Why goal setting doesn't work
Updated: Jan 2
One summer night, almost 30 years ago, while watching late-night TV, I purchased Tony Robbins’ Personal Power program on audio cassette tapes. I was seventeen.
I have since that time, spent my entire adult life, fascinated with, sorry scratch that, obsessed with goal setting.
My conclusions on goal setting may surprise you, but before I get to these, I’d like to share with you the story of this obsessive pursuit.
When I was a young teen, thirteen or fourteen, I became fascinated with bodybuilding (which you would never guess looking at me now). My brother, Theo and I even convinced our dad to help us convert our garage at home into our own little Gold’s gym -Santa Monica edition. I’m sure we rationalized at the time, that a gym would help my brother’s marks at school and maybe even curb is obsessive T.V. addiction (it didn’t help with either).
In young urban hipster-speak, the goal was “swole” and like most young bodybuilders (it’s funny even writing it), my brother and I began consuming all things Joe Weider and/or Arnold Schwarzenegger. This included monthly periodicals such as Muscle and Fitness and Flex, Robert Kennedy’s (now defunct) Muscle Mag International, Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and later (and probably most importantly) was Arnold’s autobiography. It was the latter that blew my mind.
In it, Arnold details his epic transformation from a small gym in his hometown of Graz, Austria to world champion bodybuilder and you could very well argue, single-handedly elevated bodybuilding form subversive, subculture weird to mainstream everywhere!
In the late 1980s, early 90s, Arnold had become a global icon and in this autobiography was the very blueprint for his success. Set goal. Work systematically and diligently while making modifications. Achieve goal. Rinse and repeat as often as you like.
Bigger goals just required more time and better systems. Nothing was out of the realm of possibilities. This was the message that was most impressed upon me! It was reiterated in all of the bodybuilding periodicals. Beyond the recommendation of eating more protein and trying to lift heavier weights, the prevailing message found in these periodicals seemed simple enough, focus on what you want, set a goal, make a plan, then watch the magic unfold. The secret to success had been revealed!
By the time high school was in full swing, I could barely contain my confidence. While everyone in high school seemed forever lost in some new brooding, self-loathing quasi-adult world, my childlike optimism coupled with my simplistic worldview had my pubescent confidence exploding. Everyone’s struggles seemed so seemed trivial to me. “If you’re not happy with your life”, I would think to myself, just set a goal, make a plan, and boom -problem solved. Want to be a rock star, an astronaut? Simple, just set a goal! Whatever you liked or didn’t like about your life, could be solved through the power of goal setting. This was a road map to literally anywhere!
By the time the eleventh grade rolled around however, things weren’t progressing quite as quickly as I would like. First, I realized that after three years of diligent training, I wasn’t quite looking like my Muscle and Fitness heroes. Even my historically high GPA began to dip. I was starting to become frustrated and even skeptical of my goal setting lifestyle.
Enter Tony Robbins (1990).
His late-night commercial was just the tonic for my burgeoning skepticism. After several months of being mesmerized by Tony and Fran Tarkenton, gleefully kibitzing in helicopters and castles, I knew that I was ready for a “proven system of success”. I convinced my parents to let me borrow their credit card, made a phone call and voila, several weeks later, a box appeared on my doorstep and in it –a 30-day roadmap to success.
I learned to better manage my physiology, I improved the quality of my thoughts, I wrote down short, and long term goals and tied all the pain I could imagine to not achieving them. Thirty days later…nothing had changed.
Thus began the recurring pattern of setting goals and trying to will myself towards them -which never worked.
Shortly thereafter, I started at Western University and with it, a period of academic initiation that all first-year science students go through. I like to refer to it as the reckoning. Biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus. All with labs and all with exam formats designed with two simple directives, test abstract knowledge related to each subject and more importantly, to inflict post-traumatic stress.
The good news is that as university progressed, so did my grades and with it, what ultimately led to a scholarship opportunity to pursue chiropractic in Dallas, Texas.
I remember examining the brochure, in it a picture of a state-of-the-art gym with smiling people. This coupled with Dallas’ southern exposure and the opportunity to help the sick and injured, was all I needed to know.
Enter Parker College of Chiropractic (1995).
Dr. James Parker, the founder of Parker University, before starting his college, was the founder and developer of Parker Seminars, the largest chiropractic seminars in the world. As students, we had access to weekly success seminars as well as free admission to the Parker Seminars.
I absolutely devoured this part of the curriculum. If a speaker made a recommendation on a book or a practice, I would implement it or read it. No questions asked.
Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Brian Tracy, Jim Rohn, James Allen, Og Mandino, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Stephen Covey, Viktor Frankl, Deepak Chopra, Robin Sharma, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, etc., etc.
By the time I had completed my chiropractic degree, beyond the requisite medical knowledge, I was so loaded with success “know-how” that practice success was (in my mind) virtually guaranteed.
I confidently signed an expensive, five-year lease on a practice location in a town that I had never lived in, and barely visited. What could possibly go wrong?
The short answer. Almost everything.
As you can imagine, reading a book about “how to swim”, probably won’t help you when dropped into the deep end of a pool.
Enter Dave Clare (1999).
Dave Clare was without a doubt the most influential person in the early part of my practice career. An independent licensee of an international personal development company, I met Dave serendipitously at a business networking event. We were like two fish out of water. We became fast friends. Dave was kind enough to enroll me in every one of his signature programs, I, in turn, was happy to provide care to him and his family.
I spent several years developing a vision, mission, and purpose for my life and my business, assessing core values and beliefs, developing a personal plan of action, writing goals and affirmations, tracking progress. All great things. I am indebted to Dave in so many ways.
In looking back at my formal Goal Planning Sheets which included a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and tangible goal, the reality is that I didn’t achieve any of my written goals by the target date listed on those old goal planning sheets.
Even though I wrote down all the benefits of achieving these goals and losses to be avoided by achieving this goal.
Even though I wrote down all the possible obstacles and listed possible solutions to each obstacle.
Even though I wrote down specific action steps for achieving this goal.
Even though I tracked the progress of each goal.
Even though I used both affirmations and visualizations to support this goal.
The last notations I have in these journals date to 2005. Goal setting clearly wasn’t for me. More to come on this a little later.
Enter Naturopathic Medical School (2009).
“Ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run, nowhere to go” Bruce Springsteen (Born in the USA).
After ten years of private practice, of managing multiple providers, running corporate wellness initiatives, speaking across Canada and the US -I reached a crossroads. The constant pursuit of business goals had exhausted my spirit.
It was at this point that I decided to completely strip my practice down to its proverbial studs. My practice was going to be solely focused on one relationship -the one I had with my patients. I wanted to create a safe space, without pressure or expectations. One where I could explore and develop my art. If I was ever to achieve any affluence in my life, it would be from other initiatives, not this one.
Without the pressure of expectations, I enrolled and was accepted into the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. As busy as I was, I free of the burden of expectations. I spent six years learning, expanding my scope of practice, developing my art.
It was completely transformative. Both for my soul and surprisingly also for my practice -all of the goals that I set all of those years ago, have long since been eclipsed.
Herein lies the secret to goal setting.
Find your art. Love your art. Work on your art. You could actually argue that these three directives are only one –nurture your art. We all have unique talents and abilities, one of the requirements of happiness, satisfaction and success is nurturing your unique talents and abilities.
Goals, and consequently goal setting, will naturally emerge within the pursuit or development of your art.
Uploaded on YouTube, is the original Personal Power commercial from my youth. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2ADqr1rMtM)
It is clear, now in retrospect, that what I found most compelling was the idea of a technology that improved the human condition. The pursuit of this actually my purpose.
So as an example, when I learned that vitamin C, if administered in high doses intravenously, may help target cancer stem cells and improve outcomes in patients with cancer, it was clear that I would pursue this as a technology for my patients. This would be considered the goal.
In order to administer intravenous vitamin C in the province of Ontario, a naturopathic doctor must have prescriptive authority, be IV certified and work in a clinic that is also IV certified. These would be considered specific action steps for achieving this goal.
Goals will just naturally emerge in the nurturing of your art.
I spent years failing in achieving my goals because they were never mine.
Making money is like losing weight. Both are actually intangible. It’d be nice to have a couple of extra bucks just like it would be nice to lose a few pounds, but hopefully, you can now see the folly in setting these as goals.
Want to be your ideal weight? What relationship could you nurture that would result in this outcome?
Improving your nutrition, your cooking, your knowledge of macronutrients, strategies such as fasting, are all part of this art.
People blindly hope for success when often the opportunity to have it lies in their hands each day. Whether you mop floors for a living, make burritos or manage people, your success is tied only to the depth of your relationship to your art.
Before you set any new goals in 2020, awaken to this possibility.
Find your art. Pursue it.