The Power of Clarity

by Steve Pavlina, founder of Dexterity Software and author of Personal Development for Smart People. Reproduced with permission.

Bunker Hunt, a man who rose from a bankrupt cotton farmer in the 1930s to a multi-billionaire when he died in the 1970s, was once asked during a TV interview what advice he could give to others who wanted to be financially successful. He responded by saying that it’s not terribly difficult to be successful and that only two things are required. First, you must decide exactly what it is you want to accomplish. Most people never do that in their entire lives. And secondly, you must determine what price you’ll have to pay to get it, and then resolve to pay that price.

Study after study has shown how essential clear goals and objectives are to the success of any business, and this is no less true of running a software business. If you do not take the time to get really clear about exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish, then you are forever doomed to spend your life achieving the goals of those who do. In the absence of a clear direction for your business, you will either meander aimlessly or you will build a product line that you don’t really feel good about. You may make some money, and you may release some good products, but the end result will not resemble anything you ever made a conscious decision to build, and ultimately you will be left with the sinking feeling that maybe you took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Do you ever look at your business and think to yourself, "How on earth did I get here?"

If setting goals is so critically important, then why is it that so few people take the time to define exactly where they want to go? Part of the reason is a lack of knowledge about how to set clear goals. You can go through years of schooling and never receive any instruction on goal setting at all. A failure to understand the immense importance of establishing clear goals is also common. But those who truly know what they want often outperform everyone else by an enormous degree.

A frequent deterrent to goal setting is the fear of making a mistake. Teddy Roosevelt once said, "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." Setting virtually any goal at all is better than drifting aimlessly with no clear direction. The best way I know to guarantee failure is to avoid making clear, committed decisions. Every day is already a mistake if you don’t know where you’re going. You’re probably spending most of your time working to achieve other people’s goals. The local fast food restaurant, TV advertisers, and the stockholders of the businesses you patronize are all very happy for that. If you don’t decide what you really want, then you’ve decided to hand your future over to the whims of others, and that’s always a mistake. By taking hold of the reins yourself and deciding where you’d like to go, you gain a tremendous sense of control that most people never experience in their entire lives.

Many people assume that because they have a direction, they must therefore have goals, but this is not the case and merely creates the illusion of progress. "Making more money" and "building a business" are not goals. A goal is a specific, clearly defined, measurable state. An example of the difference between a direction and a goal is the difference between the compass direction of northeast and the top of the Eiffel Tower in France. One is merely a direction; the other is a definite location.

One critical aspect of goals is that they must be defined in binary terms. At any point in time, if I were to ask you if you had achieved your goal yet, you must be able to give me a definitive "yes" or "no" answer; "maybe" is not an option. You cannot say with absolute certainty if you have achieved the outcome of "making more money," but you can give me a definitive binary answer as to whether or not you are currently standing on top of the Eiffel Tower. An example of a clear business goal would be that your gross income for the month of April this year is $5000 or more. That is something you can calculate precisely, and at the end of the month, you can give a definitive answer as to whether or not your goal has been achieved. That is the level of clarity you need in order to form a goal that your mind can lock onto and move towards rapidly.

Be as detailed as possible when setting goals. Give specific numbers, dates, and times. Make sure that each of your goals is measurable. Either you achieved it, or you didn’t. Define your goals as if you already know what’s going to happen. It’s been said that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Goals must be in writing in the form of positive, present-tense, personal affirmations. A goal that is not committed to writing is just a fantasy. Set goals for what you want, not for what you don’t want. Your subconscious mind can lock onto a clearly defined goal only if the goal is defined in positive terms. If you put your focus on what you don’t want instead of what you do, you’re likely to attract exactly what it is you’re trying to avoid. Phrase your goals as if they are already achieved. Instead of saying, "I will earn $30,000 this year," phrase it in the present tense: "I earn $30,000 this year." If you phrase your goals in future terms, you are sending a message to your subconscious mind to forever keep that outcome in the future, just beyond your grasp. Avoid wishy-washy words like "probably," "should," "could," "would," "might," or "may" when forming your goals. Such words foster doubt as to whether you can really achieve what you are after. And finally, make your goals personal. You cannot set goals for other people, such as, "A publisher will publish my software by the end of the year." Phrase it like this instead: "I sign a North American retail publishing contract this year that earns me at least $50,000 by the end of the year."

What if you need to set subjective goals, such as improving your own level of self-discipline? How do you phrase such goals in binary terms? To solve this problem, I use a rating scale of 1 to 10. For instance, if you want to improve your self-discipline, ask yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your current level of self-discipline? Then set a goal to achieve a certain specific rating by a certain date. This allows you to measure your progress and know with a high degree of certainty whether or not you’ve actually achieved your goal.

Setting clear goals is not a passive act. It doesn’t happen automatically. You must take direct conscious action in order to make it so. Everything counts, and nothing is neutral. You are either moving towards your goals, or you’re moving away from them. If you do nothing or if you act without clarity, then you are almost certainly a victim of "being outgoaled." In other words you are spending your time working on other people’s goals without even knowing it. You are happily working to enrich your landlord, other businesses, advertisers, stockholders, etc. Each day you spend working without a sense of clarity about where you’re headed is a step backwards for you. If you don’t actively tend your garden, then weeds will grow automatically. Weeds don’t need to be watered or fertilized. They just grow by themselves in the absence of an attentive gardener. Similarly, in the absence of conscious and directed action on your part, your business and your life will automatically become full of weeds. You don’t need to do anything at all to make this happen. And when you finally get around to taking a serious look at where you are and where you want to go, the first thing you’ll have to do is pull out all those weeds.

Reading this article will do absolutely nothing for you unless you turn it into some form of physical action. The best thinking unfortunately gives you zero results. In reality, you won’t even be paid a penny for your thoughts. You can have the most creative idea in the world, but ideas themselves are utterly worthless. You only get results from the physical actions you take, never for the ideas you have. In order to get any kind of tangible results at all, you must act on an idea. You must communicate it, build it, implement it, and make it real.

If you’ve been running your business in an unfocused manner, just waking up each morning and seeing what happens, then it is absolutely crucial that you take the time to decide and write down exactly where it is you want to go. How much longer will you continue to climb the ladder of success, only to realize too late that it was leaning against the wrong building all along? Just pick a point in the future, whether it is six months from now or five years from now, and spend a few hours writing out a clear description of where you want to be at that time. I know many people who aren’t sure where they want to go, so they avoid committing anything to writing in order to "keep their options open." What would happen if you pursued that attitude to its logical conclusion? If you always kept your options open and never made any firm commitments, then you’d never release that new product, take your business full time, get married, have a family, move to that new home, etc. except to the degree that someone else made that decision for you.

I used to have a friend like this, who still hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his life. He yields control of his life to others without even realizing it, simply because he’s unwilling to take the time to define a vision for his own life out of fear of making the wrong choice. His life is ruled by others who push their goals onto him, which he accepts by default. Ask yourself if you’re in the same boat. If a friend of yours became totally committed to getting you to change something in your life at random — your career, your product line, your relationship, etc — could s/he do it just by being absolutely certain and committed that it’s the right thing for you? Could a business associate come along and radically alter your plans for the week without you ever deciding consciously that such a change is consistent with your goals? We all suffer from problems like these to the degree that we fail to set clear goals for ourselves. There is a big difference between recognizing and acting on a true opportunity and being knocked off course without making a conscious decision to shift gears.

Waiting for something to inspire you and hoping that the perfect outcome will just fall into your lap is nothing more than a fantasy. Clear decision making doesn’t happen passively; you actually have to physically put in the time to make it happen. If you don’t have clear goals simply because you don’t know what you want, then sit down and actively decide what you want. That sense of knowing what you want isn’t going to just come to you in a form of divine inspiration. Clarity is a choice, not an accident or a gift. Clarity doesn’t come to you — you have to go to it. Not setting goals is the same thing as deciding to be a slave to the goals of others.

Your reality will not match your vision exactly. That’s not the point. The point is for your vision to allow you to make clear daily decisions that keep you moving in the direction of your goals. For instance, my definition of where I want to be at the end of the year is about twenty pages long and includes literally hundreds of subgoals along the way, and I continue to refine parts of it every weekend. I know that at the end of the year, I will not have achieved this exact outcome. So why do I put so much detail into creating a vision that I know will be inaccurate? The reason I do this is that it is very effective at moving me closer to my desired outcome on a daily basis. When a commercial airliner flies from one city to another, it is off course over 90% of the time, but it keeps measuring its progress and adjusting its heading again and again. Goal setting works the same way. I maintain a twenty-page vision for the end of the year not because that’s actually where I’ll end up but because it allows me to see with tremendous certainty what I need to do today in order to keep myself moving in that direction. When someone contacts me with an "opportunity" out of the blue, I know whether it’s a real opportunity for me or a waste of time. The long view sharpens the short view.

As you begin moving towards your goals, you’ll gain new knowledge along the way, and you’ll have to adapt your plans as you go. You may also change your vision if you get partway there and decide it’s not quite what you really want. Ill-formed goals are still far superior to no goals at all.

I was recently told by someone that I should end each day by crossing it off my calendar and saying out loud, "There goes another day of my life, never to return again." Try this for yourself, and notice how much it sharpens your focus. When you end a day with the feeling that you would have lived it the same if you had the chance to repeat it, you gain a sense of gratitude that helps you focus on what’s really important to you. When you end the day with a feeling of regret or loss, you gain the awareness to try a different approach the next day.

If there is such a thing as a silver bullet in business and life, this is it. I guarantee you will see a measurable difference the very first day you establish clear, committed goals, even if your first few attempts aren’t perfect. You’ll be able to make decisions much more rapidly because you’ll see how they’ll either move you towards or away from your goals. On the eve of his death, Walt Disney had a reporter crawl into bed with him so he could share his vision for Disney World, six years before its completion. When Disney World finally opened, another reporter commented to Walt’s brother, Roy, "It’s too bad Walt did not live to see this." Roy replied, "Walt saw it first. That’s why we are seeing it now." Clear goals allow you to achieve the first half of Bunker Hunt’s success formula. By deciding exactly what it is you want to accomplish, committing it to writing, and reviewing it on a daily basis, you bring your goals into reality with the power of your focus.