Are you scared of setting goals in case you fail them? Is this fear keeping you in your comfort zone and away from becoming extraordinary? Dan discusses removing excuses, the value of failure, expanding your comfort zone and tearing down the barriers to potential.

ROMcast provides bite-sized chunks of health, happiness, fitness and performance. Presented by Exercise Physiologist and Scientist, Coach and Director of Range of Motion, Dan Williams.

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Episode Transcript:

Are you Scared of Setting Goals In Case You Fail?

Do you have a plan for your future? Something you want to do? Somewhere you want to be? Maybe it’s big and world changing. Maybe it’s so small and no one would ever notice, but it’s enough for a spark of self accomplishment and a tiny but determined pump of the fist.

Do you know how you’re going to get there? Do you have a plan? Have you set your mind to making it happen? It’s not a dream, it’s a goal.

Now, some people are ‘goal people’. They write them out and stick them on their bathroom mirror. They see them every time they brush their teeth. Maybe they even post them on Facebook. And maybe that’s not your style. You’re not a ‘scream them from the rooftops’ kind of person. And that’s cool. Maybe you’re a ‘whisper them from under the bed’ type of person. Maybe you’re not even that. Maybe you goals never escape the deepest reaches of your mind. Because if you don’t set a goal you can’t fail it right?

It’s a deep seeded human fear to not be good enough. Normally we can avoid this inadequacy, but with goals, we’re putting ourselves out there. We’re formalising our dreams and exposing our inner drive. We’re testing our ability to achieve something we set out to.

The fear here is a common on. ‘If I give it my all and fall short, then I’ll know I wasn’t good enough’. The fear is real. And for many people the fear is enough to push those dreams down so deep in their hearts that they never see the light of day.

Part of this fear has a name. Self handicapping. Self handicapping is when you give yourself an excuse to fail. So if you do fall short of your goals, it’s not really a failure – because you’d given yourself a way out anyway. You’re blaming the failure on a handicap that you’ve created, not on your own ability. This means it can never be your fault. It means you don’t have to take responsibility for your shortcomings. It means you let life happen and fall back on a fixed mindset and the crutch of ‘fate’ rather than a growth mindset where you know you can do anything you put your mind to.

Remember when you were a kid and you lost a race at lunchtime with your friend. ‘I wasn’t racing’ you cry! And suddenly you didn’t actually lose that race, because you weren’t ‘all in’. You can find examples of handicapping littered all throughout your life. ‘I probably won’t get this job because I’m underqualified’. ‘I won’t do well in this workout because I’m sore’. ‘I didn’t study enough so I’m not going to do well in this exam’. ‘I doubt I’ll lose weight because I smashed that entire tub of Ben and Jerries icecream’.

Suddenly not getting the job becomes ok, not doing well in the workout becomes ok, bombing the exam becomes ok, putting on weight becomes ok. It becomes ok because you haven’t failed at all, you’ve planted a reason that makes failure ok. You’ve given yourself an emergency exit – a way out. And by making failure ok, it’s not failure at all – because you weren’t really trying. And this isn’t ok. There’s a reason for everything we do, even if it’s not immediately apparent. Everything we do, we do to move away from pain or towards pleasure. The reason for self handicapping is to protect our self image and self-esteem. But you’ll spend your life living in the comfort zone. Living in your own personal sphere of mediocrity. You’re erasing the extremes of your experience. Sure, you won’t fail as hard, but you won’t win as hard either.

So let’s reframe this fear. Instead of being afraid to give it your all, fall short, and know you weren’t good enough, the REAL fear should be in NOT giving it your all and living out your days wondering just how great you could have been. How much impact you could have had? How many of your dreams could have come true?

Now if this sounds like you, things are about to get a bit scary, because we’re about to start removing that safety net. Going all in. Full commitment. This does three things.

Firstly, it increases your chance of success. If you prepare well and increase your effort, you’re more likely to achieve whatever it is you’re directing your effort to. Secondly it improves your self confidence and reduces anxiety. Going in to an interview, exam or sporting event knowing you’d done everything in your power to ensure success gives you a wave of confidence you can’t get anywhere else, a wave that washes away any anxiety you have about your perceived inadequacies. And finally, at the end of the day, after the race has been won or lost, full commitment gives you a deep seeded satisfaction. A satisfaction in the process, not the outcome. And sure, maybe everything you had wasn’t enough. And that’s ok. Believe it or not, the hollow feeling of accomplishment you’ll feel from winning easily is dwarfed by the accomplishment you’ll feel from failing at the end of your full effort.

Plus, there’s so much value in failing! If you don’t fail you miss out on so many lessons, so many opportunities to readjust and learn. So many opportunities to increase your chance of future victory.

If all you ever do is win, it’s a sure fire sign that you’re sitting right in the middle of your comfort zone. Constant and recurring successes and victories are the greatest signs we have that we’re underextending, aiming too low. Occasional failures tell us we’re pushing out limits. Sure, pushing your limits means you sometimes lose. But the only way to expand your limits is to push on them, to push right to the margins of our abilities and our experience. Trying to run six kilometres when you’ve only ever done five. Applying for a job where you don’t meet all the criteria. Asking that girl out on a date when you think she’s out of your league. Self growth comes from the expansion of our limits. Without pushing the limits, without expansion, we don’t get better.

Now, I get it, losing sucks. Failure sucks. But the suck is temporary – it’s short term. And as with most things that are difficult in the short term, they become a positive in the long term. Getting out of bed to exercise can suck. Putting down that donut can suck. But the short term pain leads to long term gain. Easy short term choices lead to negative long term consequences. Difficult short term choices lead to positive long term consequences. And choosing the possibility of failure is definitely a difficult long short term choice. But it follows our rule and this failure almost always leads to a positive long term consequence. Don’t base your value to the world on whether you achieve some goal, rather use what you’ve learned to drive you towards a better future. Being willing to struggle for something is a great determinant of how our life turns out.

If you don’t like how it feels when you don’t reach a goal, maybe the problem isn’t with goal, maybe the problem is with your perception. You’re not chasing progress but an unrealistic perfection. It’s ok to not achieve your goals. In fact, as we’ve discussed, if you achieve every goal you’re not stretching yourself enough. The pursuit of perfection is just that, a pursuit. A journey not a destination. Perfection is often impossible, and if you only judge something a success when you’ve done it perfectly, then you’re destined to fail again and again. With this constant beating down of your self image and self esteem it’s no wonder you’re scared of setting goals! When you set a goal it directs you attention to the habits and processes you need to achieve that goal. If you’ve set a goal to lose 10kg, and you only end up losing nine, YOU’VE STILL LOST 9KG! If you can’t distinguish between success and perfection, this incredible achievement will go down as a failure. The only failure here is your faulty perception. The goal directed your behaviours, the behaviours determined the result. You have two choices. You can fail a goal because you fell one kilo short. Or you could not setting a goal at all because you’re scared of failing it. I know I’d choose the failure of progress over the success of stagnation every time.

And then there’s some people who say they don’t set goals at all. Everyone sets goals. You go to work with the goal of earning money. Eating a healthy meal is a goal. Getting out of bed every morning is a goal. Exercising is a goal. Every behaviour you undertake with an end result in mind is a goal. It’s not that you don’t set them, it’s more that your goal setting process sucks! There are well researched and evidence-based processes for setting goals. They’re based on the science of the human psyche, and exist to help you achieve, grow, chase your dreams. So I can’t accept you don’t set goals. But I can accept that the way you set goals needs work.

Don’t live life never knowing what you could have achieved. Be brave enough to learn the lessons of your failures, to push your limits and expand and exceed them. So stop being afraid. Get out there and be your own version of extraordinary.

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