thought the story line was too complicated for young readers. I hear she has sold a few books over the years. What if she only sent the book to four publishers and gave up?

Fear is part of the human condition. What you do with the fear, is what counts. Fear stops most people before they start.