If you want to see the power of goals to change human behavior, take an improv class, where students are taught to focus on their motivation. Before every scene, they take the time to define their objectives or they are given one by the audience. The best comedy arises out of the earnest interactions of people whose goals clash, not from the performers’ deliberate attempts to be funny.
Defining a goal allows even the shyest improv student to break out of their shell and fully participate in the performance. Pursuing the goal is an all-consuming task, incompatible with doubts about how you’re perceived by the audience. Similarly, the hammiest and most flamboyant students ratchet their performances down, because they can’t be bothered to peacock around – they’re too busy reaching their objective.
In improv, goals move one of the largest mountains we, humans, will ever encounter – our own nature. At work, our goals drive in large measure the career outcomes we’re dealt.
Over my career as a lawyer, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and interact with hundreds of associates from multiple firms. By now, I can tell with a degree of confidence who has a chance to make partner and who doesn’t. Those who do are the ones who made reaching partnership their unwavering, eye-on-the-prize target.
It’s not that the partnership-focused associates work any harder than the others. They work differently. For example,
- They orient themselves to the norms of the partners in their practice group (i.e., what non-obvious things/attitudes/behaviors are valued by the partnership);
- They proactively seek out high-visibility, high-perceived value tasks (think briefs, not document review); and
- They cultivate personal relationships with the partners who’ll have a say on their career prospects (if you’re an associate, when was the last time you invited a partner to take a break and grab a coffee?)
If your career isn’t lining up with your stated goals, it is very likely that your stated goals are not your real goals. So there’s a choice to make: either pivot your real goals to align with what you say they are or make peace with your real goals and pursue them to success.
The mountains are waiting to be moved. They just need to know in which direction.