Is Failing to Reach a Goal Really Failing?


I am an avid runner. And not just your “go-out-for-a-few-miles” kind of runner, but a distance runner. In fact, I recently participated in The Hallucination 100 at the Hell Creek Ranch in Pinckney, Michigan, with the goal of completing the entire 100 miles (it’s a 16-mile loop). I worked for it. I trained for it. I was determined to finish the race. But I didn’t. I ran out of gas somewhere along the 68-mile mark. I did get a 100k finisher medal, so my achievement was recognized, but it felt like a consolation prize. I felt like I had failed to achieve my goal.


We spend a lot of time talking about goals. We debate how to set goals, manage goals, and celebrate the success of achieving our goals. But what should you do when you don’t reach your goals?


If you haven’t noticed, today’s society has embraced the failure concept. Basketball star Michael Jordan has a very famous quote about failure: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And this is why I succeed.”


Don’t get me wrong: Not achieving a goal is not always acceptable and embraced. But on some level, it’s okay, as long as you learn from it. 


In his book, Learned Optimism, psychologist Martin Seligman, known as the father of the new science of positive psychology believes there is no such thing as not achieving your goal. You just need to rewire your brain to be able to see that. Here are some of his tips.


1: When you fail to achieve a goal, stop and make a note of everything you did achieve.

OK, so I didn’t complete the 100-mile race. But I DID run 68 miles! Focus on what you have achieved and not on what you haven’t.


2: There are goals, and then there are goals. 

For example, let’s say someone in sales has a goal of reaching 25 new customers by the end of the quarter, but he only reached 20. On the surface, it would seem that he failed but dig a little deeper. His 20 new customers are bringing in more revenue than he had anticipated. And that revenue was his actual goal. Did he fail in reaching his goal? Not by a long shot.


3: Look at what you learned.

Most goals have a deadline or timeframe. Often that serves to motivate us, but what if that deadline comes and goes, and our goal is not achieved? Did we fail? Just because you don’t achieve the goal in the time frame you set does not mean you won’t achieve the goal eventually. And take a look at what you have achieved or learned while you were trying to reach your goal. This information will give you a more realistic deadline as you get back to work.


4: Review your reasons for going after the goal in the first place.

Once you’ve figured out the reason(s) why your goal wasn’t accomplished, you have to decide if this is still a goal you need to and want to accomplish. Perhaps the goal needs to be redefined in some way. Or perhaps, the goal doesn’t matter anymore, which is perfectly acceptable. One of the biggest drawbacks of failed goals is that they linger and stifle future productivity. So maybe I don’t have the physical stamina to run 100 miles. So I’ll put that goal aside and shoot for 75 miles.


5: Be grateful you failed.

Remember the words of inventor Thomas Edison. Edison is well known for his many inventions, but he is also well known for his hard work ethic and perseverance. Even after many failed attempts with his light bulb design, Edison continued knowing each failure brought him closer to success.“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”




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