Setting goals – specific, measurable, achievable, revealed (at least to one other person), time bound and WRITTEN – has been correlated with achievement. Some even claim a causal link. It is mostly accepted these days that there is at least a correlation. (In fact, if it weren’t so, the dark side may not exist.) Imagine a Tom Brady, or similar, with no goals.1,2 (For those who still need convincing, see some research.3)

The start of the calendar or lunar year is a great time to reflect on last year’s achievements and reset goals. Working in California recently, a long way from Auckland New Zealand, it was great to confirm the universal relevance of goals and goal setting. While culture or stage of life may determine the types of goals people set, the broad relevance of goal setting remains.

Personally, I have set three new goals for 2019 – different from my routine goals – and have told at least three people. Already, I can feel the giant clock in my mind ticking: ‘get going, get going, get going’.

Digital Success

Brain scanning technology has helped us to understand how the brain works and to use this knowledge to our advantage.  I first appreciated the human nature of goal setting in the 1990s listening to Professor Luiz Machado at a conference in St Louis, Missouri.  He explained how the structure of the midbrain facilitates the achievement of an ideal, through its orchestration of neural network development in the cortex. I was fascinated that:

a) we seem to be built for achievement and
b) we come with the mechanisms for success already ‘engineered in’.

Now with digital tools that track everything, including REM sleep, you not only have a brain built for success that is both organ and instrument, but a never-ending array of digital devices to ‘manage’ your progress.  Goals ensure you are channelling your energy and focus, and even the development of your ‘brainware’, to head in the direction that your goals dictate.

Fast forward 20 years from that conference and an article in the local online paper caught my eye: “Secrets behind the success” of one of New Zealand’s billionaires. I must confess to being rather disappointed to read in the article: “timeout to think about strategy, seeking the counsel of others, setting a plan with milestones and monitoring against the plan.“ 4  Is that all, I thought?

Still, there it is in a nutshell:  Success (in whatever way that is uniquely and personally defined by each individual) is associated with:

  • Setting clear goals
  • Translating those into planned actions to achieve the goals
  • Conferring with and consulting others
  • Tracking success and adjusting as you go

Dark Side

So, what is the problem? Simply put, the problem is that goals focus individuals on achieving those goals, possibly to the exclusion of all else and even to the detriment of other things and insidiously, other people.

Heed two warnings:

  1. Goals imposed by other people may actually kill you. Sounds melodramatic but when goals are imposed on you, you lose access to a large part of the goal-achievement mechanism in your brain (designed for inside-out movement, not outside-in.)
  2. Goals create a single-minded focus and you can lose perspective and tune out signals or warnings of harm – the canary in the mine.

Consider each of these in the context of neuroscience and current breaking news.

Goals that kill

Dr Dacher Keltner describes the physical cost of stress when discussing the science of stress; that today, stress is to do with powerlessness. This is a common state associated with being tied to a job because you need the pay check while having to achieve goals that you believe to be unrealistic or at odds with your personal values or that put you in conflict with others or that are to their detriment (or all four.)

He shows that your fight or flight system today is about powerlessness. So many people I meet in organizations feel completely powerless. The state of powerless is in turn associated with accelerated aging (up to 10 years of life expectancy lost), dying cells throughout the body, compromised brain cells and poor health through suppressed immune functioning. 5

David Marquette refers to the health benefits of agency – people who have power to act in their interests.6

Goals that lead to anti-social behaviour, even crime

The Australian Royal Commission into the Banking Sector published a scathing report on 4th February 2019 – a sweeping condemnation of banks, their boards and executives.7   Some have fallen on their swords and indictments are expected. Most shocking for the public however has been the 68 days of hearings and the most awful stories similar to what whistle-blower Jeff Morris heard day after day in his job at the bank. He fought long and hard, at huge personal cost, to restore fairness to customers who lost millions while being shunned by the financial service sector watchdog, ASIC.  His commitment led eventually to the Royal Commission which has resulted in 76 recommendations including that banks put customers first. (It is like waking up in the twilight zone. When I was growing up, the bank manager was one of the most trusted members of the community.)

Similar investigations in New Zealand revealed that a mentally-vulnerable customer, living on a state benefit, was sold unemployment insurance by someone with a sales target to meet.

For decades now, questions have been asked about sales targets of pharmaceutical companies and now the debate is more mainstream, no doubt accelerated by the speed of information in the digital era.

The Light Side of Goal Setting

“Sunlight is a great disinfectant.”

How can you use the power of goal setting safely, without the risk of harm to you and others? Here are some tips:

  1. Open up about your goals. Publish them – literally or metaphorically
  2. “Seek the counsel of others.”
  3. Have counter goals. It is all too common to set quantity goals that drive quality down or vice versa. Owen McCall advises clients to create tension within goals so that focus doesn’t become singular.8
  4. Count the real costs. What price are you prepared to pay to achieve those goals? Factor in the real impact of success on both you and others.

Brains are at their best, and human beings are at their healthiest when adding value for self and others. The digital era has changed almost everything about how we live, but not that.


1 “2019 Super Bowl: Tom Brady wins record sixth title, and he’s not calling it quits anytime soon” by Jamey Eisenberg, Feb 4, 2019. CBS Sports

2 “Patriots QB Tom Brady has goals of playing in 2019 and beyond that” by Nick Goss December 26, 2018. NBC Sports

3 “Study demonstrates that writing goals enhances goal achievement” Research by Dominican University of California psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews – 2015. See research summary

4 “Secrets behind Graeme Hart’s Success” by Holly Ryan. 16th Feb 2015. NZ Herald

5 Keltner: The Power Paradox: How we gain and lose influence.

6 David Marquet: Turn the Ship Around – How to create leaders at every level.

7 “Australian banking sector dishonest scathing final royal commission report finds.” 4th February 2019. SBS

8“Clarity amidst Chaos” by Cherri Holland. 22nd May 2018


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