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*Photo by Greg Rakozy

“Who you are inside is what helps you make and do everything in life.”— Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood)

A few years ago, I was working on my annual goal list and sharing them with a mentor.

When I was done sharing my goal list for the year, my mentor asked me a question that changed the way I would think about goals forever.

“I notice most of your goals are external. Have you considered shifting them from external to internal?”

I didn’t really understand, so I asked for clarification.

My mentor went on to highlight that nearly all of my goals had to do with external results like writing more articles, teaching more classes, joining groups or associations, books I would read, starting new projects, exercising a certain number of days per week, financial or retirement amounts, or trips I had planned to schedule that year.

He challenged me, “What about goals like more patience, contentment, gratitude, better listening skills, becoming less self-centered, gentleness, or generosity?”

As I looked at my list, I realized these things were mostly absent. It’s not that I didn’t desire those things, they just seemed too opaque and hard to measure.

After all, I had always been taught that setting SMART goals was the only way to set a goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound).

Some of the goals I had would certainly help me develop the kind of character traits that were important to me, but I hadn’t thought about that much when I created the goal.

This conversation helped reinforce a supremely important truth—Who we become inside is vastly more important than what we achieve on the outside.

You can probably think of celebrities or people you know who have achieved great external success, but inwardly were not becoming the kind of person they wished to become.

It got me thinking, if I became a great listener, more generous, more gentle and patient, more forgiving, or making time to help my neighbors…if I can’t quantify this—does it mean it is not valuable or important? Does it mean those things don’t make me a “successful” person?

The answer was obvious. These things were not only still important, but even more important than the goals I had listed.

For driven high-achievers, this tendency is widespread.

Common goals might be a target level of income, business profits, starting a new company, running a marathon, attaining a promotion, buying a vacation home, or traveling to certain destinations.

But these goals won’t produce lasting happiness or fulfillment—unless they are tied to becoming the kind of person you want to become.

In some cases, they can be linked, but often they are not.

Research on the concept of the hedonic treadmill has demonstrated that our level of happiness often quickly returns to baseline after the initial euphoria of achieving a goal. This can lead to a relentless and empty cycle of goal setting for the next emotional rush.

If you want to understand more about how this works, check out books like Dopamine Nation or The Molecule of More.

We live in a culture that is more obsessed with doing or having, than it is with being. This tendency is driven by social comparison that has exploded with social media in the recent past.

Social Comparison Theory proposes that people value their own personal and social worth by assessing how they compare to others. Introduced by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, the theory describes the comparison process people utilize to evaluate their actions, accomplishments, and opinions in contrast to other people.

The more that we can step back from social comparison and reflect on the people we truly want to become, the more we can break the cycle of setting goals that may not bring the fulfillment we are seeking.

We often admire people who have accomplished incredible things. But what we can’t see is the inner price they may have paid for achieving it.

The dark truth about goals is that they can easily become the instrument of our own self-induced oppression, anxiety, and unhappiness.

After all, what good is the attainment of a very difficult goal if the person we become inside is more restless, fearful, rigid, or obsessive.

This topic also led me to a rather ironic goal for the past couple years—setting less goals!

I hope you find this concept as helpful as I have.

“Reaching the goal is not nearly as important as the person you are required to become while trying to achieve it.” –Christian Simpson, Executive Coach

 Take action now

Take some time this week to look at your goals for the year.

When looking at your goals, what kind of character traits would they reinforce in you?

Do they help you become the kind of person you want to become? If not, how can you change them?

Have a great weekend!









Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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