The Clustered Science of Non-Attainment
Research tells us that people who set goals are happier and more successful. Professors who set goals earn tenure faster, employees who set goals get larger raises, and students who have goals set for them learn up to 250 percent faster than those who do not. When we are achieving a goal, our brains release the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel good—and motivates us to attain even more goals.
So, what about those who set goals and then fail to achieve them? What about those people? Haha! That’s all of us.
One problem with setting really, really big goals is that our brains react negatively to them. Science shows that larger goals with greater consequences create more stress and anxiety within us. We then worry even more that we won’t attain the goal. We worry about feeling like a failure. We fear failure. That fear stops us from taking that next inch.
The best way to get around this natural mental barrier is to manage the risk of a single, large goal with a series of smaller goals that don’t carry the same burden of potential failure—a cluster of smaller benefits that will be achieved regardless of the outcome of your massive goal.
Nassim Taleb writes about unlikely outcomes in his bestselling book, The Black Swan. If we plan smartly and anticipate unlikely, extreme events, we can have more positive results and fewer disasters. I agree wholeheartedly with his philosophy. Our goals should be structured to minimize the likelihood of strong negative outcomes, while simultaneously maximizing the likelihood of strong positive outcomes.
Clustering smaller beneficial outcomes under one large goal is powerful. It’s a winning strategy that can also create more unpredictable wins.
Cluster Benefits are a group of goals that support and elevate your next Gold Medal Moment to its highest heights. Let’s say you’ve got the goal to roll out a new product release in Q1 of next fiscal year. Instead of having that be your only goal, uncover the clusters that your pursuit of this single, large goal will achieve. The process of pursuing your product release will support your personal and professional development in many arenas:
- The first cluster might be to increase your proficiency for new product design.
- The second cluster might explore how you engineer the best, most cost-efficient design.
- The third cluster might be the connection you develop with your colleagues in pursuit of this epic release.
There might be dozens of smaller clusters within the larger goal of rolling out a new product release in Q1 of next fiscal year, but each will be more easily attainable regardless of outcome. Clarifying that you are gaining inches in many more areas than just one will boost your motivation and drive to completion.
Cluster Benefits hedge for a great future regardless of your big goal outcome. Remembering Cluster Benefits in times of doubt gives you the courage to keep inching.
I’m not saying that outcomes do not matter—they do. Winning is more fun. Realizing big goals feels incredible. Attaining a stretch goal is far more thrilling than attaining an easy goal. For example, we see that when organizations encourage their employees to achieve audacious goals, they have higher employee engagement and the organization inches forward, together. That said, we need to set our goals like an intelligent investor monitors his finances. We must protect the downside while maximizing the upside.
The emotional downside of big goals is the fear of feeling failure if you don’t attain them. It’s the feeling that you are a failure. The key is to realize that there are valuable lessons to be learned from non-attainment. In fact, I personally believe that failure in many ways is just as important to us as success. Success and failure are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
Indeed, the very word “success” is derived from the Latin succedere, “to come after”. Success comes after giant freighter full of hard work—and what comes after success? Failure. One cannot exist without the other. This interplay is the yin and yang of success and failure. We cannot have one without the other. Rudyard Kipling, in his powerful poem “If’ tells us to “treat those two imposters just the same.”
Forward-thinking organizations embrace the philosophy of failing forward. Netherlands-based ABN AMRO Bank started an Institute of Brilliant Failures to encourage entrepreneurship. Recognizing that 90 percent of drug trials fail, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company began throwing “R&D-focused outcome celebrations”—failure parties—two decades ago to honour data gleaned from trials for drugs that didn’t work. TATA has a “dare to try” award, Procter & Gamble has a “heroic failure award,” and Google’s secret X moonshot lab rewards failures as well as successes.
Why reward failure? Perhaps it’s because “the most successful people tend to be those with the most failures,” as pointed out by Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.
Successful people simply have more ideas, both good and bad. We need to recognize failures as another inch forward.
This article is adapted from Adam Kreek’s upcoming book, Inches: 12 Leadership Principles for Progress
Kreek is a Management Consultant, Executive Coach and Keynote Speaker who lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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