Manageable Goals: A Key To Growth

Manageable GoalsGoals.  How do you hit them?  How do you place them within sane and profitable range?  How do you avoid the extremes of setting the bar too low—and being thus unchallenged and bored—and shooting unrealistically high—and being discouraged and defeated?

Today, one of my colleagues and I were discussing the importance of setting goals that were challenging yet attainable.  My friend told me that when he was an insurance salesman, he and his fellow agents would huddle in the mornings and lay out their sales goals for that particular day.  His buddies would generally shoot for the moon:  “I’m gonna sell ten policies today.”  He would set more modest but sufficiently difficult targets: “I’m going to sell two of this policy and one of that package.”  And he would usually hit the mark, while his co-workers failed to meet theirs and were thus discouraged.

There’s an old adage that says “slow and steady wins the race.”  This, of course, is a nod to Aesop’s famous story of The Tortoise and the Hare.  Through patient plodding, the much slower and ungainly tortoise won the race over the flashy and fleet-of-foot hare.  If you persevere, you win.

This is not to discourage the practice of giving yourself a worthy but difficult task.  But it is important to keep a healthy balance between mediocrity and insanity.  Those who avoid the shoals on either side generally sail on to success.

What are your goals for 1) continuing education—whether at a learning institution or through self-education via reading, listening and viewing, 2) physical fitness and weight loss, 3) strengthening your relationships, 4) improving your vocational skills?  Have you written them down, which is critical to their fulfillment, having engaged your conscious and subconscious mind by doing so?  Have you a process, broken down into manageable bites—“baby steps”—whereby you can meet these destinations?

Here are some of the benefits one derives from setting goals and then meeting them:

  • You get the benefit of meeting the goal itself.  If you lose that portly thirty pounds, you feel better about yourself and have become healthier.  If you learn a new skill, you can use that to help others, elevate your station and earn more.
  • You receive a boost in self-confidence and self-respect rooted in genuine accomplishment, rather than in aspiration and fantasy.
  • You strengthen your goal-attainment muscles because you are encouraged that, yes, you can do this!

Set goals.  Set them high enough to stretch you.  Write them down, with concrete dates and metrics indicating you’ve met them.  Then hit them!

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French, Daughters, and Adventures

Vive La FranceI remember going to my future high school as an eighth grader and selecting classes for my upcoming freshman year.  This was an exciting time for a fourteen year old who’d spent the previous eight years in a parochial school, with fairly limited—though profitable—course options.

I spied the foreign language department and its course offerings in the curriculum of Lapeer East High during orientation.  I’d been fascinated by foreign languages, having learned snippets of Spanish, French, Hebrew, and, of course, Latin throughout my years at Bishop Kelley Memorial.  That fascination, along with rumor that the French Department was chaired by a lovely young blonde, was enough for me.  I was in.

Over the next four years, a superficial fascination with language and a pretty teacher turned into a full-fledged love for French and a deep respect and affection for our teacher, Madame Essex.

A few years after graduation, I took my love for French to college and studied it for five semesters there as well.  I even taught it in a variety of settings over the next dozen years or so.  I’ve added other languages to my learning but French was and is my first love when I take leave of my mother tongue.  It is a thing of beauty, discipline and purity.  There’s nothing quite like it.

In a poignant twist of irony, it is now the province—linguistically and geographically—of my daughter Anna, who today moved to the southern part of France near Avignon to work at a school.  My daughter, Emily, is conversant in French as well and I expect she will use it as she pursues her various callings and avocations as well.

It is a delight for parents to watch as their children head off into the sunset or sunrise in pursuit of their dreams, their callings, their fortunes, their destinies.  We miss Anna already—Emily is close by, thankfully—and look forward to seeing her, sooner rather than later would be our preference.  Et j’espere c’est dans le pays de la France.  Mais bien sur!

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ThinkIBM founder Thomas Watson became famous, in part, because of a slogan he’d picked up as a young sales manager for National Cash Register Company.  He made it the defining motif for Big Blue from the 1920′s to the present.


“Think” signs were plastered all over IBM so that every employee, from the janitor to the senior vice president, would capture the vision that strategic thinking would enable the company to grow and flourish.  He made the compelling case that “I didn’t think” was one of the main reasons why companies lost millions of dollars.  I understand that some IBM employees—engineers and so forth—would carve out significant blocks of time every day simply to think.

One reason why things tend to overwhelm us is that we may have nurtured the bad habit of not thinking a thing through and then finding a solution by thoroughly understanding it.  We tend to be impatient and want everything now, especially resolutions to problems that niggle and irritate.  This applies to any area of life, not simply mechanical malfunctions or engineered designs for everything from highway infrastructure to software apps.

In his book The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, Scott Peck points out that simplistic thinking is the bane of our age and the reason for not thinking challenges through is that real thought is hard work!

One father I know regularly counsels his adult sons to “think it through” when considering possible courses of action.  My wife likes to call the process “playing the tape to the end.”

Here are some tips to improve your own strategic, solution-based thinking:

  • Create an undistracted atmosphere.  Turn off the technology for a while and have your secretary or your family members hold your calls.
  • Think with a pencil and paper in hand.  Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for his Journals, filled with math, drawings, aphorisms and sundry jottings.  Writing something out has a way of clearing cloudy thought.
  • Look at your challenge from multiple angles.  Da Vinci again.  He used to sketch things from three different angles, including upside-down, so that he would not miss details and had a better picture of the whole.  Thomas Aquinas, in his famous Summa Theologica, used to state a thesis and then come up first with every conceivable argument against it.  Then he’d formulate arguments in favor of his proposition.
  • Try to see your conundrum through the eyes of a child.  Albert Einstein was famous for this practice.  His child-like approach to physics gave us his theories of special and general relativity.  A consummate “outside-the-box” thinker.

Remember that thinking is laborious but well worth the effort.  You will be surprised how many more solutions will emerge as you give patience and focus to thinking things through.

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Less Is More

Less Is MoreOne of the most fascinating books I’ve read over the past ten years or so is Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney.  In this book, the author unpacks some of the keys to the design and marketing philosophy of Steve Jobs and Apple.  Some of the chapter titles are provocative (Focus: How Saying “No” Saved Apple; Elitism: Hire Only A Players, Fire the Bozos).

Jobs was leery of trying to do too many things with Apple.  In fact, when he took over Apple again in 1997 after a twelve year absence, he slashed and mothballed a lot of projects in the works.  Apple was in deep trouble financially.  He made the decision to focus on a few key products and make them superior to anything in the market.

One of the gnats he had to dispense with early on in his second tour with Apple was feature creep.  “Feature creep” is the IT design practice of creating all sorts of bells and whistles for any new piece of technology, thus increasing the product’s versatility and, therefore, sales.

Steve Jobs had no patience for feature creep.

This impatience was an outgrowth of his Zen minimalism which, in design terms, meant making technology as simple and user-friendly as possible.  So he and his colleagues worked painstakingly to do a few signature Apple devices extremely well.  As Jobs’ famous mantra says, “Focus means saying no.”

In the summer of 2011, Apple passed Exxon Mobil as the most profitable corporation in our country.  Jobs really knew what he was doing.

As a musician, it’s taken me quite a few years to learn that less is more.  Young musicians tend to want to overplay, to “express themselves,” to get everything possible out on their instruments.  Over many years, however, I’ve learned that the spaces between the notes I play are as important, sometimes more, as the notes themselves.  Or, as Dan Fogelberg said as a young studio musician, “I learned that it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.”

What have you been given?  What do you do well?  What can you pare down or eliminate to simplify and focus, bringing your contributions to a higher level of excellence? Some suggestions:

  • Social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.  All fascinating platforms but they tend to eat time the way SUV’s suck gas.  Limit your involvements–and unnecessary participation in the drama of others, something you really don’t have energy and patience for anyway.
  • News media: Consider some other outlet to get your news than the Big 5.  BBC or NPR are good places to start.  Again, do you really need five different viewpoints on a story?
  • Pour the extra time and effort thus gained from limiting your involvements in pointless, time-wasting pursuits into honing skills in your vocation and your avocations.  As the song from the Franco Zeffirelli film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1971) says, “Do few things, but do them well.”

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