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The trouble with setting big life goals is that we won’t reach them right away, especially in a life filled with constant change. So much change means it is impossible to get it right every time. Instead, the prize is likely to go to the person who is resilient, the one who bounces back, again and again. And that begs a very interesting question: What separates people who are resilient in the face of obstacles from the ones who are not?
Carol Dweck, a research psychologist at Stanford University, and her colleagues wondered why so many junior high girls stopped taking math classes compared to their male counterparts. Based on past performance, they should have been equally motivated to continue. As the researchers took a closer look, an interesting difference began to emerge. In math, the boys and girls tended to set different kinds of goals for themselves. Girls were more likely to set performance goals (e.g., “I’m going to get an A in this class”) while boys were more likely to set learning goals for themselves (e.g., “I’m going to learn how to do advanced algebra”).
Both groups did well and persisted as long as they succeeded; however, they reacted differently when they met failure. Students with a performance orientation were more likely to conclude, “I’m not very good at math.” In contrast, students with a learning orientation were more likely to say to themselves, “Well, I guess I won’t do that again!” and focus on what they should do differently the next time. The next question, of course, is what causes some people to set performance goals and other people to set learning goals for themselves? Further studies found that the two groups brought very different mindsets to their math classes. The girls were more likely to believe that math was an innate ability – a person was born with a certain aptitude for math that couldn’t change. The boys were more likely to believe that math could be learned and the skills could be developed. When the two groups didn’t perform well (e.g., failed), the group with the fixed mindset (e.g., people are either good or bad at math) thought that it was a sign they weren’t good at math – they had topped out. The group with the growth mindset (e.g., math can be learned) took the failure as a cue that they needed to work hard and figure it out for the next time. The critical difference wasn’t gender at all, but the mindsets that the students brought to class.
Since then, researchers have observed that these two mindsets affect people in exactly the same ways in business, sports, and other education settings. For example, in a study of sales representatives, researchers found that people who tended to set performance goals for themselves (e.g., “I’m going to be one of the top sellers this month.”) performed worse than sales representatives who instead set learning goals for themselves (e.g., “I’m going to work on learning how to build rapport with customers.”). People who set learning goals for themselves tended to perform better even though they were in a high pressure performance environment like sales.
Another study with sales employees found an interesting pattern in how the two groups performed over time. When a new customer management computer system was installed, sales associates who adopted a learning orientation initially performed worse than people who had a performance orientation. However, over the next year, the associates with learning goals improved and performed significantly better than their counterparts with the performance goals. Like the golfer learning a new swing, they had to get worse before they got better.
Research on how people become experts, be they doctors, musicians, or software developers, consistently finds that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in their field. However, it is not just any practice, but deliberate, focused practice with feedback. A person can’t just play around with a guitar; they need to work at fingering, learning music, and playing with others.
Unfortunately, cultivating a learning orientation isn’t always easy. Mistakes and failures are part of the journey. Here’s the good news – learning how to learn can be learned. Four principles are particularly important. To begin, take time at the very beginning of a new endeavor to set learning goals for yourself. Don’t focus on the outcomes, but instead focus on the process – the skills you want to develop and the things that you want and need to learn to perform well. Second, find a role model. The best role model is someone like you who struggled to become an expert in their field. Third, watch your self-talk. This isn’t a blind optimism or the power of positive thinking, but being careful to attribute successes and failures to the amount of effort you put into the process and not to inborn personal abilities. For example, after a success, focus on how your effort and persistence led to your good performance (e.g., “The tough conversation with my boss went well because I was prepared for it.”). After a failure, look for ways that you can increase your effort in the future or what you learned in the failure that you can apply to future problems (e.g., “Well, that didn’t go well. Who can I talk to that seems to have better luck getting my boss to listen?”). Finally, build in small wins along the way so you can see your progress and build your confidence – not only in the task itself, but in your ability to learn, grow, and face new challenges.
Actions & Reflections
Identify five skills that you would like to develop and write them down. These may be work goals (e.g., learning how to calculate return on assets in a service industry) or personal goals (e.g., learning to play the piano). They may be the skills you will need to navigate an upcoming transition in your life (e.g., how to build a consulting business). Put a star next to one of the goals that is particularly important to you. For example, let’s say that you just quit your job and are trying to build a consulting business. You have never done this before so contracting, accounting, and taxes have you a little worried. You know they are critical skills if you are starting your own business, but you don’t know where to begin.
Write a learning goal. The first step is to turn this challenge into a set of learning goals. For example, one learning goal might be to “Ask two of my friends to give me the names of the accountants who they use.” Another learning goal might be to, “Sit down with two friends in the next month to show me how they keep their books.” Focus on the process (what you want to learn), not on the outcomes (your performance compared to others). In addition, remember from the last chapter that the most motivating goals will be specific, challenging, and measurable.
Find a role model. Think of people you know who have struggled but developed the skills that you are trying to improve. Who do you know who is a senior expert in your field? Who has gone through several transitions in their career? If you are beginning to do independent consulting, who has already made this transition? Research would suggest the more similar the role models are to you, the better. Take them to lunch and ask them for advice. Find out how they navigated through the transition. What resources were most useful? What do they draw on inside themselves? What advice would they have for someone else who is just starting out?
Listen to what you say to yourself. Be aware of your internal dialogue. Listen for how much you beat yourself up. You might be surprised how bad it can get (more on this in Chapter 16). Also listen for the more subtle traps. When you look at successes or failures, do you attribute them to internal attributes (“I am smart/dumb”) or growth and effort (“I didn’t try hard enough” or “Now I know what to do the next time”). For the next two days, make a conscious effort to observe what you say to yourself. Then, note if you are reinforcing a fixed mindset (i.e., you are born with a set of capabilities and these cannot change) or a growth mindset (i.e., you can develop and grow your skills). At the end of two days, identify some developmental phrases (e.g., “Anybody can learn accounting basics if they work at it”) and practice using them in the coming weeks until they become a natural habit.
Look for small wins. You need to create a rational, logical foundation to convince yourself that you can successfully navigate the transition. The best way to increase your confidence is to build a track record of successes. The trouble is, big goals are pretty risky. Success is seldom guaranteed so you need to build your confidence along the way. Your confidence is likely to be a little shaky – for good reason – you’ve never done it before! The best strategy to build your confidence is to break the big goal down into smaller elements. For example, instead of taking on all of your accounting goals, set a series of sub-goals: buy an accounting program, learn how to invoice a customer, write down when taxes are due on your calendar, and figure out how to track your expenses. The power of small goals is that they naturally create forward movement and increase the chance of reaching your larger goals. After all, remember that the real challenge is to figure out how to successfully navigate the transitions that you will face throughout your life. Small wins in one area can build your confidence across other important roles in your life.
 Dweck, Carol S. (1986), Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040–1048.
 VandeWalle, D., Brown, S. P., Cron, W. L., & Slocum, J. W., Jr. (1999). The influence of goal orientation and self-regulation tactics on sales performance: A longitudinal field test. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 249–259.
 Ahearne, M. Lam, S. K., Mathieu, J. E., & Bolander, W. (2010). Why are some salespeople better at adapting to organizational change? Journal of Marketing, 74, 65-79.
 Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007, July-August). The making of an expert, Harvard Business Review, 85(7/8), 115-121.