Goal Setting and the Importance of Asking Why

A few months ago, a prospective employer asked me during an interview for an example of a personal goal I had set and achieved. I momentarily panicked and racked my brain trying to come up with something. Pretty sure I gave some generic sports related answer (the go-to fall back for us athletic types), she bought it and we moved on. But that question — and my lack of genuine answer — stuck with me. It wasn’t that I didn’t ever set goals. I definitely did. It was that I couldn’t see, anywhere in my life, where the chain of events had gone goal-action-achievement. I’m a driven, smart, hard working person who has managed to find quite a bit of success in my life, so how could I be so miserable at achieving my goals? I’d say the closest I’ve come would be ‘Get into dream college’ … the dream college which I succeeded in getting into, went to for two years, and decided wasn’t for me and I left.

This started me thinking, maybe the problem had nothing to do with my follow through, and really all to do with what goals I was setting. Generally, when I think about times I’ve set goals in my life, I’ve tended to focus on things that measure success quantifiably (‘win this race’, ‘get this grade’, ‘save this much money’). And none of these goals had ever resonated with me enough to drive and focus my actions and intentions (which is exactly what’s necessary to achieve a goal). I’ve identified two main reasons why my old goal setting has failed me:

  1. I’m a goal setting commitment-phobe 

I’ve always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their life. I am so far from that kind of person it’s borderline comical. I love learning new things, figuring out how to tackle new challenges, and finding new, even if simply momentary, passions. I’ve abandoned a lot of goals in my life, not because I gave up but because the goal just lost it’s importance to me. New passions had come in and taken over my time and energy. I don’t like feeling like I’ve failed and I don’t want to risk missing out on something new and better because I’m too focused on one goal.

  1. I made them focused goals, not me focused goals

I’ll admit, most of the time, when I’m day-dreaming about achieving a goal, I’ve already got the perfect Instagram photo-op and caption planned. I choose goals that I think will best emulate success publicly. I’ll think “If I win this race, it’ll prove I’m a serious athlete” or “A 4.0 this semester will assure everyone I’m smart and made the right choice” or, worse, “If I can afford that shirt/dress/meal, everyone who sees it will know I’ve got it together”. Of course, I’d still personally gain something from achieving these goals, but that was more a side effect to how I thought these goals would affect other people’s perceptions of me.

But the good news is, I think there is a way to make goals work for me. A whole theory on goal setting is developed around the idea of setting S.M.A.R.T. goals — or goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. I think those are good guidelines to follow to start setting goals, but there’s a pretty big component that’s missing from S.M.A.R.T. goals, the component that’s made me struggle with goals in the past. What’s missing is the ‘WHY’. You could arbitrarily set S.M.A.R.T. goals all day, spend your life successfully achieving them and still be left feeling unfulfilled. Without asking ourselves ‘why’ when setting goals, we won’t realize until it’s too late if that goal is really where you want to end up. Our values should always be the guiding principle behind goal setting. Asking ‘why’ forces us to be mindful in our intentions, it makes our goals feel more authentic, more personal, and it keeps us focused on living our lives for ourselves.

When we’re feeling lost and uncertain about what comes next, it’s tempting to pick a goal based off what sounds like the “right” thing to do. I’ve spent the past few weeks fighting this impulse and really digging deep in myself to define what my personal values are. Having a clear idea of what’s important to me and what I want to get out of life will make the uncertainties feel less stressful and helps ensure the goals I do set for myself will be worth working for and will be fulfilling to me.

Are you a goal setter? How do you choose the goals you set for yourself?