#34 Personal Goals: They Are Both Good And Bad

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Timeframe: Fall 1995

Setting: Laying on my couch in Columbus Ohio. Remote control in one hand, potato chip bag in the other.

Mental State: Bummed out. The company I loved was being destroyed by a merger gone bad.

As I lay there in my self pity with the potato chip bowl balanced on my stomach, I came across the Columbus Marathon. “What the hell is wrong with these people? That looks like torture.”

Long story short, that day I committed to a major personal goal. I was going to get off my lazy butt and run that marathon the following year. And I was going to do it in less than 4 hours. The perfect goal - clear and measurable.

One year later I ran the race in 4 hours 21 minutes and 13 seconds. I failed. 

I was happy I survived. I was proud to have my 8 months pregnant wife watching from the sideline as the snow flurries fell. But my training program and mindset had been all about beating 4 hours,  and I hadn’t gotten it done.

So I tried again five years later in Chicago. 4 hours 18 minutes and 6 seconds. Failed again. 

Then, due to some nagging injuries, I gave up. So I walked away from distance running with a lingering feeling of disappointment.


As I think about the above story, I know my disappointment makes no sense. I went from a slug laying on the couch to to running a marathon in a year, which is a good thing. But I was left slightly bummed by the experience because I missed the target that I’d pulled out of thin air. I could just as easily have chosen 4 1/2 hours as a goal and felt like a success. Based on this and other experiences, I’ve become more critical of personal goals. Here are some scenarios I’ve thought about.

Scenario 1: I set a poorly thought out goal and miss it.
This is my distance running scenario. It gave me some nice health benefits, but left me slightly bummed out.

Scenario 2: I set a well thought out goal and miss it.
Missing goals is never fun, so this is also going to leave me bummed out to some degree.

Scenario 3: I set a poorly thought out goal and hit it.
For me, 9 times out of 10 this means I set the goal too low.  Which reminds me of blowing smoke up my own rear end. If I’m stupid, hitting this goal could lead to some joy, but if I’m coherent I realize it’s a mirage. Maybe I could have accomplished more if I’d set a more challenging goal. Either way, this scenario also likely leaves me a bit bummed out. 

Scenario 4: I set a well thought out goal and hit it.
This is the holy grail. Life is great. Except when it isn’t. Remember my Wall Street story? I hit my challenging goal and felt like crap once I saw what was on the other side. I also recall a friend who had a firm goal of moving from a technical role to a sales role. He envisioned more money and more glory and wanted it badly. Until he got it. Then he hated it and couldn’t run away fast enough. Which leads me right back to a quote you’re probably getting tired of “good thing, bad thing, who knows".  I suck at knowing whether achieving a goal will be good or bad for me in the long term. And, even if I hit the goal and find that I love the immediate outcome, then what? Many people report letdowns and depression after achieving a goal. They’ve lost their marker, their reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Case in point, take a look at the Hollywood stars, amazing athletes, and corporate titans that have surely hit many personal goals. Don't they dominate the news with stories of drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, domestic violence, etc? It doesn't sound like hitting their personal goals did a helluva lot for them.

((If you want to read a more positive slant on personal goals look here. If you want to read about how the greatest goal research of all time was a massive lie you can look here. If you want to see a short, humorous opinion on goals you can look here. ))

So, as you can tell from my negatively biased discussion, I have issues with goals.

BUT, being my own devils advocate, where does a world without goals leave me? What do I use for personal direction if I don’t put a marker out there somewhere? I find it impossible to believe that I’m better off just drifting?

So are goals garbage or gold?

Well, maybe the famous novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald has an answer for me. He says…

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”


Fitzgerald isn’t the only one that believes in the idea of embracing opposed ideas. In the classic business best seller, Built To Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras talk about the “Genius of the AND”. The ability, that great companies have, to embrace conflicting ideas. (We’ll look at their work in more detail when we get to business goals, but if you’re interested right now you can look on page 44 of their book.)

So the path forward for me is to realize that goals are both garbage AND gold. To accept both their power AND their danger. To realize that the cons aren’t going away, but that the concept still holds value.

I believe I can do that - hold these opposed ideas in my mind. But I don’t want to do it with the word goals. I’ve already stereotyped that poor word so negatively that it must die.


For my map, I’m killing the word goal. I’ll still use the word in conversation and writing because everyone gets it. But for my own personal map I’m going with the word CAN. I’m going to create a list of things I choose to work toward that I believe I CAN do. And I’m going to attach a question mark to the end of CAN to remind myself of a couple things. First, that my CAN’s adhere to the “Genius of the AND”. That they have conflict built into them that I must embrace and be wary of. And second, that I need to respect the saying “good thing, bad thing, who knows”. Meaning I can’t know for sure if achieving my CAN’s will lead to good things. 

So my up to date map looks like this.


And the process is simple. My WHY gets me out of bed in the morning. And that WHY flows through and becomes personalized by the traits of my ME. This energy is then further focused by my IF’s - the ideas or strategies that tend to bang around in my mind. And these IF’s get further refined and guided and focused by my specific CAN’s. This is the process I’ll use to enable my personal GROWTH. Which, looking back to our study of Frederick Herzberg, is what drives my motivation. 

A nice neat package - except for one thing. Where do I get the fuel to drive this motivated machine?


Per Herzberg and many others, I am motivated by growth - recall our discussion around HELP GROWTH HAPPEN. And to fuel that growth I must maximize the amount of ENERGY I have. 

I'll let Scott Adams of Dilbert fame explain what I'm trying to say because he does it better than I ever could. Here is a quote from page 51 of his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big...

“The way I approach the problem of multiple priorities is by focusing on just one main metric: my energy. I make choices that maximize my personal energy because that makes it easier to manage all of the other priorities. 

Maximizing my personal energy means eating right, exercising, avoiding unnecessary stress, getting enough sleep, and all of the obvious steps. But it also means having something in my life that makes me excited to wake up. When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster. That keeps my career on track. And when all of that is working, and I feel relaxed and energetic, my personal life is better too.”

BINGO! My days need to be all about maximizing my energy and attacking my WHY/ME/IF/CAN. And by doing that I’ll be left with even more energy. A virtuous cycle that I hope leads to great places.

So all that’s left now is to lock down my CANs, which I’ll do next time…

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