Goal-setting: You can reach the peak, but stay there only for a moment.

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Life is regularly viewed as a pathway, working life as a career and the actual work as a series of steps to be accomplished or goals to be achieved. Graduations and promotions are the milestones on this pathway, or more prosaically, the gems in this chain of pearls. The moments when these milestones are reached ought to be happy ones and they often are. Promotions are met with a smile and many colleges advertise with their happy students airing hats at graduation. Nevertheless, some individuals experience a day when the step taken in life is not a happy one but a day of worries and depression. The most prominent example outside the area of work, and probably the saddest one, is post-natal depression in women which has a prevalence of up to 10 per cent in some western countries.
Why does the achievement of a goal not necessarily make us happy? There are several factors contributing to this unexpected effect. First, many individuals pursue goals they are not really confident about, but are unable to change course. In higher education a significant minority does not study their “most preferred” subjects, but for financial reasons, following a family tradition or just to be on the safe side regarding potential employment, they study something “more reasonable or acceptable”. Secondly, in the long phase of anticipation, goals tend to be overestimated in their value and importance. If the activities leading to them are very absorbing they can serve as shining stars but their qualities will and cannot be deeply reflected. One quality will especially become evident when a goal is reached: Besides the hopefully expected result there are other consequences which are often not intended. The two aspects of a goal, results on the one hand and the consequences on the other, are often not differentiated on the way. Actors focus on the result. However, when the goal is achieved, the consequences unfold their full power. They often overshadow the result and do so with justification since the result reflects the past and the consequences reach into the future. Graduation is not only the happy day when school or college is completed, but also the day when an often more insecure and uncertain future with even higher demands begins.
This sober or melancholic view on life is complemented by the fact that not all goals are met in the way hoped for and life’s pathway is not a permanent upwards one. Many physical and cognitive performance peaks are reached before the age of 30 and most professional careers reach their maximum before 40, one of the many elements adding to the infamous “midlife crisis”. Career models since the 1970s suggest preparing for a long time of stagnation or even decline in mid-life. There will come the time when your boss may be younger than you and it is a good idea to switch from competitiveness to becoming a mentor for the young achievers then.
Scientists in the tradition of Feigenbaum have spoken since the 1960s of the “hill climbing” model of life in which one reaches a peak not to enjoy the sight of the plains but to see from there the next one. This next peak may be even higher and the way to it may lead through a dark valley. The phenomenon was more picturesquely paraphrased in the early 1920s by the British philosopher G.B. Shaw in his famous statement “you can get to the highest peak, but can’t stay there for long”. And of course in this aphorism, those many individuals who did not make it to the peak but had to return to their base half-way or just in sight are disregarded
Due to the humiliation and public shame connected to “not having made it” the concept of “goal setting” has become a major element of structuring human action far more in the West than in the East. In the West goal setting serves not only as a management technique but has generalized into a life philosophy. With his “management by objectives” Peter Drucker has now influenced three generations of managers. However, already in the early 1980s there has been an Eastern counter movement spearheaded by Ouchi with his “Organization J”, a not so well known predecessor of the later famous “Kaizen”. Ouchi contrasts the concepts of goals and technological revolutions from the West with the concepts of resources and incremental development in the East. This does not mean organizations in the East have no goals, but in the West the concept of the goal serves as both a sign post indicating the direction and as an individual motivator. In the East the goal is primarily a sign post and shows the way not for an individual but for a team. Individual motivation is seen as something which is best socially influenced by embedding the individual into a good organization.
Consequently, goals should be set with care and not be overloaded with hopes and expectations. First of all a goal should serve a purpose, this is the crucial point as graduation cannot be a happy moment for students completing study they never really liked. To avoid frustration at the peak the goal should be an identifiable part of a general life philosophy and it is important to look beyond the peak when climbing the hill. Furthermore, a goal has to be realistic and if possible the activities leading to it should be structured in a way that some success can be achieved on a daily basis, even in small steps. It should tax the abilities but not be over demanding. Over- and under demanding goals are regularly just a way of escapism.
Certainly life needs highlights to reflect on and to look forward to. However, life and work satisfaction should neither be founded on the past nor delayed into the future. The most satisfying professions are not accidently those in which individuals feel rewarded daily be it socially as clergy and firefighters or out of the process of creation like artists. For the vast majority of these individuals the rewards do not reflect riches, fame or preparation but are side effects of all the small activities making up daily working- life. “The truth of the pudding lies in the eating” states a famous American proverb and this seems to be true for life and work in general.