Anything is possible, right? Just set a goal and go for it!

Well, only if it were that simple…

Whilst I do advocate the ‘power of possibility’, I would not say that setting goals will create automatic attainment.

One of the most fundamental theories of motivation – ‘goal setting’, can be great for focusing intent and creating drive. However, goals alone do not guarantee a fool proof formulae of achievement. Even a perfectly scripted SMART goal (i.e. one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely), is not the panacea to attainment and success.

In fact, it can be argued that setting goals can actually undermine performance.

Cause and Effect

‘Cause and Effect’ theory stipulates that the effect is simply the product – or what happens as a result of the cause. In turn, the cause defines the contributing factors of why something happens. A very powerful principle, ‘cause and effect’ underpins the philosophy of many disciplines teaching us what we know about the word (e.g. science, maths, physics etc.).

When we consider how goals fit into this theory, it can be argued that goals are more representative of the ‘effect’ (i.e. the product), as opposed to the ‘cause’ (i.e. the process or system). This is because goals essentially concern the desired outcome.

Therefore, in trying to obtain a goal, common logic would suggest that attainment is dependent on much more than simply specifying the goal itself; the causational factors promoting the achievement of the goal need to be understood and manipulated.

The Slippery Slope of Goals

Although setting goals are great for ‘stirring fire in the belly’ and becoming clear on intent, they often present as a major barrier to success when ‘outcome’ is all that’s considered.

One student who I coached was convinced that sticking up multiple post-it notes with 95% written on them (through various parts of her house) would help her achieve such scores through unconscious thinking and forces of attraction. Apparently, she had learned this from a professional development provider conducting a seminar on high performing students. She was an above average student wanting to take the next step, so she figured that this goal was attainable.

However, things did not eventuate as she hoped – her test marks were falling well short of this goal. Upon reflection, she felt like her preoccupation with the lofty goal she set was a distraction. She was fixated ‘like a deer in the headlights’ and the experience left her feeling demotivated and dejected. Needless to say it took a bit of work to realign her expectations and re-ignite the motivation that she once had to achieve good grades.

So here in lies the slippery slope; goals – particularly result based ones – are useful for inspiring an element of commitment and energy, but they can actually be a huge distraction from what’s really central to improvement; the process or system needed to achieve the goal!

My experience working with students is that, albeit an extreme example, the ‘95% story’ is not uncommon; Students put too much focus on outcomes & results, and their goals can often backfire!

Growth Mindset; the key to System and Process

In contrast to setting goals, focusing on the ‘process’ or the ‘system’ underpinning the desired outcome forces attention on the present; what can be controlled in the here and now. This idea is captured in a lot of eastern-based philosophies clarifying that the exact moment (i.e. the present) is all that can be controlled. Thus too much obsession about future results can detract from our energy to grow and uncover hidden opportunities.

The ‘Growth Mindset’ is a key vehicle helping students to focus their attention on what they can control in the present, for example, ‘effort’ and ‘commitment’ to the learning process. The irony is that, by focusing less on outcome, students not only improve their resilience – they are also more likely to improve their results! Countless studies by Carol Dweck (Growth Mindset founder) have proven so!

So given it’s fair to say that putting ‘Post-It’ notes around the house will not work for most students…

I ask the Question; How can students use the Growth Mindset to help them set appropriate goals?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!