If I were to ask you to build a table from scratch and the only tool I gave you was a baseball bat would you keep trying over and over to make it work?
Would you tell yourself that you just need to try harder?
Maybe you’re just bad at building tables.
Maybe you’d say that you just need to get your act together?
You’d tell me a baseball bat is the wrong tool for this job and hand it back.
Here’s why this is so important. Very often as we’re helping those we serve navigate through obstacles and toward their goals, we continue to use the same, outdated, ill fitting, or just plain WRONG tools. The SMART goal strategy is a good example of this, but there are many others. How many SMART goals have you set in your life? How many have you helped others set? How many times have they resulted in lasting, impactful changes over time?
Maybe it’s not about us not trying hard enough or “just making it happen”… Maybe we’re using the wrong tool to set the goal in the first place.
And worse, once we “fail” at reaching those badly set goals we are extremely unlikely to try again. Badly set goals combined with garbage tools make long-term, positive behavior change almost impossible. And just forcing, obligating or restricting yourself won’t work either.
There is so much complexity and variability involved even our most mundane choices, clunky “tools” like these frequently fail us, and because we’ve never been taught any other tools, we continue to use and regurgitate these OSFA tools with results that are inconsistent at best, and and worst downright harmful.
Properly set goals need to keep the big picture in mind while still respecting where people are now, and they CANNOT confuse an obstacle with a goal.
Just being miserable is not enough.
I began my career talking about money in the Financial Services industry. I was thoroughly trained in the mechanics of money, and within two months I was out in the world gathering data on clients, and (so I thought) helping them work towards their goals. In one particular month I sat down with three different families. After gathering info from them, talking about what they wanted and crafting three truly brilliant plans, I presented each family with their plans! They loved them! I showed them how to quickly grow their savings, pay off their debt in a third of the time, protect their loved ones and their income with life insurance and even begin to think about future investments.
I’m not bragging here… these plans were absolutely golden.
Can you guess what all three of these families did with my lovely plans?
They did nothing.
I served them exactly what they needed to do. They liked what they saw. And yet, they did nothing.
Where is the problem here? These folks were not dummies. The plans were great. Had I not been listening? Was I asking the right questions?
What followed was not another two-month process, but one that took two years, and continues to this day.
I began to test what I was learning. The very first couple I tested my new goal setting strategy on were folks I’d known for some time. They are good people, they’ve got two nearly-grown boys, husband works a ton, wife works part-time. They knew me and trusted me.
They were my first guinea pigs, and I am forever grateful to them for their trust and for what they’ve taught me. Let’s go back in time to their kitchen table.
Wife talks a bunch, she’s effusive, but back then she was also in a ton of pain. I knew her debt was weighing on her from previous comments, but I could see it physically crushing her, pushing her into her chair. She both wants to talk about what’s going on with their finances and really doesn’t. She was deeply miserable.
Husband was there under duress. He wanted to support his wife, but didn’t want to talk about his money. He was then and is now a naturally reticent dude.
My first question to them was the first question I asked when I was in Fin Services, but it’s also the same kind of question your hairdresser, or personal trainer would ask…
“Tell me about your goals.”
Wife: “We’ve got to get rid of this debt… it’s absolutely killing us. We’ve been in debt since the day we got married, I’m starting to think we’re never going to get clear… And we just keep getting more!”
Me: “Good, I’ve got a great tool for that. What else?”
Wife: “Nothing.. That’s it.. We just need to get rid of the debt!”
Me: “Ok. So play along with me. I have my pen here in my hand, but it’s actually a magic wand. I’m going to wave my magic wand, snap my fingers, [snap] and right this minute I’ve disappeared all of your debt. It’s gone, all of it including the mortgage. What would be next for you?
Wife: (opens mouth, closes mouth) I’m not sure. (Long pause) I guess… we’d always talked about being more active in our church, right? And about being able to help the boys out if they need us.
Me: Tell me more about that.
Wife: Like if they’re out on their own and they have a tire blow out or a fridge break, we want to be able to help them out… but we don’t want them to live off us! (laughing)
Me: Why is that important to you?
Wife: I guess… we never got that from our parents… My parents couldn’t do that for us, and his… wouldn’t.
Me: Wow. Thank you, I see why that’s important. What else?
Wife: More? Uhhh (LONG pause, deep breath) You know… I’ve always wanted a corgi breeding farm.
Me: A… corgi farm?!
Wife: Yeah, do you know what a corgi is?
Me: (laughing) yeah, yeah I know what a corgi is! Tell me about your corgi farm!
What followed was about 10 minutes of Wife telling me in detail about a little farm she saw out in the county that would make a perfect corgi farm, how the mommas and pups would live in the house with them, how she’d get up every morning and feed them and walk them. We talked about what color the curtains are in the kitchen, how many dogs she thinks they could handle, etc. We were talking about a day in the life of her corgi farm!
All this time, Husband had said NOTHING. But he had slowly turned to look at his wife who was bubbling with enthusiasm, talking about her corgis. When she and I finally took a breath he said to her:
“You have never said anything about a corgi farm.”
This was an important moment. She hadn’t told anyone, not even her husband about this big, beautiful, secret dream she had. But this corgi farm is her “why”. And more than that, it’s the potential energy for change. But just asking someone to change isn’t enough, they have to have the tools to do it and they have to have the momentum.
Just after Husband joined the conversation I asked her how she was feeling about her debt now. “Oh…” she said, forgetting that was the reason for this conversation in the first place “.. oh yeah, we’ll take care of that.” Yes, we absolutely will. The mechanics of how to pay off their debt in 12 years instead of 30 was pretty simple to work out, but I need her to see past that debt and into her future to give her the motivation and momentum to get there.
The three of us talked for a little while longer, and I walked them through a goal setting strategy I use every day now.
If I’m doing my job, no one ever knows I’m walking them through this strategy. To my clients goal setting feels like a natural conversation. If I’m doing my job, I’ve planted the seed of change and momentum in their heads, which gives them the resilience to make changes THEMSELVES. My job gets easier and easier as they grow. My job is to be unneeded, for her, and for every one of my clients.
In her honor, I’ve since called this strategy The Corgi Farm.
How this strategy is different.
This strategy elegantly brings to light what a person has standing in their way, why reaching their goals is ACTUALLY important to them. It also allows them to begin to trust themselves enough to actually take the first step towards their Corgi Farm.
In these goals setting conversations we talk a lot about the difference between an obstacle and a goal. An obstacle, like debt, is something that needs to be resolved. But make no mistake, it is an OBSTACLE, not a goal. It is a negative. When you resolve a negative, you are at a neutral. What I love about using this strategy is that because I’m asking the right questions people will tell me precisely what they need to do.
Because I’m asking the right questions they also tell me what the goals are that are under their stated goals. And those goals like stability, security, feeling accomplished, feeling like a good parent or spouse, are what motivates and drives people forward. Without a destination in mind, we can never develop thrust even though we are constantly working, constantly trying, constantly stressed.
If “I just need to get out of debt” worked, we’d all be out of debt. If just being crushed and stressed was enough we’d all be doing great! But it’s not enough.
Goal setting is crucial to decision making.
Last updated: June 2023
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