Many of us are goal-setting and goal-attaining experts. We love the chase.

But what often gets left out is to take a closer look at what those goals are to begin with. We get so caught up in our pursuit of goals that we do not question the very thing we are chasing.

There are three critical questions we can ask when setting goals. They highlight the role of choice and how to leverage it to maximize and sustain peak performance.

The Latin root of integrity is "integer" meaning intact or whole and complete. A system that is not whole is handicapped and cannot reach its true potential. Thus performance is a direct function of integrity.

When we are whole and in alignment, performance comes naturally and can be sustained over longer periods.

In contrast, when goals are out of alignment with what we truly care about, it's harder to get top performance and true satisfaction. Even when we pull it off, it's short-lived and harder to sustain.

Performance suffers because we are out of alignment with our true selves and values, and thus out of integrity.

Our true values and selves often tend to be implicit. They disclose themselves through our experiences over time and our actions or the lack thereof. This is sometimes different from what we might be explicitly claiming.

Sometimes they are implicit because we have not take a closer look at our own narratives.

Often this is a trial and error process and comes at the cost of lot of undue suffering and pain. Asking three questions on a regular basis helps ensure our goals are in alignment with what we actually care about.

What are we chasing?
The Final Rush, Jonas Lucien-Hector, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Where did our definition of success come from?

All of us absorb values from the cultures and families we grew up in. Knowingly or unknowingly we have modeled our lives based on people who influenced us. Many of us have negative role models too - people we do not want to be like.

This is natural and nothing wrong with it. The trick is to recognize it and account for any potential misalignment between our own values and what we have absorbed from others.

Often we struggle in our endeavors because there is misalignment between our purported values and what we truly care about.

We have to learn to differentiate between our “have to do” and “should be doing” vs our “want to do”.

Regardless of what our definition of success is, and whichever SMART goal we might be pursuing, it’s worth peeling the layers and asking the below questions:

  • Did they come from our parents, friends or relatives?
  • Did they come from societal norms and expectations?
  • Did they come from someone we respected or a famous figure?
  • Are we ok with this?
  • Is there a tension between what we are “supposed to be doing or be like” and who we actually want to be?
  • Are we navigating our lives by our own compass or someone else’s?

2. Who set the criteria?

If we set a goal to be a millionaire before 30 to consider ourselves as a “success”, who set that criteria? Was it really us or did we unknowingly pick it up?

We often have arbitrary benchmarks of success without actually asking if that’s what we truly want. More importantly, are we willing to make the necessary tradeoffs?  The tradeoffs are often not in alignment with our own true nature and needs.

Who are we competing with? What are we comparing against?

3. Are we taking ownership of our choices?

One reason we might not have a lot of power behind our goals is because we have not yet taken ownership of our choices. Even the default, aka not doing anything, is a choice for the status quo we are opting for.

Emulating someone or taking inspiration from someone’s ideas is not necessarily a problem. In fact they can often pull us to the next level of performance.

The trouble starts when this is not recognized explicitly and we don’t take ownership of our own choice in the matter. This is often because we don’t understand choice when it comes to our own lives.

The nature of choice

Choices by definition provoke anxiety. By deciding to choose something we are also deciding not to do 10 other potential things.

Suddenly analytical decision making is not as effective when held up against the existential anxiety of making a life changing decision.

What gets unnoticed and goes under-utilized is to own our choices even in situations where we have to do something.  Going from “have to do”  to “choosing to do” something,  is a super-power.

Even when we are adopting someone else’s ideals recognizing our choice in the process yields more power.

Frustration and disillusionment comes because we think we don’t have a choice. Look a little closer and most of the time we do. Even in situations where we truly and objectively do not have a choice, acknowledging that fact and taking ownership makes a huge difference.

We might not be ok with the potential consequences of a choice but regardless we do have one.

Our recognition of choice can make all the difference in how much commitment and power we bring to our pursuits.

Love of fate

Invoking Nietsche’s idea of amor fati, here’s how Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi put it in Finding Flow:

A simple way of improving the quality of life is to take ownership of one’s actions.

A great deal of what we do (over two-thirds, on the average) are things we feel we have to do, or we do because there isn’t anything else we feel like doing. Many people spend their entire lives feeling like puppets who move only because their strings are pulled. […]

There are many things in life that we must do and don’t like doing. It may be sitting in meetings, or taking out the garbage, or keeping track of bills. Some of these are unavoidable; no matter how ingenious we are, we still must do them. So the choice is either to do them against the grain, grumbling about the imposition-or do them willingly.

In both cases we are stuck with having to do the activity, but in the second case the experience is bound to be more positive. One can set goals for even the most despised task: for instance, to mow the lawn as quickly and efficiently as possible. The very act of setting the goal will take much of the sting out of a chore.

This attitude toward one’s choices is well expressed in the concept of amor fati- or love of fate- a central concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

For instance, in discussing what it takes to live fully, he writes: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity…. Not merely bear what is necessary . . . but love it.”

– Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi in Finding Flow

Next time you sit down for a review of your goals, consider them through the above 3 lenses.

What do they illuminate? What will you do differently?

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Further reading

For a deep dive into the nuances of goal-setting check out Effective Goal-Setting Using 14 Different Dimensions.

Another important framework in peak performance is deliberate practice. I examine it from context of leadership development in Using Deliberate Practice to Increase Leadership Effectiveness.

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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