Dorie Clark over at the Harvard Business Review site posted an interesting article on when to give up on a goal without feeling like a quitter. My reaction after the excerpt:
Goal setting can be powerful. It’s important to periodically look at your priorities and ensure you’re doing the things that matter, whether it’s seeing friends, getting healthy, or making more sales calls. But it’s equally important to re-evaluate those goals to ensure they’re still appropriate:
When your goals have adverse consequences
When your goals impede other objectives
When your goals are no longer appropriate.
See the full blog entry via When to Give Up on Your Goals – Dorie Clark – Harvard Business Review.
I like the article as it raises an important question for me — if I have lots of goals, when do I give up on a goal? But my reaction is a bit different.
At first blush, I thought the article was missing a couple of nuances for me. First, most importantly, all goals should be constantly evaluated, broken down into sub-components objectives, and the resulting tasks become priorities. So, you review your priorities daily or weekly, your objectives perhaps quarterly, and your goals annually. But for me, life is about the journey too, so if I miss a priority or an objective or even a goal, I’m not upset about it (usually). After all, the first goal is to have goals/objectives/priorities and to make progress on some of them — which I do. So if my first goal is met, how would I feel like a quitter?
Second, when I review my goals, I see how I did against past goals, but I focus on what I’m going to do for the coming year. And not all my goals can make it. So quitting on a goal isn’t a problem because it is all about priority-setting. If a goal has dropped in priority for me, such as because it’s producing adverse consequences, impeding other goals, or just not as appropriate, it automatically drops in priority. Eventually, it will drop off the list entirely.
My two best examples of that were law school and a job in a Deputy Minister’s Office. When I neared graduation from my undergrad, I didn’t completely know what I wanted to do — something public administration-related, probably municipal government, was my main thought. But I thought I would do a joint degree with law and have this great law degree to further my public administration ambitions. I thought about just doing law by itself, but I was more interested in public admin. The joint degree allowed me to do both.
Except when I went to law school, I really hated it. At the time, I didn’t really know why, but I was just not enjoying it. And that isn’t just a reflection of the work. I mean I couldn’t care two rat’s asses worth of anything about certain legal areas — torts and property law being the biggest. Anything to do with government, I was interested and actively doing my readings. Anything to do with business entities, snooze-a-rama. About six months in, we read a case that crystallized part of the problem with the cases for me. The short version is that after a particularly disheartening discussion by my fellow classmates, the professor asked me afterwards if I had as much trouble with the case as she suspected. When I confessed that the other students’ view of the case really really bothered me, she pointed out that part of the reason for that was that I was still seeing the people in the case. While my peers had indoctrinated themselves in the mystique of law school where you tease out the various abstract legal principles, I was still feeling an injustice of an 80-year-old British property case. The windmills that I wanted to tilt at were long gone, dead and buried even, and here I was arguing about them. But in most of the government-related cases, the “entities” were still alive — the government institutions. And the cases were as much about law as they were about how governments work, organize themselves, and exercise their power.
Fast-forward another eight months, and in the intervening time, I had spent six months working for a government department doing legal summaries and research (and loving it) and started my public administration courses (and loving ALL of them). I got a co-op job a few months later, started taking “stop-out” time from the law school…two years later, I dropped law school from my life altogether.
My second example was a job in the DM’s office of a government Ministry. I had worked for about 8 years for government at this point, and I was a level three program officer when an advertisement came out looking for a level five or six officer to work in the DM’s office in the same department. It seemed like my dream job — high-level policy stuff, good overview work, cabinet relations duties, a chance to have my finger on the pulse of government, however obliquely. But I was too junior and didn’t apply. In other departments, those jobs are hot competitions; in my department, nobody wanted it. So they advertised again, and I said, “Well, I would be interested but the language profile is too high and the level is too high…”. They interviewed me and ended up offering me the job.
But the cost of taking it would have been too high — no more career development, no more rotation, and I’d have to burn a bridge with my current boss on short notice. A mentor pointed out that nobody in the department wants those types of jobs, so if I waited until later, the jobs would always be available for someone with my background, and leaving my current post then would really burn my current boss. And so I turned it down. I couldn’t believe it…I even said at the time, “If you had told me even three years ago that I would not only get offered this job but also would turn it down, I would have said you were crazy”. But it wasn’t the right fit right then.
Fast-forward another five years, and I took a similar job in the same office at a much higher level, with more responsibilities, more flexibility, more work in the areas I like. My seeming dream job. And I hated it.
Like with law school, it was a goal of mine to work there. But goals are often set with ideals in mind, and the reality may be quite different. For me, law school was not what I expected — not in a naive way, but rather the experience of law school was trying to train me to look at the world in a way that I didn’t want. I couldn’t eat just part of the fruit of knowledge, it was all-consuming. But it wasn’t me then or who I am now, and I bailed. And for a long time I did feel like I had failed myself. Yet, years later, I read an assignment I had written for an undergrad law class where the intro resonated me in ways I couldn’t have predicted previously…I wrote, “I know the assignment was to go and watch a legal case unfold, like a traffic stop or DUI. Then to summarize the bare legal essentials in the case, with facts and legal issues identified. But that wasn’t what interested me in my research — I want instead to talk about the people and how they interacted together to reach a resolution.” That’s the reason I left law school, written two years before I even went to law school. I wasn’t “quitting” law school, I was being true to myself.
Similarly with the DM’s office job. There was nothing wrong with the job, it just wasn’t what I had hoped for when I pursued it. I had hoped for a lot more high-level understanding of policy discussions, value-added to the unit as the first senior policy analyst. Yet much of the work at that level is surprisingly administrative, superficial even. It was high-level, I learned a lot, but eight months later when I won another competition at a newly created department, the opportunity to manage a team and create an international framework for them almost from scratch was too irresistible to pass up. It even ended up being a good timeline for moving on. Others have done the job after me, and loved it. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the job…but the reality was different from the ideal. So even though that was a goal I “accomplished”, it was not a success.
One goal missed, but still success; one goal accomplished, but not a success.
In the end, I think the real question about the goals is whether they are still actually your goals? Or are they simply leftover “scripts” that you are following? And do you really know what that goal means or is it just an ideal you’re pursuing?