Earl Nightingale makes a point, that I agree with, that one of the common characteristics of successful people in any endeavor is that successful people have goals, goals that they know and have written down. Certainly the successful students I have known have a set of definite goals that they can articulate at a moments notice. On the other hand, when talking to students that do not have such a clear set of goals, many times I am not sure they will complete their chosen program of study, and indeed many goalless students do not get their degree. While I am not sure having goals is the only deciding factor, I am convinced that not having goals severely weakens the probability of being successful.
I write that having goals is an attitude because of the mindset of people towards goals. The actual goals are the result of a goal-oriented attitude, and it is this goal orientation which is critical. A person may be in a period of transition, and actually not have goals at a given moment; however, a goal oriented person is working on having goals, and it is this orientation which is important, not the actual goals.
Benefits of Goal Orientation
Goal orientation provides some key benefits to a person wherever they are, not just in school. However, I want to focus on the benefits of goal orientation for the adult student. Goals, and the benefits of goals, have been written about many times, from Earl Nightingale to Napoleon Hill to Brian Tracy. I want to focus on the impact of goal orientation on students, since I have not seen any such writings published.
The first benefit for the student of being goal oriented is the increased level of persistence. Since the student has a goal for their schooling, the student can overcome obstacles and keep progressing even when things are not going perfectly. They have the ability to make that extra effort which is so often the push needed to go over the top. The presence and knowledge of goals gives the student the energy to complete the paper, take the test, and make the presentation.
The second benefit for the student is the ability to recognize what is important and what is not. Important activities move a person towards their goals; unimportant activities either do not move a person forward and can even retard the progress toward the goal. Thus, a student can recognize what courses are significant, and what activities are significant within a course, and focus on what is important. A goal allows a student to evaluate the material of the course, and to learn the critical elements of what the course is about.
The third benefit of having goals is impact of the goals on the other attitudes of the student. A successful student needs to be positive about their work and their studies. He needs to be willing to go the extra mile to make sure everything necessary gets done. And she needs to be willing to try new things in new ways. All of these other attitudes are enhanced and supported by having goals.
What are goals
Given that goals are a crucial elements of successful, how does a person recognize when their target is a goal? What characteristics define a goal versus a dream? There are five properties of a goal, called the SMART properties.
A goal is Specific. It must be something clear and precise, not a nebulous desire. A goal must be a particular career, a particular degree, a particular position. A student who is seeking a degree but does not care which field the degree is in does not have a goal. A person seeking to be employed in a profession but does not know what they will do in that profession does not have a goal. A goal defines the details of the target so that a person can determine accurately if they are moving towards that target.
A goal is Measurable. If a a person with a goal is asked “Have you reached your goal?” they must be able to answer Yes or No and show how they arrived at that answer. The measure does not always have to be a number, although numbers make it easy. Perhaps a person has a certification goal, or they want to accomplish a specific task. For example, a person may have a goal to have a novel published; this goal is not numerical, but it is certainly measurable. Being measurable and being specific support each other, so these first two properties can, and often are, combined into a single statement of the goal. For example, a student may want to graduate with a specific GPA, which is measurable.
A goal is Attainable. This does not mean realistic, it means possible. For example, a person cannot have a goal of being the first person on the moon, since that has already been done. However, if a person can visualize achieving the goal, no matter how far fetched, then it is attainable. The key idea here is that the person can visualize success.
A goal is Relational. This means that the goal must fit into the philosophy and principles by which the person lives. Trying to reach a target which one believes is wrong leads to contradictory actions. The classic example, as shown by T. Harv Eker among others, is the person who says they want to be rich but believes that rich people are evil. No one wants to be evil, so this person will never reach their goal because it contradicts their belief system.
A goal is Timely. There must be a target date by which time the goal is achieved. Short term goals should be targeted to a day, while long term goals can be more flexible. By having a deadline for his goal, the person can plan his activity and manage his time. When the deadline is reached, if a goal is not achieved (as determined by the measure), the person can reset her goals, with a new deadline, and hopefully with a better understanding of what must be done to achieve the goal.
Setting a goal is the process of taking a dream and giving it the SMART properties. Tommy Newberry does an excellent job of describing this process in “Success is Not an Accident”. The main idea is that the goal is developed from the dream in a conscious, precise process so that it gets the necessary properties. This can be done by anyone, and the benefits can be extraordinary.