Failure Sucks: Seeing Goals Clearly

We all know failing sucks, bigtime, but imagine a world where your every effort meant failure, every achievement made you a bigger failure, and even thinking about success felt like failure.

It would suck so much it would become a great, big, black hole of failure.

Person reaching out from blackness.
Photo by Mason Kimbarovsky on Unsplash

Welcome to the world of goal-setting. At least, that’s what goal-setting becomes when used unwisely.

That’s because failure is like a computer virus, hitch-hiking into your mind on the back of every goal. While goals are profoundly useful for guiding your efforts, they also clarify how far short you are from achieving your desires. The clearer the goal, the clearer distance between you and the goal, which is the same as knowing how much you are failing right now. In other words, every goal says you are failing until the goal has been achieved.

That negative focus oozes out everywhere. Every person who competes at the Olympics is extraordinary, and every medallist is even more extraordinary, yet everyone knows that every silver medal is a reminder that someone failed to get the gold medal. And every gold medal is tarnished by all the other medals the victor didn’t win, including the fact that they will miss the gold medal next time, and if not then they’ll fail the time after that. and the failure to yet win the next time. Failure seeps in, no matter how great the success.

Failure is toxic. Not toxic like cyanide, which kills you instantly; more like lead, gradually building up in your system while it slowly debilitates and destroys you.

That may seem over-dramatic, but it’s not. Constantly focusing on failures is a clear pathway to anxiety and depression with all their physical consequences including, ultimately, death. If all this focus on failure doesn’t depress you, you’re not paying attention. Which is probably a good thing.

Bonjour Tristesse

I have a friend who is well-known for his negative approach to life, someone who introduced me to the French expression, Bonjour tristesse (Hello sadness). As a fellow university teacher, we would at times discuss the evaluations given by our students, even though these are one of worst ways of assessing the quality of teaching. But somehow, the evaluations would catch us, especially my friend who focused on the negatives regardless of how positive the overall evaluation. Instead of thinking of how many students were satisfied he would always wonder about the student who gave the worst score and what he might have done that could have changed their view. Each success was ignored and each failure focused upon because his goal was to satisfy all his students.

No wonder he joked about starting each day by saying Bonjour tristesse.

Person covering face in distress
Photo by Lucas Metz on Unsplash

But if goals carry all this negativity, how come they work?

And goals really do work — they are one of the few tools that genuinely improve performance, along with feedback, reflecting on experience, resourcing, training and practice.

The biggest failure with goals is we often fail to see them clearly. This is ironic because the entire point of a goal is to focus your attention to prompt action — nothing more, nor less. But in prompting actions, goals remind us of the things we want to do, which are simultaneously the things we haven’t yet done. Until we’ve done those things we have failed to do them, and if there are enough of those things yet to be done, enough failures, we start wanting to avoid doing anything.

Changing Perspective

To avoid that, you need to focus on where you are going and less upon what you have yet to do. That means your ultimate achievement needs to seem bigger and more attention-grabbing than whatever tasks required to achieve it.

Some tricks for doing that are discussed in my other articles, especially Chunking to Conquer: Overcome Procrastination (Now!) and Make Fear Your Super-Power. But the principle behind all those tricks is the same: shifting your perspective so you can see goals clearly without being distracted by failure.

Shifting perspective can seem like a Jedi-mind trick, which is appropriate because it is just as magical. It’s a lot like how people approach a half-full glass of water: focusing on what’s in the glass makes it seem bigger than what’s missing, creating a positive mindset; focusing on what’s missing makes the lack of water seem bigger than the water in the glass, producing negativity.

Person holding spectacles to the viewer. Only the spectacles are clearly focused.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A similar switch works for goals, with positivity flowing from focusing on outcomes rather than what remains unfinished. It is always easier to focus on things that seem bigger, which can be achieved with goals in a couple of ways: either make goals seem bigger by combining them with other goals or by removing other goals from view.

Goals & Rewards

A common way of making goals more attention-grabbing is by combining them with rewards. That’s because rewards are their own goals, something you can enjoy once your primary goal has been achieved. It matters little if the reward is money, food, or relaxation, because the whole point is merely to help you stay focused on achievement rather than how far you are from completion.

But rewards can be tricky, especially when they loom large enough to dominate the goals they are meant to support. When that happens, people look for shortcuts to get the reward without achieving the original goal. Many children learn to lie so they can get rewards without effort, but it also happens every time a politician acts corruptly by taking bribes rather than doing their duty. Even people who use chocolates to reward themselves eventually start eating before reaching their goals — either that or they eat more chocolates than they’d promised.

It’s usually better to choose rewards that are less compelling in their own right, so the rewards don’t overwhelm the initial goal. For example, try rewarding yourself by taking time to stop and self-consciously consider what you’ve achieved. I personally make a list at the end of the day of things I’ve done, tasks I’ve completed and goals I’ve satisfied. Some people work better with personal praise, so if you’re a leader try finding ways to thank people, and let them know you care about what they’ve achieved. More exuberant people reward themselves with a victory dance or shout. Whichever you choose, calorie-free and money-free rewards are usually more effective at supporting your primary goal and provide a better guide to success.

Clearing Mental Clutter

A different way of making goals appear bigger is by providing lots of reminders. Some people do that by posting sticky-notes, which provide little prompts that bring goals back to focus, while business often use slogans or posters for the same reason. Surprisingly, measurement works the same way, by repeatedly reminding people to focus on their goals so they take a bigger place in your mind. It’s not the whole story but it’s a big part of the reason why ‘What gets measured, gets done’.

On the other hand, you can make goals seem bigger and more attention-grabbing by removing other goals from the picture. This is one of the magical principles underlying David Allen’s classic book, Getting Things Done. David Allen’s systems are brilliant for removing distractions from your workspace, which helps build and maintain a clear focus on your goals removing all goals from your mind other than the one you currently want to focus upon. For example, one of the techniques in that book gets people to maintain reliable lists of tasks so that whenever another goal sneaks into your mind, it can be placed into one of those lists where it won’t be forgotten and it won’t steal focus from your current goal.

From Thoughts of Failure to Joy

While these simple techniques work well, life often gets more complicated. A major complication is the distance you need to travel to reach your goal — if that’s large enough it will make your goal disappear behind a mountain of effort. I discuss techniques for managing this problem in Chunking to Conquer: Overcome Procrastination (Now!) and Make Fear Your Super-Power, but for now, it’s enough to remember that every achievement rests on seeing goals clearly and remaining focused on them.

If you get that right, you’ll eventually replace Bonjour tristesse with Bonjour gaieté (Hello cheerfulness). Personally, I feel more comfortable with simply saying, Enjoy or Have Fun!



Arthur’s work on personality, leadership, & performance helps people work together, bringing the best out of each other.

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Arthur Poropat

Arthur’s work on personality, leadership, & performance helps people work together, bringing the best out of each other.