Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
It is my great pleasure to interview Caroline Adams Miller, author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide, a book about effectively pursuing life goals, and Positively Caroline: How I beat bulimia for good… and found real happiness, a book about her long-term recovery from bulimia.
Caroline runs an online course on setting and pursuing important life goals. The course is open to anyone in the world that can access the lessons by computer. A new cohort of the course starts October 21 with early bird pricing through October 8. Click on Your Happiest Life to explore and register.
Kathryn: You’ve been interested in research and applications around goal-setting since you started the MAPP program in 2005, resulting in your book, Creating Your Best Life in 2009. What keeps you interested in this topic?
Caroline: I’ve always loved learning about the pursuit of excellence, possibly because I’ve always been a competitive athlete and I come from a family that includes Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalists. I know that I feel great when I accomplish any kind of huge goal, and the research I learned in the Penn MAPP program underscored why setting both short-term and long-term goals that are purposeful and challenging is what the happiest people do.
Since then, Martin Seligman has even added “achievement” as the A in PERMA, his new formula for a flourishing life. One of the highlights of my life is working with clients to help them set and achieve life-changing goals, There is nothing that could make life more satisfying than the type of work I am privileged to do every day.
Kathryn: What makes a goal really effective for driving achievement?
Caroline: The goal needs to matter to you, even if it doesn’t matter to anyone else, so it has to pass the “So what?” test. So what if you pursue that career? If you add that new accomplishment to your life? If you take that risk to move to a place where you know no one? If you dare to do something out-of-the-box that adds fun and novelty to your day? If the answer includes the word “should,” it’s a sign that you might be pursuing an extrinsic goal (something that matters more to other people) than intrinsic (something that has emerged from your own expression of your values and purpose).
I like to say that your goals need to be magnetic so that they pull you forward, inspire you, challenge you, and you can’t wait to get going on them every day.
Kathryn: You sometimes say that SMART goals can be dumb. Please explain.
Caroline: Before I wrote Creating Your Best Life, I looked around at all of the books in the mass market about success and goal setting, and not only did none of them have footnotes or empirical research, they ALL included SMART goals, which I soon learned didn’t cover the entire spectrum of effective goal-setting.The R in SMART usually means realistic or reachable in the vast majority of sources I saw, but it wasn’t long before I stumbled into the research on grit and goal-setting theory that undermine this quality.
Many accomplished people set unreachable, unreasonable, or impossible goals because stretching that far out of their comfort zone gives them focus, incentive, and excitement. Michael Phelps, for example, constantly set goals that were considered impossible in the swimming world, but for his talent and work ethic, they were ideal.
This is also seen at Google, which has launched a project called Google X. There is a secret lab within Google where brilliant minds are working together to solve problems that are considered impossible, such as building an elevator to the moon. They have already solved some of the problems on the list. For some people, these types of goals are overwhelming and discouraging, but for others, they are nirvana, which is why the SMART definition simply doesn’t fit every case.
Caroline: Again, every case and every client is different, which is why I don’t have a set formula that fits everyone. In general, though, you want to have a good sense of where you are going and why, because “you can’t hit a target you can’t see.”
Kathryn: Some people swear by outcome goals, while others suggest setting process goals. When do you think each type is appropriate?
However, the research shows that it’s not the outcome that often brings the most joy, it’s the process of pursuing the goal that elicits the greatest satisfaction, particularly because you can enter into the positive state of flow in goal pursuit.
Also, if you are pursuing a learning goal versus a performance goal, it’s more effective to take a look at the process of how you are going about learning to do something because it is a “do your best” situation.
Kathryn: In your work with clients, where do they most need help setting good goals?
Caroline: Some people have a clear sense that something is missing from their lives, but they only have general ideas about what they believe will fix it or in what direction they want to go. In those situations, it takes at least two sessions of exploring one’s background, strengths, passions, and dreams before we can pinpoint how to get started.
Some people arrive with what they think are the right goals, but their goals fail the “so what?” test, or they have goals that are in conflict with other goals.
Other people arrive with good goals that match their values but are too vague. Then we work on making them more specific.
Author’s note: Return Monday for the second part of the interview addressing the question: Once goals are set, what helps people pursue them effectively?
Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.
Miller, C. A. (2013). Positively Caroline: How I beat bulimia for good… and found real happiness. Cogent Publishing.
Miller, C. A. (1991). My Name Is Caroline. Gurze Books.
Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (1990). A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Prentice Hall College Division.