Goals and Dreams

Someone pointed me to this great article by Mark Manson on how some dreams should stay dreams.

Of course, as the article points out, modern society doesn't really support that idea that maybe reaching your dreams isn't all that it's cracked up to be. I touched on this a bit in my post on setting Big Goals when I talked about passion. We have this idea that everyone needs to a) find their passion and then b) follow their passion above all else. I disagree. First because passion is developed and not found and second because following your passion above all else can be the thing that kills it. I happen to think that for goal setting, your values are a much better bet. But, for more on that, you can go check out my post and set your own big hairy audacious goal.

All this goal setting is giving me a headache...

Mark Manson's reasons for dreams staying dreams are worth considering:

  • The fantasy is often far better than the reality. There are no negative repercussions to fantasy -- what's going on in your head always goes great, but in real life you have to deal with both the positives and negatives. These negatives are often completely absent from the fantasy and therefore invisible. Basically it's a nice place to visit (in your head) but you wouldn't want to live there.
  • Wanting something can be better than working for it. If you want the end result, but don't love the work then you don't really want it, you just like the thought of it. The author's example is being a rock star, but my favorite example are people who want to have written a book. The tendency is to see these people as failures, but they really aren't. They have a fantasy of being a famous author and that's fun, but it's not a failing to not want to write a book. There are vastly more people who loved a book than who love writing one.
  • Working for something can be better than earning it. Finally, if you do love the work then when your dreams come true, it can be a letdown because it's the process that's important. If the striving is what excites you and the work is what you love, when you reach the goal it can feel really empty. This is where you end up with depressed actors and rock stars.
Mark's article is a call for caution and reason in trying to turn our dreams into goals -- and I think he makes a very good point that this is needed in Western society. However, he stops short of identifying how you determine which dreams really are worth pursuing and which aren't. But I have a method, and it comes from the characteristics that goals have that are absent from dreams.

In order to quality as a real goal -- as opposed to a nebulous passion, fantasy, obsession, or dream -- it has to be SMART. SMART is an acronym for the characteristics that a goal needs to have. If you have any experience in business, you've probably heard of it. It stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Relevant, Timely. In my years of goal setting, I've expanded this set of characteristics by one. Still you can't keep a good acronym down. Here are the criteria I use to see whether a goal is really a goal: SMARTS.

Specific -- before all else, you need to be able to describe your goal, and not in general terms. You have to be able to talk about what you want in detail. And like bullet one above, it means acknowledging the negative aspects as well as the positive ones. In fact, all the rest of the items below tie into this one. You must be able to describe the who, what, where, when, why, and how. If you can't be specific, then you don't have a goal, you have a fantasy or dream. Even when you can describe it, you need to make sure it's,

Measurable -- I talked about this in my project initiation post. You manage what you measure. Without some kind of metric for progress and for success, you risk your goal getting you to the wrong place. When we set a specific goal, we are creating a really detailed map. But if we start our journey and then never look at the map, we won't know where we're going. Measuring is the way you navigate with that map. Once you can describe your destination and your journey, then you have to actually get going, which means knowing if your goal is,

Achievable -- Achievable is related to that second bullet above. If you aren't willing and able to do the work required to reach the goal, it's not achievable. Having written a novel isn't a goal. Writing and finishing your novel is. Of course, even if you do all the work, sometimes you still can't reach your goal. Another aspect of achievable is defining the goal in a way that means you can be a success. Being a famous author is an extremely hard to reach goal. Being a best-selling author is a little better. But being a published author and making a living from your writing, that's a goal that, while challenging, is actually achievable. 

I know this sounds depressing, but I think it's really important to acknowledge. Because in our fame-driven society, we have this idea that everyone should have a goal to "be a star" or to "be famous" but only a few ever achieve that and many people don't like the results when they do. Which brings us to,

Relevant -- This means your goal is worthwhile and will be right for you -- that it will satisfy you. As pointed out in bullet three above, you want to avoid being unhappy and unfulfilled when you reach your goal. Unfortunately, people are bad at figuring out what really makes them happy, but in order to have a goal, you should give it some thought. We are a very goal oriented society, but not every goal will make every person happy (as many a law school grad has discovered). You have to know what's right for you. Finally, your goal must be,

Timely -- this means that your goal, like any project, has a deadline and a schedule. Because without temporal accountability, you risk flailing around and never getting to your end point. And most lists end here, but I go one further to add,

Sustainable -- Based on my experience helping other people set and reach goals, I knew this was important. Sometimes, we set ourselves really SMART goals, only to find that once we reach them we can't keep up with them. This is the "too much of a good thing" problem. You set a goal for business success and the next thing you know you don't have time for the rest of your life. Or you set a goal to travel the world, only to realize that after six months your time is up, your money is out, and you still have itchy feet. 

We focus so much on reaching our goals in the first place that we don't think about the ongoing consequences after we reach them. In my PMPM posts, I touch on the fact that once projects are complete, they almost always segue directly into operational efforts. So you get the puppy, now you have to train it and feed it and care for it. You get the new job, now the work actually starts. You clean the garage, now how do you keep it clean (I have no idea, our garage is always a disaster). You need to look past the end point to the life after you reach your goal. How will you sustain it?

If you want to know the different between dreams and goals, see whether they meet the six criteria above. See if your goals have any SMARTS before you expend any real effort on them.

Next week I have a lot of great stuff planned for CircleThrice, including some brand new content and services. I'm super excited, but it's meant that it's a little more quiet around here recently. But don't worry, that's about to change.


  1. I'd love to read more, but your "Read More" button isn't working.

    I'll check again later. Keep up the good work.

    1. Should be fixed. Thank you so much for letting me know. My shiny new blog format was obviously not ready for primetime!


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