Why Goal-Setting Doesn't Work

I’m not big on goal-setting. I know, I know: Heresy! Sacrilege! Blasphemy! But you might as well go start heating up the boiling oil, because it’s true.

Oh, I’ve tried to be. For years I read that the secret to success was to master goal-setting. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. SMART. I get it.) And I gave it the old college try. Put my shoulder to it, went through the motions, vigorously. But it always ended up seeming … I don’t know, forced? Artificial? Somehow missing the mark.

For my new book, The Killing School, which chronicles the childhood, training, and battlefield exploits of four top military snipers (a Navy SEAL, a Marine sniper, an Army Ranger, and a Canadian infantry sharp-shooter), I spent hours interviewing these guys. One day I was talking with one of them, the Canadian, who broke a world record during Operation Anaconda in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, and as he described his training, something clicked.

Suddenly I understood why the goal-setting thing had never quite worked for me.

If there is anyone on the planet who knows about hitting targets (and what is goal-setting all about if not hitting targets?), it is snipers. The thing is, though, the shooting of bullets out of rifles at targets turns out to be a relatively small part of what a sniper actually does, and therefore what he or she trains for.

In real life on the battlefield, a sniper is first and foremost an intelligence asset. A good deal of his or her time consists of exercising the arts of observations and reconnaissance. An expert military sniper is not simply an expert marksman, but also — and predominantly — a highly skilled observer. Thus, a significant part of their sniper training has to do with how to see.

For example, they are taught that looking directly at something is not necessarily the best way to see it. That was what my Canadian friend said that landed in my brain like a thunderclap:

Looking directly at something is not necessarily the best way to see it.

That was when the click happened.

Because of the structure of the human retina, the nature and dispersal of its rods and cones, you may be better off looking off to the left or to the right of the thing you’re looking at, because you may see it more clearly with your peripheral vision than with your dead-on-target focal vision.

Detecting color and movement, the instructors told their sniper students, are the two most important factors in observation — and the central area of the retina, called the fovea, isn’t very good at seeing those. The fovea is excellent at detail, in black and white, which is exactly what you pick up when you scan a page of text with the center of your eyes: the black and white details of letters and words.

Peripheral vision, on the other hand, is lousy at minute detail — but far more accurate at picking up color and movement. Terrible at reading static words on the page, in other words, but superb at noticing an animal slipping out of the woods right at the very edge of your field of vision.

Here, try this:

Hold your hand out straight and make a thumbs-up gesture. Now look at your upright thumbnail. That covers about 2 percent of your total field of vision, which is roughly the area your foveal receptors encompass. That tiny hole in the center of your field of vision is the detail-peephole you use to scan back and forth on a page when you read. This also represents the scope of your brain when it’s trying to bear down on a problem by focusing.

Lots of detail. Hardly any depth or context.

Now, as you continue staring at your thumbnail, don’t change your focus … but become aware of everything in your field of vision other than your thumbnail.

The first thing you’ll notice is how much stuff there is to see out there! A vast sea of visible information — none of which you can access, or at least not very well, when you try to focus on it.

As my sniper friend explained about focal and peripheral vision, it occurred to me that of all the greatest things that have ever happened in my life — in love, in friendship, in career advancement — every single one of them came from somewhere I wasn’t looking.

Not one of these life-changing events came about as a result of my aiming at it. Not one.

For example: In the early 2000s I had my sights firmly fixed on the target of a career in Hollywood. I’d spent nearly a decade pouring myself into the study of screenwriting, pored through dozens of screenplay masterpieces, read roughly one billion books on the craft, gone through the big-name seminars, taken classes from some of the best teachers in the business, even traveled to Hollywood to hobnob and make connections.

I had goals, baby, big goals. And I was aiming. Man, was I aiming.

Until a friend interrupted by asking if I would take some time out to collaborate with him on a book idea.

This was a major distraction. (How rude!) Writing books was not part of my plan. I certainly did not have time for this.

I did it anyway. That book was The Go-Giver, which has to date sold more than half a million copies, put me on the career path I’m on today, and turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. And I wasn’t looking for it.

At least, not with my focal vision.

And that’s the tricky thing about goal-setting: focusing too much on clearly identified, quantified goals presupposes that we know best where we ought to end up. But do we? Seems to me, the universe often knows us better than we know ourselves. Sometimes we are nudged in a direction we hadn’t planned on, and the only way we’re going to have a chance of getting the hint is if we’re practiced at using our peripheral vision.

It’s not that I think setting goals is a bad idea. It’s a fine thing. (And yes, snipers do need to be able to hit their targets, even if they’re a mile away.)

It’s just that sometimes, while you’re busy taking aim, there may be a much better idea floating at the very edge of your field of vision, something you hadn’t thought of and never would have thought of. And if you’re focused on the target to the exclusion of all else, you’ll miss it.

You can call it “intuition,” or “staying open to the possibilities,” or “being receptive.” Or, “listening for the still, small voice of God.” Whatever you call it, it’s something like the opposite of driving hard for a goal you’ve clearly identified. Of being in charge, knowing exactly where you’re going and what you’re aiming at.

Eagles have incredible eyesight. They can pick out a mouse a mile away. But the traditional symbol of wisdom is the owl: he can see in the dark — and 360 degrees around. A sniper is more like an owl than an eagle.

I am a huge fan of following your passions — of having and chasing big ambitions and even bigger aspirations. And yes, I suppose that is partly composed of deciding and articulating exactly where you’re going and what is it is you want to do. Maybe even more, it has to do with who you want to be.

But while you’re busy staying focused on all that, remember this: to pay attention to what’s happening at the very edges, where you least expect it.

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