Friday, August 10, 2012

Two Lessons About Goal-Setting

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal.  My strength lies solely in my tenacity." - Louis Pasteur

Goal-setting is a funny exercise.  It's also a tough thing to teach people.  Now, you wouldn't probably expect someone who's made his living for 1/3 of his life educating people to say that anything is really that tough to teach.  But setting goals is, mainly because it's a skosh tougher than people think it should be.

Let's get the first part out of the way--well, first.  Goals should be SMART:
  • S pecific
  • M easurable
  • A ttainable
  • R elevant
  • T imely
If you don't know what the words mean, go look 'em up.  It's really pretty straightforward.  This is the easy part of goal-setting, frankly.  It's one of the mental masturbation activities practiced by MBA students world-wide.

Problem is, most people only get through SMA.  Take writers, ferinstance:
"What's your goal, Writer A?"
"750 words per day."
"Writer B?"
"1000 words per day."
"Writer C?"
"2000 words per day."
"Wow.  Writer D?"
"Three pages per day."
"What size pages?"
"You know--normal."
"Normal as in Word default eight and a half by eleven, or normal as in trade paperback?"
"Word, silly."

See?  Specific, measurable, and for most writers, attainable. 

But then you ask deeper questions:  "Why 2000 words per day?  What does that mean?  How many paragraphs is it?  How many scenes?"  It usually boils down to a number they thought sounded cool, or else a number they read somewhere.  Stephen King, for example, suggests 2000 words per day because that gives you a 180,000-word novel in ninety days.  That sounds reasonable at first, but on second look you realize that it presupposes that you're writing a 180,000-word novel--I haven't--and that you're interested in completing it in three months--I've never been.  After all, novels are novels when the story is done being told, not when you hit a certain word count.

Granted, I still run with 2000 words per day because it feels good, but that doesn't qualify as SMART.  Eh, bite me; it works.

Lest we think poorly of writers, though, I must point out that I've also had a hard time getting subordinate managers at work, in every program I've supervised, at every campus I've inhabited, to set SMART goals.  SMA, they get.  RT, not so much.  And sometimes the A isn't really there either.  To wit:

"What's your retention goal for the year?"
"One hundred percent."
"Wow-wee!  Why do you think you can get to one hundred percent, though?  What will you do to make sure nobody moves or gets sick?"
"It's a goal.  We don't expect to achieve it."
(head, meet desk)
"Okay, okay, ninety percent.  We'll assume ten percent will get sick or move away."
"What do you mean why?"
"Why ten percent?  Why not twelve?  Or eight?  How many did you have last year?"
"About (pick a number) percent."
"Why is this year going to be different?"
"Oh, it probably won't.  I guess we'll go with that, then."
"And so out of the remaining people, you won't have anybody fail out?  Are your courses that easy?"

...and so on....

It's like pulling teeth.

But it's trainable. At some point, after sufficient wrangling, you eventually end up with a set of goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.  Put them all together and add a few department-wide ones, and I have my own set of beautiful goals.  And everybody's happy after we all ride off into the sunset, right?

Um, no.

There's a second lesson about goal-setting.  It's better delivered as a vignette, though. 

In a time long ago and a place far away, there was a young man who was contemplating his post-high-school choices....

Yeah, okay, we're talking about me.  I was pretty well set on going to the Air Force Academy.  I'd narrowed it down to USAFA or USMA, and chosen the Air Force based on the oh-so-important (at the time) fact that my uncle had retired from the Air Force.  Hey, that was one of three differences I knew about, the other two being that one wore blue and the other green (though AF also wears green, and Army also wears blue, but that's a whole different level of complexity) and that one had airplanes (though the Army also has airplanes, it turns out, but again--complexity and all).

Anyway, I was headed into the middle of my senior year feeling pretty good.  I had a physical fitness test ahead of me for West Point's admissions process, but that was pretty much a moot issue because I already had my Congressman's nomination to USAFA, my GPA was north of 3.90, my class academic rank out of several hundred was in the single digits, my SAT score was great, I managed to not get thrown out of the pool in water polo and the swim team for two whole seasons of each, and I'd served or was serving as drum major of the band, editor of the school paper, student council member, and for some really bizarre reason, an officer in the Key Club (end of junior year: "Sure, I'll do it.  What kind of keys, though?").  My resume was just plain hot.

Or so I thought.

Problem is, the Air Force Academy desired that a large majority of the class I wanted to enter must be pilot-qualified.  I, meanwhile, could see perfectly well as long as I had my optical devices mounted on the bridge of my nose.  My vision, then, put me into a category in which my resume would've probably needed to include "son of Ares" to get in.

I didn't.  They said no.

All of a sudden, that physical fitness test for West Point was much more important.  I still had Plan C--Air Force ROTC scholarship to UCLA--to fall back on, but that option didn't meet my primary goal, which was getting out from under the protective umbrella that my mother's roof represented.  I wasn't worried, though; I was a swimmer, and I was in pretty good shape.  West Point wanted me, after all.  The only problem?  The first event was pull-ups.  Now, I'd never done a pull-up in my life.  For one thing, I was, as I already said, in pretty darn good shape, and besides, the situation had never presented itself in which I had any reason at all to hoist my chin over some random bar.  Clamber up onto the bar, sure.  But not hoist my chin over it.  Who does that, anyway?

I'll never forget that day.  Pull-ups aren't like push-ups, where you're one of a set of backs that is heaving up and away from the floor.  No, on a pull-up test you're hanging there in plain sight of everybody, body dangling like a Christmas ornament.  You can't fake a pull-up.  Just can't do it.

Oh, and by the way, the movement also uses shoulder muscles almost exclusively to begin, while swimming builds lats and pects (back and chest) mostly. 

Of all things, I had to follow a guy who'd been a gymnast for years and did his first thirty (ish) pull-ups all the way to his waist.  He hopped down gracefully, and I took his spot.  Grabbed the bar, and--hung there.

"You can begin now," the guy grading the event said.  But see, I'd already begun.  There was this little internal struggle happening, with my brain saying "pull, shoulders," and my shoulders firing back "I am pulling, asshole."  What it must've looked like, though, was me hanging there making silly faces at the guy doing the grading.

So I finished the day and went home.  Once I'd mustered up the courage I called my liaison officer--the West Point graduate who was in charge of helping me get in--and gave him the depressing news that I would probably be a UCLA student the next fall since they didn't require pull-ups to get in. 

"Oh, but you get another shot," he said.  Remember the scene from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, at the archery contest when they refer to the script, cheer, and say, "Robin gets another shot!"  It felt like that.  In six weeks was another test, and if I passed it then they'd just chalk the previous episode up to--um, something.

I set a goal then.  Ten pull-ups, six weeks.  SMART, definitely.  But here's the second lesson: I didn't just say "my goal is ten pull-ups at the end of six weeks."  No, I internalized it.  I made it a part of who I was, what I did.  I talked to people about how to get there, and then for the next six weeks, every day, I walked to the elementary school on the corner.  Nothing in my life for that six weeks was more important than my work toward that goal.  It wasn't easy; I started climbing to the bar and lowering my chin slowly.  Then I got to where I could do a regular pull-up, and followed it by climbing up and lowering my chin.  Then I got to where I could do two.  And then, well, so on.

Six weeks later I did eleven pull-ups on the test.  It was a pass--not a spectacular one, but a pass nonetheless.  And as I found out later, that was what got me into the academy.  There are a lot of people with good grades.  There are a lot of people who are on student councils or who get selected to lead the band or the student newspaper.  There are a lot of people with SAT scores in the stratosphere.  But there aren't a lot of people who're willing to do what it takes to go from zero pull-ups to eleven in six weeks.

That's what a goal should be, then.  Sure, it must be SMART.  But that's just the beginning.  You can write SMART goals all day long, but if they're just something you talk about in your quarterly meetings, you're missing the most important part.  To be an effective goal, it has to be accepted, assimilated, made a part of who you are and what you do.

That is where excellence comes from.