I'm not in the habit of being self-indulgent, but to make my point here I'm going to be!
If you have ever been to a professional development workshop on goals, or goal-setting, you would be familiar with the drill of brainstorms, group discussions, strategies etc....and the odd cliches. Sometimes we get lost in the hype and the obvious - and, unfortunately, it's the obvious that doesn't seem to be common practice amongst many of our young people.
Whether we are talking to our own kids or students in a classroom, invariably the common question of "...but what do you want to get out of this?" crops up. Correct me if I'm wrong, but often we are faced with a blank stare, a shoulder-shrug or a "Dunno" - why is that? Based on personal experience and reading loads of evidence confirming the long-term value of goals, I believe we often approach the whole notion of goal-setting the wrong way.
As a youngster I suffered with chronic asthma and eczema. Frequent trips to the hospital led to a doctor recommending I take up some kind of sport to build my lung capacity. Choices were pretty basic back then - athletics and swimming were the obvious picks. I had never been a 'star' sports person at school, but I was always active so I chose athletics. My short-term goal was not to win races and become a 'star' athlete, but simply to breathe without wheezing!
I tried (and failed) to be a sprinter, so I turned to race walking. Despite the club coach suggesting to my parents that it probably was not the event for me, I continued to train twice a week.....for no other reason other than I loved it. I got better and better, and six months after starting I won my first of four junior and open national titles.
After two short years of race walking, I switched to middle distance running. My goal was to change my style from running like a duck to running like a REAL runner. Just as I did with walking, I started with small (and seemingly insignificant) progressive steps. I simply wanted to see where it would take me - with my asthma now under control.
One small, progressive step followed another - and within six years of starting with a duck-like style, I was the sole female Australian qualifier for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games over 1500m. Injury prevented my participation, but by the time I retired from running I had several Australian championships and records under my belt, two City-to-Surf wins, and had represented my country on the world stage on several occasions.
Goals have been part and parcel of my personal and professional life, and it disturbs me when I work with young people who are unable to identify something, anything, that is important enough to them to want to work towards achieving. We all know goals give us focus; give us direction; keep us motivated....and feel good about ourselves when we reach them. But what holds some young people back?
Are we sending the wrong messages to our kids? Do we imply that only lofty goals are worth the effort - that it's all about winning and being 'the best'? Do we fail to acknowledge that the small steps along the way are, in themselves, goals achieved - even if the final result might not match initial expectations? Are we, as parents or teachers, guilty of pushing our kids towards something WE might recognise as something of value...but which they do not?
It's a little scary to be working with a room full of incoming Year 12 students and their parents and to ask the question "Anyone have a goal for next year?", only to receive a list of goals.......but no ideas on how to break that big 'blob' of an idea into smaller, achievable and progressive steps. No wonder so many of us back away from committing to goals - it's all too hard. If I had thought on Day 1 of running that my goal was to qualify for an Olympic team, I doubt I would have made it - too far away, too lofty and probably too hard!
I think we need to re-evaluate the way we have been 'inspiring' our kids to achieve. We need to motivate them to think about what makes them tick; what turns them on; what inspires them. Goals don't have to be lofty; they don't have to be academic or sporting....but they DO have to mean something to the person setting them. Goals need to be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed - and they need to be their goals, not our goals for them!
Think about it. Sometimes all it takes to transform an "I wish..." into an "I can..."or an "I will..." is the desire and a plan. Might not always pan out the way we hoped, but to plan and try is better than doing nothing at all.
photo credit: Carissa GoodNCrazy via photopin cc