Aiming high and the pursuit of goals

Some people just don’t seem to care much about things while others seem to make an issue of everything. Our standards determine much of human achievement…and happiness. Except happiness doesn’t always seem to correlate with achievement.

In today’s column in Métro, I tell a story of two salesmen, each of whom have very high standards. Both pursue these standards and achieve equal success. Unfortunately, only one of them feels successful. This is because of how they each see their goals.

Many people aim high. Some do so because they want to achieve a great deal. Others do so to avoid perceived failure. The higher we aim, the more we push ourselves, and, as a result, the more we tend to achieve. But many people who aim high are perfectionists, and perfection can never be reached. These individuals may achieve a great deal but rarely feel adequate since they are constantly coming up short of their expectations.

A high standard can be seen as a direction or as an endpoint. Those who set the goal as a direction don’t care if it is reached. They set the goal as the path to take toward improvement. Those who set their goals as minimum standards, on the other hand, are constantly being faced with failure since their perfectionnistic goals are nearly impossible to reach.

When treating depression, clinical psychologists often focus on the way clients think. One of the common themes in treatment has to do with changing what are called ‘Unrelenting Standards’ by Jeffrey Young, author of Reinventing Your Life, and other cognitive psychologists. This way of thinking is very common among depressed people.

A frequently quoted line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, “There is nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Well I don’t know if NOTHING is good nor bad, but the way we see things certainly goes a long way in determining how we feel about them.

For more on how standards affect happiness, click here.

Here is today’s column:

Bob and Ted: Supersellers (voir plus bas pour version Française)
(Source: Pierre et Paul: des supervendeurs. Journal Métro, July 3, 2012)

Are you proud of your achievements? Or do you always feel like you can do better? Our sense of pride in what we achieve actually comes from two sources. The first is the achievement itself, but often this is only a minor part of our satisfaction. The bigger source of pride has to do with what we expect of ourselves.

To illustrate, let’s take two fictitious salesmen, Bob and Ted. Both are excellent at what they do, each having reached a milestone of $1 million in sales last year. Now let’s imagine they set goals for the coming year and both agree to try for two million. It’s a lofty goal but they like to dream big.

Let’s fast-forward a year and imagine they both achieved $1.5 million, a 50% increase in sales. How should they feel?

The direction
Bob is thrilled with the increase and is popping champagne to celebrate. To him, aiming high is the best way to achieve success. The actual goal is irrelevant as long as it’s high. This lofty goal becomes a direction toward which Bob works. Whether he achieves it or not is irrelevant. The endpoint is not his goal, improvement is. And a 50% improvement is certainly reason to celebrate.

The goal
Ted, on the other hand, feels like a failure. He was woefully short of his goal of two million. Ted, like many people, feels like an impostor. He has impossibly high standards that are difficult to attain. Even when he does, he feels like he was lucky or only achieved them by working harder than everyone else to compensate for his weaknesses. To people like Ted, a goal is the minimum standard. Anything short of that is failure.

High standards
We are surrounded by people who seem successful – university degrees, well-paying jobs, solid relationships – but when we get to know them well we find many who do not seem to realize how successful they are. Some are even prone to depression. This is because any achievement cannot be judged without also considering the standard.

Most successful individuals have high standards. This is what makes them care enough to push themselves. When we see their achievements from the outside, we are suitably impressed. But from their self-perspectives, success is relative to their expectations. And high standards often come with high expectations.

Bob’s high standards, paired with realistic expectations, fuel his achievements and his sense of pride. Ted’s high standards, paired with unrealistic expectations, tend to produce the same results…but none of the pride.

Voici la version Française:

Pierre et Paul : des super vendeurs

Vos réalisations vous remplissent-elles de fierté? Ou avez-vous toujours l’impression de pouvoir faire mieux? La fierté que nous tirons de nos accomplissements provient de deux sources. L’accomplissement lui-même, qui est souvent qu’une petite partie de notre satisfaction, et de la plus grande source, ce que nous attendons de nous-même.

Prenons deux vendeurs fictifs, Pierre et Paul, qui excellent dans leur métier : ils ont réalisé un chiffre d’affaires de 1 million de dollars, l’an dernier. Imaginons qu’ils se sont fixé un objectif de 2 millions de dollars pour cette année. C’est un objectif ambitieux, mais ils aiment voir grand.

Faisons un saut dans le futur et imaginons qu’ils ont réalisé des ventes de 1,5 million de dollars, soit une hausse de 50 %. Comment se sentiront-ils?

Pierre est ravi; il souligne l’événement en sablant le champagne. Pour lui, viser haut est la meilleure façon de réussir. L’objectif réel importe peu, pourvu qu’il soit élevé. Cet ambitieux objectif oriente Pierre. Le but ultime n’est pas l’objectif, mais l’amélioration. Et une amélioration de 50 % est une raison de célébrer.

Par contre, Paul éprouve un sentiment d’échec. Il est loin d’avoir atteint son objectif. À l’instar de bien des gens, il se sent comme un imposteur. Il se fixe des normes trop élevées et difficiles à atteindre. Et lorsqu’il y parvient, il croit qu’il a eu de la chance ou qu’il a réussi en travaillant plus que les autres pour compenser ses faiblesses. Pour les gens comme Paul, un objectif est un minimum, et ce qui se situe en dessous est un échec.

Les normes élevées
Nous sommes entourés de gens qui semblent réussir : diplômes universitaires, emplois lucratifs, relations solides, mais quand on s’y attarde, nous découvrons qu’un bon nombre d’entre eux n’ont pas conscience de leur réussite. Certains sont même sujets à la dépression. C’est parce qu’un accomplissement ne peut pas être jugé sans tenir compte de la norme.

Les gens qui réussissent le mieux sont portés à avoir des normes élevées, ce qui les pousse à déployer des efforts supplémentaires. Lorsque nous observons leurs réalisations, nous sommes évidemment impressionnés. Mais, ils évaluent leur réussite par rapport à leurs attentes. Et les normes élevées sont souvent reliées à des attentes aussi élevées.

Les normes élevées de Pierre, jumelées à des attentes réalistes, alimentent ses réalisations et son sentiment de fierté. Les normes élevées de Paul, jumelées à des attentes irréalistes, produisent le même résultat… mais sans aucune fierté.

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Posted in Depression, Happiness.

Posted on 03 Jul 2012

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