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How to Be a Complete and Utter Failure: If You Do Have Goals, Don't Put Them in Writing, and If You Do, Don't Think Too Big

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Ever heard of the study done with Harvard graduates? In the 1950s graduates were asked how many had goals. The answer was almost everyone. (You’d have to be dead from the neck up not to have some goals, dreams, and ambitions.) More important, the students were then asked how many had put those goals in writing. The answer was only 3%. After following them around for the next 30 years (which must have been annoying if you were one of the graduates), it was found that 3% of the group were worth more financially than the other 97% combined! It was the same 3% who had written goals. Coincidence? The point is, as long as goals stay in your head, they will stay only dreams.

Another reason why students of failure must be careful not to commit their goals to ink is that it makes you think. You see, you can’t have everything (there isn’t enough time to have everything—anyway, where would you keep it all?) but you can have anything. Most people just won’t decide what their anything is going to be. Remember, success is a decision. All you have to decide is what you want to be, do, and have. Rather than make some tough choices about how they would like to spend their time, failures put it off, hoping they can realize all the dreams swirling around inside their head. That’s until they wake up one day and realize time has run out.

Over 50 years of research, not just from Harvard but also from areas like Neuro Linguistic Programming, 1 proves that having any written goal will get you into the top 3%. However, if you want to reach the top 1%, and this is confirmed by my own direct experience of working with hundreds of individuals, you also need to write your goals to meet some strict criteria. That’s why all of Phil’s goals are written as SMARTS:

  • Specific and Simple

    Define exactly what you want to accomplish. Focus, laser-like, on just one thing. The simpler you can make it, the better your brain will like it and act on it.

  • Measurable and Meaningful to you

    Cost, quantity, quality, number, percentage—think of all the ways you can measure your progress. You must be able to say whether you ‘did’ or ‘didn’t’ do it. Make sure the goal has meaning for you and is going to make a difference to you and your life.

  • Achievable, As if now and Realistic2.

    Think of something within reach but just out of your grasp. This will be up to you. What seems achievable and realistic to you may not be to someone else. If you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t. The “A” also stands for writing the goal “As if now.” By writing the goal as though you’ve already achieved it, in the present tense, using sensory adjectives (for example, I feel and look great now that I’m a size . . .), every time you read it your emotions, your unconscious mind, and your Reticular Activating System will get involved in its accomplishment.

  • Timed and Toward

    Set a deadline. Analyze where you are now in relation to the goal and then measure how long you will reasonably need to complete the goal. Be careful not to limit yourself by setting the deadline too far in the future. It may be possible to achieve a goal much quicker than you thought. How long did it take someone else to achieve a similar thing? Maybe, if you learn from that person, you could do it even quicker. However, a goal that’s set too close can be more demotivating than motivating. It’s a question of finding the right balance. There is no such thing as an unrealistic goal, just an unrealistic deadline. Phil says sometimes he has achieved things so quickly that he beats the deadline he set for himself by miles. Other things that he expected to have happened by now, he is still waiting for.

    In the latter case, Phil just asks himself: “Is this still a worthy goal?” If the answer is “yes,” and often with the benefit of more accurate knowledge available to him since his first attempt, he just resets the deadline. Also make sure your goal is towards motivated. That you are driven by something you want rather than something you don’t want.

  • Step

    Get the last step. Get really clear about what evidence you will need to prove you did it. What will you see, hear, and feel when you have achieved it? If you don’t do this, often you will fall short just before you might have achieved your goal. For instance, let’s say your goal is to move into a new house. What would the last step be? Would it be the “sold” sign in the garden? The real estate agent handing you the keys? Or your family and friends joining you at the housewarming party? Which would best tell you that you have achieved your goal? Once you’ve decided, always write your SMARTS goal to encompass this last step.

Phil then checked he had the intense desire to achieve the goal, that he had a compelling, motivating reason for wanting it. He knew this would greatly enhance his chances of success.

That’s why he gave more thought to the why than he did to the how. He knew if he had a big enough why then he could, must, find the how. If you have got a really good reason, you can make yourself do almost anything. (If you have failed to achieve a goal in the past, it may be because you simply didn’t have enough reasons.)

Phil then identified the obstacles he needed to overcome; identified the help he would need; planned his priorities; got a clear mental picture, or dominant thought pattern, of the goal already accomplished; and finally backed his plan with commitment, persistence, and resolve. And he believed he could do it.

Oh, and one other crucial thing—having done all of the above, Phil took action.

Phil says sometimes a small, easily achievable goal can dramatically change things—say the quality of a relationship. This gave me food for thought. It occurred to me that I had something that I shared with my oldest son, Tom (we are both passionate about our local rugby team, Leeds Rhinos, and go and watch them together), but that there wasn’t anything that I and my other son, Finlay, did together—our “thing” if you like. So, just by way of an experiment you understand, I set a goal to find something. As soon as I did that, suddenly everywhere I looked, I kept seeing and reading about Games Workshop. I’d never noticed it before, but seemingly it’s been around for years. (There goes that RAS again.) This is a hobby with masses of appeal to boys, and for that matter, men. You collect, build, and paint model soldiers and then stage battles. So for a few years, this became our thing and something we could share. It proved a brilliant way of strengthening our relationship. This all happened when Finlay was nine since which, unlike several men I know, he’s moved on from Games Workshop. Now, at the time of writing, one of the things we share is reading the same books. This means I get to read one of Finlay’s favorites like Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve and he gets to read one of mine like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s still a shared experience, and it gives us loads to talk about and debate. This, if you’ve got a teenage son who normally communicates with caveman grunts, is a very worthwhile outcome. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest you should set yourself these sorts of small goals that can create big results.

After discovering this stuff works, Phil now also feels there is even more magic in thinking big. He agrees with the advice of Les Brown and Mark Victor Hansen who said: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars” and “Think big, act big and set out to accomplish big results.” Or as Donald Trump puts it: “If you are going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” So remember, please don’t write down your goals and don’t think big. That’s assuming you give the quality of your life any thought at all.

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