Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What type of goals do you set?

I'll admit I'm an armchair psychologist, but through my interactions with athletes the world over, thanks to the magic of the internet, it's clear that there are a range of strategies for setting performance goals for races. Some runners (the "Dreamers") seem to pick aggressive goals that are externally validated, given value by being generally desirable goals (like Boston Qualifying time in a marathon). Some (the "Realists") select goals that are just a little bit faster than they think they can go based on their training and some previous performance. Still others (the "Timid") pick very modest goals that they are very likely to be able to achieve.

The Dreamers are competitors. They are in competition with themselves as well as everyone else. They push themselves hard in training and in races. This leads them to enough success that the inevitable failures to meet or exceed their lofty goals is only a temporary setback. As soon as they are able, they are back out there training hard, preparing to make another attempt at that lofty goal. It's an obsession, but not necessarily an unhealthy one unless it leads to overtraining.

A littler further down the continuum are the Realists, who are mostly still competing with themselves. Their primary goal is to do better each time. They have experienced some successes in reaching their performance goals, but not quite with enough regularity to overcome the caution engendered by their less successful experiences. They therefore set goals that they think are achievable, but which are difficult enough to be personally meaningful. They want to set themselves up for more success than failure, and if they succeed in this, they may eventually build sufficient confidence to become dreamers... Or they may remain Realists indefinitely.

Near the other end of the continuum are the Timid. The Timid are very cautious in setting their goals. They often have little or no prior experience they can rely on to identify realistic goals, and won't even bother to set lofty goals. Baby steps is what it's all about for the Timid, but if the baby continues to grow into the sport, they may eventually become realists or even Dreamers. Still, some will always insist on taking baby steps.

There are of course those who don't set goals, but I won't talk about them here.

Superimposed on this is personal temperament. Some people (the "Confident") seem naturally gifted with confidence. Perhaps they have had enough success at other endeavors that lofty running goals don't seem so insurmountable, or perhaps they have some other neurobehavioral characteristic that leads them to simply believe that anything is possible. Maybe there is a gene for optimism? Conversely, others (the "Uncertain") lack confidence despite external appearances of success. Still others (the "Hopeful") lack a lot of experience with success but set lofty goals anyway, because they feel it will help them stick with a program for the long period of time needed to achieve them.

So, my amateurish personality theory, as described in this example of intellectual flatulence, kinda looks like a matrix. In my scheme, one can be either a Dreamer, a Realist, or a Timid runner, and can be either Confident, Uncertain, or Hopeful.

When I put all the pieces together, I think I am a Hopeful Realist when it comes to setting running goals. I think I recognize Confident Dreamers, and Hopeful Timids among my friends, as well as a couple of Hopeful Dreamers.

And so now you might ask... "So what?"

To which, all I can say is "Chicken Butt," because I really can't think of any way this exercise will help anyone. But still, I'm pretty curious about what type of goal setter people think they are.


  1. I'm a big fan of setting "Stretch Goals," and my interpretation of that falls somewhere between your "Dreamer" and "Realist" category. Setting a goal that is aggressive yet, at least as far as you believe, achievable encourages you to stretch beyond what would otherwise be possible. This approach was ingrained on me early in my career at GE, and I think it applies to running (where there are very few variables that are out of your control, at least relative to a more complex situation like business) better than nearly any other endeavor. And I definitely fall on the "Confident" end of your temperament spectrum. I think there is a gene for optimism and, if so, I have it (partly reinforced by my reading of Stephen Covey and the like).

  2. Thanks for your comment, Greg. It's been fun to see what people have had to say here and on dailymile (www.dailymile.com) about their temperaments and how they set goals. There's definitely quite a mix, and it's more complicated (obviously) than I've depicted here, as any model constructed to represent reality, is necessarily an oversimplification! Still, I think it's been a fun exercise, and anything that helps us undertand ourselves better can help us become better. Cheers!


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