What are goals and can they help direct our lives?

Why goal setting may lead to a more fulfilling life (1)
February 7, 2017
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What are goals and can they help direct our lives?

Are SMART goals really that smart? Do they help us get where we’re going? Possessing a sense of direction adds meaning to our lives which in turn gives us purpose. When we know where we want to go and what we need to do each day, we feel like we have something to achieve. This validates our existence and gives us a sense of worth through our achievements, no matter how small or unnoticeable to others they are.

We can determine a path to our goal but it needs to reflect our passion if it is to be something that will provide us with long-term satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

Professionals are taught that goals need to be SMART. That is the acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. There are variations on this theme but this is what Career Development Practitioners (CDPs) are taught in school. Moreover, we work on employment programs with measurable outcomes and we need to be realistic about the goals of clients.  Once a person identifies a goal they are passionate about, they will feel a pull towards its completion rather than the effort of the task.

Goals, we are taught, should be specific. Purveyors of this idea tell us that golas need to be clearly defined with concrete terms associated with them. A goal needs to be an accurate picture and goals should be measurable. It is important to develop a quantitative measurement. From the battle cries of evaluators everywhere “we are what we can measure”.  However, our goals must be achievable; are our goals within our grasp? Do we possess the resources to achieve it and what is the risk of failure? That means that goals need to be realistic. Realistic means that they should be pragmatic, within our scope and not detached from reality in any way. Finally, the goal needs a timeline and be organized through a series of specific time measurements. Phew!

As a student, I reflected on these SMART goals thinking about how structured it all felt. SMART goals don’t feel very human to me. I started to see them as Sensible, Mediocre, Adequate, Regular and Tedious. I couldn’t see where dreams were involved. I was missing the sense of play and enjoyment. I thought that I needed my own acronym for goals. So, I came up with Driven, Unlimited, Motivating and Bold, although I’m not sure the acronym will catch on. Maybe the truth is that we are smart when we know our limitations and weaknesses.

Maybe “Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb about.”

These are the words of a science-fiction character, Daniel Foreman. Foreman is characterized by writer, David Gerrold as a trainer who teaches people to achieve their potential in their fight against the alien species called the Chtorr. Writing under the pseudonym of Solomon Short, Foreman helps people to adapt their technique to best fight the alien horde.

Could there be a metaphor in there? But I digress. Back to goals.

I don’t completely disagree with the idea of SMART goals and you may see reflections of them in this blog but I keep coming back to this idea of realism. It comes down to whose reality we are talking about. Over my 24 years of working as a career counsellor I have met many people who tell me that their friends, parents, teachers have told them they need to be realistic about their futures. I ask them what that means. They usually describe a job that is local, low paid and easy to get. These jobs are “realistic”. But so are jobs in every field of work on the planet. How do people get jobs collecting bugs in rain forests or steering rafts down great rivers? Or for that matter how do people become movie stars, astronauts, innovators of the next technological revolution? They dared to dream. They are people who have followed their dreams. That dream is a reality for millions of workers engaged in work that brings them joy and satisfaction.

Back in 2003 a group of scientists1 determined that the power of imagination is largely responsible for “human motivation and goal directed behaviour.”

The study by Arana, Parkinson (et al) asked a group to make decisions about food listed in menus that were based on their likes and dislikes. The researchers noticed that the parts of the brain that fired were the same in most cases. They saw that the imagination neurons2 were firing at the same time as the motivation neurons3.

So, if the imagination is important in our motivation, then shouldn’t we be talking to our friends and family about our dreams and not what is deemed “realistic”?

Many motivational speakers will say that motivation is like a hot bath. It cools down and needs to be topped up again. Part of the work of Case Managers is to help clients make the transition from needing to be motivated to being self-motivated. When clients see their power and make the connection to their passion, they no longer need to be motivated because the success of their progress becomes its own reward. They are driven by their energy to accomplish the tasks associated with their passion.


The study demonstrates the power of imagination and mnemonic retrieval in generating a representation of value that very often underlies human motivation and goal directed behaviour in the absence of tangible or immediate primary rewards.


1Arana, Parkinson, Hinton, Holland, Owen, Roberts 2003

Department of Anatomy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3DY, United Kingdom.


2Dissociable contributions of the human amygdale and orbitofrontal cortex to incentive motivation and goal selection.

This process is reversed when we experience a real event 3 in a case study by Kevan Lee as we record small accomplishments. A to-do list (or a “digital done-list”) reinforces how you’re chipping away at your goals. As you feel yourself making more progress, you’ll feel greater effects of dopamine.


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