Every once in a while, in a fit of self-improvement, I’ll set some personal goals for myself. Sometimes I’ll even write them down. Months later, I’ll find these long-forgotten and still-unrealized goals, and I’ll have to wonder what I was thinking. Learn to play guitar? Renovate home office? Shave time off my running pace? Why would I want to do any of these things? When I think about how unworthy some of these goals are, it makes me glad that I lacked the fortitude to follow through on them.
So of course I liked this piece by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe that asks if setting goals can sometimes be a bad idea. He writes that “management scholars are looking deeper into the effects of goals and finding that goals have a dangerous side.” He cites as his prime example GM’s goal to capture 29 percent of the American auto market, which he says distracted the company from the more important long-term job of designing better cars. But he also looks at psychological research that points to the importance of goal-setting for personal motivation: "we concentrate better, work longer and do more if we set specific, measurable goals for ourselves."
So should I make it a goal to set more goals? I’d argue that most of us could learn a lot from Mike, a grade-school kid in Padgett Powell’s novel Edisto, who has written on a small banner in his bedroom: “MY GOAL IN LIFE: NOT TO BE AN IGNORAMUS.” That's a goal worth shooting for, even if it’s a stretch for some of us.