Many people spend time at the end of every year taking stock and setting goals for the year ahead. I’ve been doing exactly that for decades. I have established a tradition of writing down my goals for the upcoming year on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. And, of course, I check to see which of my goals from last year I achieved. I know many successful people who do the same. But there are probably many more people who give little thought to setting goals.
In less than two weeks, television shows will be sending their reporters out onto the streets — as they do every year — to ask shoppers and people heading back to work what goals they have set themselves for 2022. Time and again, these sidewalk interviews feature cliched figures like the overweight man who says he has set himself the goal of losing weight as he pops a French fry in his mouth and laughs. He is laughing at himself because he has already abandoned his New Year’s resolution within days of making it — as he does every year.
According to a study conducted by the University of Scranton, only 8 percent of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions by the end of the calendar year, while around 80 percent have failed to live up to their good intentions to improve their lives by as early as mid-February, says U.S. clinical psychologist Joseph Luciani. Given findings such as these, some ‘experts’ advise people that it is better to set no goals at all, or to set smaller, more easily achievable goals, in order to avoid guilt-driven remorse and frustration. When it comes to setting goals, the terms ‘small’ and ‘realistic’ are frequently used as synonyms. By this logic, small goals are seen to be reasonable and attainable while ambitious goals are unrealistic and unachievable.
However, scientific Goal-Setting Theory says exactly the opposite: There is a linear relationship between the degree of goal difficulty and performance. Specific, difficult goals lead to higher performance than no goals as well as vague, abstract goals such as ‘do your best.’ Edwin A. Locke und Gary P. Latham are the pioneers of goal-setting theory. In this two sentences above, Locke summarises the core of a theory that has been confirmed by hundreds of psychological experiments over the past few decades: First, the goals you set yourself need be specific and, second, they should not be too easy to achieve. People who set themselves no goals, unambitious goals or vaguely formulated goals will achieve less in life than people who set themselves specific, challenging goals.
In many ways it is actually easier to achieve challenging goals than small ones because bigger goals are the source of far greater motivational power than small goals. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great example. In 1966, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was only 19 years old, he had a conversation with Rick Wayne during the Mr. Universe championship in London. The journalist, a bodybuilder himself, later recalled that Schwarzenegger had asked him: “Do you think a man can get whatever he wants?” The question had puzzled Wayne, who replied: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Schwarzenegger did not agree with him: “You’re wrong.” Wayne, who was older and more experienced and had traveled widely, found himself growing increasingly annoyed by the cocky young upstart from Austria: “What do you mean, I am wrong?” To which Schwarzenegger responded: “A man can get anything he wants – provided he’s willing to pay the price for it.”
This episode is taken from Laurence Leamer’s biography Fantastic. The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Leamer’s book was published in 2005, Schwarzenegger was governor of California, then ranking eighth in the Top Ten of the largest economies in the world. Before embarking on a political career, he had been a Hollywood star earning 30 million dollars and more for each of his films, one of the best-paid actors in the world. Schwarzenegger, who had moved to the United States at the age of 21, had become a multimillionaire by investing in real estate, and up to now has earned several hundred million dollars.
Schwarzenegger himself attributes his success largely to the determination and commitment with which he pursues his goals. “I set a goal, visualise it very clearly, and create the drive, the hunger, for turning it into reality.” He did not say: “Well, it would be nice if I could make this work, maybe I should give it a go.” That kind of attitude will not get you anywhere. Most people, he observes, “do it in a conditional way. … Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened. That’s not enough. You have to make a big emotional commitment into it, that you want it very much, that you love the process and will take all the steps to achieve your goal.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger is just one of the incredibly successful people I profile in my book Dare to Be Different and Grow Rich. Another is Howard Schultz, who was born the son of an unskilled laborer in Brooklyn in 1953 and grew up in a deprived neighborhood. He turned his company Starbucks into a leading brand with more than 33,000 branches worldwide. He prefaced his autobiography by advising readers: “Dream more than others think practical. Expect more than others think possible.” Larry Page, the cofounder of Google, is a strong proponent of what he calls “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” He lives by the maxim: “You should try to do things that most people would not.”
The only reason some people don’t set ambitious goals is because they’re afraid they might fail to achieve them. Is that how you feel? Gordon Moore, the American IT Pioneer and cofounder of Intel, once observed that, “If everything you try works, then you are not trying hard enough.” And Elon Musk said: “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” Being a winner doesn’t mean being somebody who never fails. On the contrary, winners set themselves ambitious goals and experiment until they achieve them. They don’t ask for foolproof guarantees before trying something. They realise and accept that a lot of the things they try won’t work. As the Woody Allen once said, “If you don’t fail now and again, it’s a sign you’re playing it safe.” So, set much bigger goals for your life – and start now. If you don’t do this because you are afraid of failure, then the truth is that you have already failed.
Rainer Zitelmann is the author of 25 books. His book https://daretobedifferentandgrowrich.com/ has been published in 12 languages and explores the fundamental attitudes and techniques that will help you achieve even the most ambitious goals.