This I Believe

Tannie - Shenandoah, Texas
Entered on May 25, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe that goal setting, contrary to many self-help books, can be a destructive force rather than a positive one.

A few months ago I submitted a health club application and was interviewed by a personal trainer. However, I left blank a portion asking me to list my goals.

“If I’m to train you I must know your goals,” the trainer said.

“Understandable. My goals are to be healthy and fit and sleep well at night.”

He seemed almost offended. “That’s not how this works. We all need specific goals to work toward, and we need to commit fully to achieving them. If you’re not willing to do that then I can’t help you.”

I told him I would think it over and thanked him for his time.

I wanted to explain my hesitation but I wasn’t sure that I could put it into words. I thought back to my first experiences with goal-setting, thirty-something years ago, when as a teenager I sold magazines door to door. As our crew managers explained every morning when we were assigned quotas, if we truly wanted something badly enough we could make it happen. Excuses, such as the economic condition of the territories we worked or even bad weather, were never allowed. It was always the responsibility of the salesperson to make his or her quota, regardless of circumstance. We simply had to have the desire and commit to achieving our goals.

I responded well to this motivational system, even occupying my free time with books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, convincing myself that I was responsible for my own destiny, that I could do and become whatever I wanted.

I joined a national retail chain as a clerk and began to work my way up. I constantly set goals for myself and worked hard to achieve them. I worked my way into a successful business career as a VP with a Fortune 500 company. Whatever the challenge, I was prepared to meet it—I stayed focused.

Problem is, while I was staying focused and working eighty hours a week to meet my goals, my children were growing up—with my wife doing the parenting. I wish now that I had been a little less focused, a little more flexible.

I also remembered my teenage daughter going to a therapist for a minor weight problem. “You must set goals,” he told her. “And remember, hunger is your friend.” She committed herself to weight-loss goals and became very thin and very beautiful. In doing so, however, she developed an eating disorder. Suddenly, she had to deal with a problem far more serious than a few extra pounds.

That was twenty years ago. My daughter is still very beautiful and now has a family of her own. I have long since given up my business career. I now teach college English. I still have objectives, but I choose not to call them goals—as if I must score to win.