If you can't control it, don't make it a goal

Marketing consultant Suzan Czajkowski, who facilitates my local entrepreneurs group, recently offered us a really simple, helpful distinction between goals and outcomes that I keep coming back to, and thought might also be helpful to some of you.

In short: Goals are things you can control, and outcomes are things you can't. 

If you're trying to set goals for yourself or your business, it's important to know the difference. 

Finding a life partner, making a certain amount of money, being healthy and free of pain: those desires are important to recognize, but they are outcomes, not goals. They involve factors beyond your direct control.

If an outcome is important to you, the critical question to ask is, What can I do (i.e., what goals can I set) to make that outcome more likely?

For example, if I'm gathering with a large group of friends or family, I may want to have interesting and meaningful conversations with them.

In the past I might have said that was one of my goals for such a gathering.

But what if the conversations ended up being about things that weren't interesting to me? Or we ended up doing an activity that wasn't conducive to talking at all? Would I have failed?

Well, yes. But mostly the failure would have been that I set myself a "goal" that had no business being a goal in the first place. Rather, it was an outcome that relied on other people, whose actions are beyond my control.

To be successful in the future, I'd need to think through specific actions that would help inspire the kinds of conversations I want. For instance, I could:

  • Identify 5 specific topics that would be interesting and/or meaningful to me, and think about ways I might introduce them
  • Think of the people I'd specifically like to talk to, and ask them at the beginning of the gathering if we could find time for a conversation
  • Ask the hosts ahead of time if they could help me find time to play a conversation-generating game or activity that I bring
  • Ask a friend to help me brainstorm other approaches that I might not think of on my own

Any or all of those actions could make great goals. If I completed them, 1) I'd be much more likely to have interesting and meaningful conversations, and 2) even if the conversations didn't happen for some reason, I could still come away feeling successful -- which would be a nice outcome in itself.

As it turns out, I am about to gather with a big group of friends this weekend for an annual camping trip, and I do really like interesting and meaningful conversations -- so this isn't just hypothetical for me. I'm looking forward to putting it all in action.

What is an outcome you want for your own life or work (or maybe just for this weekend)? Have you taken the time to set goals related to that desire? It's extra effort, for sure, but I think ultimately more satisfying than leaving your fate up to circumstances beyond your control.