You know the goal-setting basics. You must set goals, and write them down, and look at them daily, etc.. And you know about S.M.A.R.T. goals, right? Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. I’m not saying any of that is wrong, but goals won’t get you anywhere on their own.
A lot of books on goal setting refer to a 1953 Yale study, where 3% of the class had written goals and concrete plans, 13% just had written goals, and 84% didn’t have goals at all. Well, 10 years later, the 13% were earning twice as much as the 84%, and the 3% were making 10x as much.
There you have it, write down your goals and you’ll be rich.
Oh, but one thing: that study doesn’t actually exist.1 And the 1979 Harvard MBA Business School study that had basically the same results probably doesn’t exist either – it doesn’t appear to. The reason everyone accepted these studies so easily is because they make sense.
It makes sense that clear direction leads to more success. The clearer the direction, the more successful. That seems to be true, but these studies led to the idea that if you write your goals down, you basically can’t go wrong. But if all you do is write your goals down, you’re already failing.
I’m not trying to share some new secret, I’m actually being super practical here. Goals don’t get you anywhere. They show you where you want to go, sure, but to actually achieve anything, you’ve got to focus on systems. But first, let’s talk about what everything I write about comes back to: mindset.
The Magic of Thinking Big
The Magic of Thinking Big is the title of one of my favorite books. It’s pretty easy to guess what it’s about. Big thinking isn’t instilled in children like it should be.
I know we tell our kids they can be anything they want, and they can do anything, and they have no limits. But then graduation approaches and we start telling them about “the real world,” and how they “must go to college to get a good job,” and how they “need to think about their future,” but we say it with a “realistic” tone — by realistic, I mean safe, comfortable, and with a low bar.
The fact is, our kids can do anything they set their mind to. We shouldn’t put boundaries on them. We should let them dream, and help them accomplish the lofty things they set out to accomplish. That all starts with thinking big.
Let your kids think big. Even when they’re about to graduate high school.
But how do they achieve? How do they attain what they’re focused on?
Systems, Not Goals
Goals aren’t bad. The problem is, it’s difficult to set goals, because we don’t know what we’re capable of, and more often than not, we limit ourselves with low goals.
You can set a goal to write a book. You can even set a S.M.A.R.T. goal to “write a 250-page New York Times bestselling book about breeding Golden Retrievers by December 31st, 2021,” but what does that do? It gives you a direction to head, but how do you get there?
Systems work whether you set goals or not. Goals give you something to look forward to, but systems are much more important.
We can teach our kids to dream big, and set goals, but without the systems to back it up, nothing is going to happen. Your goal may be to write that book, but your system is writing for two hours at a specific time, in a specific place, every single day.
It’s easy to say you want to write a book. It’s much harder to stick with a system, even when you don’t feel like it. This is how we build positive habits. By repeating the task, day in, day out. And that is what kids need to understand.
How to Help Kids Build Systems
Kids already have systems. They eat at regular times. They brush their teeth. Hopefully they bathe regularly. They may even have a regular play time, or regular reading time.
Those are all systems.
The easiest way to track systems is to write them down. I don’t see the benefit in writing down the same goal every day, but I do see the benefit in starting a system, and journaling daily to keep track of it. Encourage your kids to journal their systems.
So how do they get started? How do you get started?
First, figure out where they want to go and what they want to do. If they want to be an athlete, help them set an exercise system that meets their goals. If they want to be a writer, help them set a writing schedule. If they want to go to college before they do anything else, help them set a regular schedule of applying for scholarships.
To implement a system, all you need is a schedule. The same time and place each day. It’s important for kids to understand to not miss days when they’re doing this… at least no more than two days in a row. Special circumstances come up, and this shouldn’t be a religious act, but instill the mindset of always showing up.
How to Balance Goals and Systems
Goals aren’t that important if you have a solid system in place. For example, if you’re writing for two hours a day, eventually, you will have a book in front of you. But it’s not a bad idea to set a deadline and an ultimate goal of finishing the book. You do need the direction to know what “finished” looks like.
I’m definitely not saying you shouldn’t ever have goals. The problem comes in when people focus on their goals instead of focusing on their systems.
Help your kids set goals, when they’re interested in it, but more importantly, get them to understand the importance of systems, because that’s what gets them where they want to go.
If you want to help your kids set goals, that’s perfectly fine, but focusing on the goal and not the system isn’t going to accomplish anything. It takes five minutes to set and write down a goal. There’s no harm in that. But there is harm in not taking the action that achieves the goal.
Teach your kids to have clear direction—to know what they want in life—but more importantly, teach them how to get it — how to put in the work. Teach your kids to have grit.
Last Updated: October 9, 2020
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- R, Kanaat. (2016). The Harvard MBA Business School Study on Goal Setting. Wanderlust Worker.