Setting Goals v Acquiring Skills

“Man is a goal setting machine,” said Aristotle, more than 2000 years ago. That message has been echoed time and again by lots of very smart people in the intervening years – everyone from Seneca through to Benjamin E. Mays. I’ve had some success with goal setting, but the simple fact is that none of us achieve every goal we set ourselves. Using the idea that goals are set in stone but that deadlines are flexible is one way to deal with the ‘disappointment’ of not hitting a goal as quickly as you’d hoped, but I recently came across another way of thinking about goals that has really helped me, and I hope it will help you too.

In his awesome book “Tools of Titans”, Tim Ferriss summarises 100 or so episodes of his fantastic podcast, distilling the long-form interviews he conducts into just a few pages. I honestly wasn’t expecting that much from cartoonist Scott Adams (creator of the ‘Dilbert’ comic strip) but it’s a brilliant interview, full of great ideas.

The most valuable for me is the concept Adams uses for goal setting. He explain the process in detail in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big“, but essentially he reframes his long term goals in terms of ‘skills’ he wants to acquire along the way. This means that even if the specific goal isn’t quite met, the skills he learns still make the effort worthwhile.

It’s important to note that he defines ‘skills’ very broadly – it might be learning a language, or getting better at tennis, but it could also be developing a relationship with someone new, or becoming happier. The crucial point is that you provide yourself with a clear benefit outside of the specific goal itself.

In practical terms, what that means is that in addition (or even as an alternative) to setting yourself the goal of losing 6kgs in the next three months, think about the skills you might acquire along the way. To lose weight, you generally need to change both your eating and training habits. To achieve this you could decide to learn about the Slow Carb diet to help you eat more healthily, and to improve your running technique to minimise the risk of injury while you train. If you improve your skills in both those areas, you’ll almost certainly lose the weight – and even if you don’t, you will have improved your knowledge and understanding of two really important disciplines.

Another example might be if you set yourself a goal of a special holiday in 18 months time. This probably means you’re going to need to save some money, so one of the skills you could improve might be money management. Use the holiday as an opportunity to get better at managing your weekly or monthly budget, or perhaps you could learn a bit about investing to make your money work for you rather than the other way round.

The idea of skills acquisition can work in reverse. If there’s a skill you’ve always wanted to learn but never quite got round to, perhaps you can set yourself a practical target that incorporates that skill. Always wanted to take up painting? Maybe set yourself the goal of sending personalised Christmas cards next year, featuring a piece of your art on the front. If you want to learn Spanish, make that next holiday somewhere you can actually use your new language!

Linking goals and skills in this way has been a real mindset shift for me, and has made the whole process more exciting and fulfilling. If you’ve already got a goal list, why not pull it out and see how many skills you could develop along the way?


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