Setting goals is one of the most common and most important things we do in our lives from day-to-day. Even if we think we don’t have goals, during times when we’re taking a break or trying to relax, we have objectives in mind that we want to achieve, even if those targets are simply to watch TV or go back to sleep. It’s innate and instinctual to have a direction we’re working for, lest we simply wander into the woods for lack of purpose.
Writing in notebook. Close-up.
Fortunately, we’ve honed that quality as a species to the point that we’re accomplishing things great and small all the time by simply setting our minds and bodies to the work. Goals are what gets us out of bed in the morning, and they’re often what prompts us to bed early so that we can arise refreshed to continue working towards those goals. But for all our experience with goals, we’re not always the best at setting and managing them.
Our goals in our personal and professional lives are a reflection of our ambition, and for good or ill, human nature is such that our ambitions often outstrips what we’re actually able to achieve. That leads to no small amount of disappointment on the part of those setting outsized goals, even though we should rationally understand that we aimed too high relative to what we can actually achieve. And that’s OK — we need big, bold dreams to accomplish things many thought impossible. But there’s a danger in setting goals and missing them that those shortcomings can breed apathy or cynicism within yourself.
More practically, setting goals for your business that you can’t achieve is a surefire way to make yourself and your company look bad. Throwing out targets that look and sound impressive might serve to thus impress the right people in the short term, but what happens when you fail to reach those targets? Worse yet, what happens when you fall far short, never even threatening to reach the mark? You risk becoming someone that’s unreliable, someone that’s better at talking about projections and goals than actually achieving them, and that’s no one worth investing time or money with for most.
To be fair, not all unmet goals are unreasonable, as there are plenty of legitimate, unforeseen circumstances and complications that can account for falling short of projections, but those shouldn’t be conflated with the unrealistic ones irrationally conceived. Much of business, as well as life, is about managing expectations — your own and others. While that might sound like an exhortation to tamp down and limit your dreams, it’s merely a measure against magical thinking.
When you’re setting goals for yourself and your company, it’s crucial to be honest with yourself about both your abilities and our state of affairs. It doesn’t make much sense to project banner sales for the year if you’re not the strongest salesperson, or if your company’s record to that point suggests it will take more time to grow slowly rather than make a big leap forward. It’s something of a challenge, given that anyone starting their own business believes firmly in their own talents and their ability to overcome, but honesty and self-awareness are important parts of the entrepreneur’s toolkit.
Perhaps most importantly, your goals should come with a roadmap or outline as to how to achieve them. Anyone can toss out a big, ambitious target, but how are you going to get there from where you are? What are the processes and steps needed? It doesn’t need to be something set in stone; any good plan should adapt as circumstances dictate. The most important thing is that an actionable plan exists; as the great George R.R. Martin is fond of writing, “Words are wind.”
Perhaps this advice isn’t the most fun or inspiring; it’s certainly far more thrilling to hear that you should aim as high as you dare to dream and that you can achieve anything that you set your mind to. Certainly, you shouldn’t sell yourself or your abilities short, but there’s a considerable difference between underestimating yourself and overestimating what you can actually achieve. And while tossing out wild ambitions might sound like the sort of thing an entrepreneur should do, it’s the sort of thing done when thinking about what your Walter Isaacson biography might say one day, rather than considering what needs to be done for your business at the moment. #onwards.