Failure Sucks: Seeing Goals Clearly

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

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.

Person covering face in distress
Photo by Lucas Metz on Unsplash

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.

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

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.

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’.

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.



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Arthur Poropat

Arthur Poropat


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