My Beef with Goals

December 29, 2013 | 16 comments
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According to the de facto Mormon liturgical calendar, it is the time of year to talk about goal-setting. Most Mormon discussions of goals make me want to poke myself in the eyeball with a fork–a reaction I initially did not understand, since I set goals for myself all of the time. But after thinking about it for a while, I figured out a few reasons why the standard Mormon discourse on goals and goal-setting aggravates me so much.

Goal-setting is not a requirement for living the gospel. Goal-setting is not an eternal principle; it is something common to this particular time and place and culture that might be a helpful tool for some people. Abraham did not take a stick and write out his goals for the year 2014BCE in the dirt. (Although if he did, and one of those goals was “Do not give wife to foreign ruler,” and a camel scratched it out, and Abraham forgot about it, that sure would explain a lot.) It is perfectly possible to grow closer to Christ without setting goals, but you wouldn’t know this if you listened to many LDS people talk about it.

Your goals should not require the abrogation of anyone else’s agency. A missionary setting a goal to baptize five people this month is asking God to override agency. A missionary setting a goal to talk to a different person about Jesus every time she gets on a bus is not.

January 1st is probably not the best time to set new goals. First off, you probably haven’t put much thought into planning them, what with the Christmas chaos. Secondly, you are probably out of your routine, also because of Christmas. Third, you are probably still in vacation mode on January 1st, and there is no way you are going to be at the gym at 6am if you didn’t get home until 1am the night before. We don’t have to follow the culture on this one; set your goals and start your goals whenever it is best for you and leave the New Years’ resolutions to the pagans.

A goal is not (necessarily) a plan, but it needs one. It does you no good to say “I will read the entire OT in 2014″ unless you figure out how much you need to read per day, when you are going to read it, how you are going to get back on track if you miss reading for a week because you had the flu, etc. You need a plan, or the goal isn’t going to happen.

Aim low. Really low. The goals that I have been most successful with were the ones that were very modest–so that I could actually stick to them–but they ended up having large cumulative effects over time. I think our LDS discourse often makes the setting of very high goals almost into a test of faith (“if you really believed the promises in the scriptures, you’d commit to reading from the scriptures for three hours per day”); that sets you up for failure. I’ve also heard it suggested that we set goals we know we can’t reach, because doing 75% will be pretty good anyway. The people who suggest this apparently don’t have much experience working with perfectionists.

That’s it. Rant over. Good luck with your 2014 goals, or not.

16 Responses to My Beef with Goals

  1. Craig H. on December 30, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Right on Julie. There’s also the “goal not written is only a wish” thing that used to be or maybe still is said over and over in this context, which I after long goal-failing experience have come to think should read, “if you’ve got to write it down then it probably doesn’t mean much to you.” Not quite as catchy, I know.

  2. Craig H. on December 30, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    P.S. I’d also like to see the shape of the rest of your liturgical calendar. That could really be something to look at all at once. Maybe somebody has already invented such a thing and is selling it at DB. Maybe like: New Year’s (goalsetting), Stake Conference (goalsetting), April Conference (goalsetting), Stake Conference (goalsetting), October Conference (goalsetting), Two Primary Programs Somewhere In Between (temporary relief from goalsetting), December (Christmas carols and reminders about tithing settlement). The possibilities are many.

  3. Keith on December 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you. So easy to think gospel = goals.

    “A goal not written is only a wish,” to which a friend once replied “So a goal is only a wish written down.”

    An additional problem (not stated directly, but implied in your post) is the sense of shame, disappointment, failure, even sin, that accompanies not having reached a goal. No doubt this applies to individuals, but I’m thinking of collective goals–say in a ward council–where we beat ourselves over having not accomplished what we set out for ourselves. We strive to do good, to carry our responsibilities faithfully(granted we may do this in greater or lesser degrees of diligence), only to compound the feelings of inadequacy and fear of not doing all we should that comes with such responsibility, with an extra measure of guilt at having not reached to goal (despite the good we may have done–good that we can’t fully be happy about because we’ve still come up short of our goals). I know the whole carrot and stick metaphor. In this case we too often hit ourselves with the stick and poke ourselves in the eye with the carrot.

  4. Julie M. Smith on December 30, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Craig, you have only scratched the surface. The Mormon liturgical year also features:

    begging for volunteers for cold scout camping (Feb)
    guilt re your sweetheart & neglect thereof (Feb 14)
    harangues for wholesome family recreation (spring break)
    stop beating your wife and viewing porn (PH session)
    begging you to go to RS and not inactive (YW graduation time)
    begging for the only two not-pregnant or lactating women in the ward to go to girls’ camp (June)
    begging re scout camp (June)
    patriotism and/or jingoism (4th of July)
    pioneer guilt (“bloody, bleeding feet”, etc.) (July 24th)
    begging for volunteers for hot scout camping (Aug)

    etc.

  5. Craig H. on December 30, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    But see I knew all I needed to do was scratch the surface and you would dig up some great ideas. If you market this, remember the little people who helped make it happen. And you’ll also have to think about the design and decoration of said calendar, to be hung next to the slightly more traditional Advent calendar.

  6. Sarah Familia on December 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you, Julie. One month on my mission, we set a goal of baptizing thirteen people. 13! Yes, before you ask, my mission was in South America. Still, it was a ridiculous goal, especially considering the number of people (more or less zero) in our teaching pool. But we were pressured every month to set “faith-filled” baptismal goals. We baptized one person during the month of the 13-baptism goal, and I felt like a failure.

    In fact, I felt like a failure pretty much every other month of my mission too. I’ll never forget the interview when my mission president pulled out his binder of the photos he’d taken at the party he always threw for missionaries going home. Each photo had the missionary surrounded by all the converts he’d baptized. My mission president actually asked me how I would feel if I didn’t have a large group of converts like them to take a picture with at my farewell party.

    I worked hard, obeyed the rules, and prayed my heart out for eighteen months, but it took me years to forgive myself for the “failure” that was my mission. Mission presidents really need to stop doing this to bright-eyed young people who take them far too seriously and feel personally unworthy if their “faith” doesn’t result in the right statistics.

  7. Mike Berkey on December 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    “According to the de facto Mormon liturgical calendar…”

    :D Such a good line! Also, I gave a talk in church yesterday in which I argued from 2 Cor 12:7-10 that new year’s resolutions are bunk.

  8. Craig H. on December 30, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Holy cow Sarah. Sorry about that.

  9. Mark B. on December 30, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    The educated person when speaking of gouging out his own eyes leaves the fork on the table and picks up a reference to Oedipus Rex. It’s so much more edifying.

    I wouldn’t mind having to think about or set goals, so long as every time I achieved one I could just yell out “GOOOOOOOOAAAALLL” wherever I happened to be when I achieved it. In that case, though, it probably would not be a good idea to have the goal to “complete 20 endowment sessions this year.”

  10. Ben S. on December 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    Love the comments.
    Sarah, I hate that your mission (and president) was like that. Sure, in France we set similar (though far lower) goals, but as more of a ritual process and ritual failure. We (or at least I) considered us successful for going through the process, and doing the best we could, as below.

    I wish more mission presidents would internalize Joseph Smith’s statement, “If you do your duty, it will be just as well with you, as though all men embraced the gospel.” Link

    For myself, I never baptized anyone, and had various struggles as all missionaries do, would have welcomed more traditional “success”, but was stoically and fatalistically fine without any. My second mission Pres was far different from the first, and once said that he would measure our success by seeing where we were in 20 years.

  11. EFF on December 30, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, recently published a book—”How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”—in which he eschews goals in favor of systems. On the subject of goals, he says: “To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.”

    If you are interested in understanding his distinction between “setting goals” and “having a system” and you don’t want to read his book, you can check out the article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in October of this year. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304626104579121813075903866

    It’s intriguing.

  12. Julie M. Smith on December 31, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Thanks, EFF, that’s a very helpful way to think about it. I had not articulated it in these terms before, but it is very true that I develop systems and not goals myself. And I have the sense of accomplishment every day when I comply with my system, instead of the sense of failure that I have not yet met a goal.

    And, Sarah, it makes me really sad that you were subjected to that–you should have been encouraged to join the heavens in rejoicing over the one sinner who repented, instead of beating yourself up over a goal.

  13. CDH on December 31, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Whenever anything is discussed, it is always crucial to have the same denotation and connotation for the crucial points of the discussion. This isn’t any different here. The use of the word “goal” is being tossed around by everyone here but I feel it is being used slightly differently by everyone.

    For me, a goal is an aim or desired result that guides your decision making. This is in stark contrast to how Scott Adams, and how most of the commentators, seem to define it. If we take Adams’ definition, then I whole-heartily agree with everything written above. But that view forces a false dichotomy between success and failure. Setting goals is about the journey, not solely the destination. Failing to reach a goal really only happens when the proverbial ‘single step’ isn’t taken.

    Using that as the definition of goals, I feel that the goal-setting is indeed an eternal principle. Set a goal to strive to stop doing a type of sin and to recommit when you slip up is called repentance. Real intent is nothing more than setting a goal to follow through with answers to the prayers we receive. Every covenant is just a goal with built-in accountability to the Lord.

  14. CDH on December 31, 2013 at 11:17 am

    PS In regards to setting baptismal goals as missionaries, I agree entirely that setting a goal that John Smith will get baptized is a horrible goal as that require the abrogation of anyone else’s agency. However, that isn’t how I was taught to set those types of goals in my mission. Setting a goal of 6 baptisms meant that we had faith that in a area that had thousands of people, that at least 6 we being prepared by the Lord to receive the Gospel and be baptized. We were taught to set those goals so that we would view everyone as one of people prepared.

  15. Geoff J on December 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Seems to me that saying “Goal-setting is not an eternal principle” is false.

    I mean, God has established some very clear long term goals for us. (Be like Jesus, become at one with the Godhead, etc). I gather your beef is not with all goals — just short term goals.

  16. Julie M. Smith on December 31, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Sure, CDH and Geoff J, we could define “goals” to mean things like “return to God’s presence.” But in my experience, that isn’t what Mormons are doing. They are setting goals like “have 5 non-members listen to a missionary discussion in my home this year” or whatever. It isn’t clear to me that the second kind of goal is the best or only way to work towards the first kind of goal. In fact, if you became too dogmatic about the second goal, you could easily lose sight of achieving the first (although, to be fair, there need not be a conflict).

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