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You Can’t “Goal-Set” Your Way to a Breakthrough

When I was a 17-year-old high school runner spending my summer days quite unproductively running nine miles in the morning, watching movies all day, and then running another eight miles in the evening, I would often go into a day dream like state on my runs. It was the only way to get through the scorching heat, sweltering humidity, and general unpleasantness that is a Houston, Texas, summer. Years later, I can still remember those dreams and the goals they often entailed.

I would be running my standard loop, that I ran practically every day, when, as I reached the 3-mile mark, taking the left turn at the elementary school, my mind would drift away. It would drift towards winning the state championship in Austin, or, if I was feeling particularly ambitious, to Eugene, Oregon, as I ran the Prefontaine Classic mile as the latest high school phenom to join the venerable ranks of athletes who have competed at that prestigious race.

At the time, I had no right to have these dreams. I was a kid with an official mile best of 4:17, good but not great by the standards I’d hoped for, and an eternity from the four-minute mile that I dreamed of. But those were the dreams and that was the goal. My foolishness served me well, as nine months later I would get to live out those dreams, although ending up on just the wrong side of four minutes. (I ran 4:01.)

One would think that this story would be a wonderful endorsement for goal setting. But, in my view, it wasn’t the goal-setting that mattered.

With the individuals I work with now, I seldom have them write down their goals. They’re free to come up with them on their own, but there aren’t any traditional goal setting meetings. We might talk about things we want to accomplish and what’s possible, but there’s never any explicit goals being set.  While this runs counter to the culture that states that we have to have goals to know where we are going, I think the non-goal approach makes more sense.

In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, scientist Carl Sagan discusses unintended consequences, where he makes a brilliant point:

“Maxwell wasn’t thinking of radio, radar, and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn’t dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon; Roentgen wasn’t contemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it ‘X-rays’; Curie wasn’t thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; Fleming wasn’t planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Crick weren’t imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry of DNA; Rowland and Molina weren’t planning to implicate CFCs in ozone depletion when they began studying the role of halogens in stratospheric photochemistry.

…Cutting off fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating the seed corn.  We may have little more to eat next winter, but what will we plant so we and our children will have enough to get through the winters to come?”

Sagan’s point is that sometimes doing science for basic curiosity is what leads to the next major breakthrough. If we allow scientists to scratch that itch, do basic research in understanding the way the world functions, the benefits will follow. As Sagan pointed out, we don’t have to set out and make a mandate that we are creating the next big thing. Rather, just about every other breakthrough invention came about from people following their curiosity towards understanding.

In other words, they were exploiting their innate curiosity for the process’s sake. We stumbled our way to these miraculous breakthroughs.

And that’s how running and the rest of life is too sometimes. We stumble our way to breakthroughs. Yes, when I’m working with someone it’s my job to meticulously guide them. But as I always like to point out to them, you can’t force a breakthrough. You have to prepare yourself and put yourself in position to take advantage of the situation. But you can’t force it.


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