We over-focus on results Exacerbating the problem are our goal-fixated cultures. Again, this is a hanger-on from the world of personal development. For years self-help gurus and business consultants have whipped us into a frenzy with goalsetting exercises and experiences that are analogous to facing our fear — such as walking on hot coals or performing a ‘trust fall’ — all while they drum into us a mantra of a no-excuses results obsession. Given the fervour with which the corporate world has embraced this kind of thinking, you’d expect organisations around the planet to be ridiculously over-achieving and ticking off milestones and goals like crazy. But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, the gap between our goals and our achievement of those goals is glaring. In 2011, researchers at US management consulting firm Bain & Company found that among the organisations they surveyed, a mere 20 per cent achieve their annual goals and expectations. Once again, as we’ve seen in our personal lives, this is often interpreted as the failure of the individuals involved while our systems and the process of goal setting itself remain unquestioned. At sales conferences around the world, inspirational speakers with big teeth and a disturbingly psychotic amount of enthusiasm pump up salespeople, telling them to focus on results with pithy maxims such as, ‘Don’t make excuses, make results’. The same empty platitudes are often applied in every sphere of life. To experience this phenomenon for yourself, simply hire a personal trainer or a life coach. One of the favourite anecdotes of the goal-setting fraternity is the 1953 Yale goal study. The story has it that 1953’s graduating class at Yale was surveyed to see who had written goals and who had not. It transpired that only 3 per cent of students had written down goals. Years later, when the class was contacted again to check on their progress since leaving college, it was revealed that the 3 per cent with written goals had eclipsed the personal wealth of the other 97 per cent put together. What makes this story interesting is just how powerful stories are in building corporate cultures and strategy, but mostly what makes it interesting is that it is completely made up. Yale has repeatedly denied any knowledge of this survey in 1953 or in any other graduating year. Yet this story has been repeated so many times by so many different sources that it has fallen into the category of belief. As a result, goal setting remains the holy grail of corporate and personal strategy, but more than that, it is often the only strategy employed, which is not to say that goal setting isn’t useful or that it doesn’t lead to success. In fact, we annually set goals for our organisation and staff and use benchmarks of accomplishment to monitor our progress. The issue occurs when it is seen as a single-bullet strategy. Buddhists refer to this results obsession as ‘attachment’ and they frame attachment as one of the roots of disharmony. We prefer to see it more as one strategic strand of many that are available. In other words, a clear goal or result is useful, but it may become a limitation as better options and information become available. A great example of this is the Indian story of how to catch a monkey. It is said that in order to catch a monkey you have to stake a coconut filled with peanuts to the ground. The coconut must have an opening in it just small enough for a monkey to slip its hand into, so that when it reaches inside, grabs the peanuts and forms a fist, its hand becomes too large to come back out again. The monkey becomes so fixated by the goal that its hand becomes stuck and therefore it is trapped. (The story doesn’t explain why you’d want to catch a monkey; we’ll leave it to you to add your own editorial flavour.) What’s interesting about this story is that it’s a metaphor for how modern goal obsession has affected some of the actual results we’ve achieved. Poor work– life balance, chronic health issues, family breakups, environmental disasters and artificially stimulated truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel are all examples of goals getting in the way of success. In reality, we actually have very little control over results in our lives. The drunk driver who fails to yield as we approach an intersection, the earthquake that claims our home and even the client who fires us because their marriage is on the rocks and they feel a need to assert power in at least one aspect of their lives: all of these examples, despite the self-help industry’s protestations to the contrary, lie beyond our control. However, what we can control — and this is where we should look for control — is our behaviour and our environment.