A Case For Not Focusing On Your Goals: Part 1

Nov 19, 2018 - 2:22 PM

At one time or another we’ve all experienced the high that comes with achieving a big goal. All the time, effort and training put towards that goal finally paid off. “I did it!” we tell ourselves, and we feel amazing. In that moment, all the pain and sacrifice seem worth it.

We have all also experienced the disappointment that results in having failed to achieve a big goal and the difficulty in picking ourselves back up afterwards. We can become consumed by the heartache and question ourselves: “What should I have done differently?” “Where did I go wrong?” After disappointment it can be hard to find the motivation to keep pushing forward.

The last few years, I’ve struggled to find my balance within the highs and the lows, the accomplishments and the failures of my career. I always felt that setting clear goals was paramount to achieving success. I like to make lists of all the short-term and long-term goals that I want to achieve, from big things to little things. Throughout much of my life I didn’t pay attention to the types of goals or the quality of the goals that I was setting. I just wrote down something I really wanted to achieve and went for it. Writing my goals down helped me focus on them and helped me commit myself to them as well. I didn’t realize that how I was thinking about my goals, and success, might cause problems that could ultimately keep me from achieving my goals, or worse, cause mental health issues.

So in 2017, three years after moving to the East Coast to chase the long shot goal of an Olympic dream, after having the most competitive success of my career up to that point, I was thoroughly caught off guard by anxiety and depression. Why? I was named as an alternate to the 2016 Rio Olympic team, as an alternate to the 2015 Pan American Games team, and I competed on two Nations Cup teams. What was there to be depressed about?

MattBrownSherryStewart
No matter how much you accomplish, you can get trapped into focusing on what didn’t happen instead. Sherry Stewart Photo

Well, the problem was that all my thoughts were centered on how I didn’t make it to the Olympics. I couldn’t let go of the fact that I risked everything, uprooted myself and Cecily, let my supporters down, and how in the end I wasn’t good enough. I was obsessed with what I thought it meant about me, and so I lost my motivation. I stopped trying, became easily upset, and was frustrated often. I felt fragile, and fragile is definitely not how I would have described myself in the past.

I ended up sitting in a psychiatrist’s office staring out the window wondering how I used to think I was a mentally tough person. How I used to be the calm one in tough situations, and how I was reliable and even keel. Now none of those things seemed to be a part of me, and I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I left the office with a prescription for depression medication.

Driving home from that appointment was the lowest I have ever felt. It was a long drive, and I thought a lot about how I had gotten to this point. I realized that I had always put my riding and training at the top of my priority list, and I had neglected my own mental health and stability in the process.

By the time I got home I decided that, while the meds might ultimately be necessary, before I started taking them I had to actually take my mental health seriously and do everything I could to get myself back to a more balanced place first. I put the white bag from the pharmacy on the counter, so I would see it every day as a reminder that “it’s either do everything you can to pull yourself out of this or take the pills.”

It’s important to say that I have nothing against depression meds, and I don’t want to contribute to the stigma associated with any mental health disease by suggesting that managing them is simply mind over matter. I know that for many that is not the case, and I applaud anyone who uses any means necessary to find balance and stability in their lives. I just knew that ultimately if I didn’t address my mindset and my lack of ability to take the rest of my life seriously, that I would continue to struggle with depression, with or without the meds.

Even though I still felt very unmotivated and low, I made an effort to get up early every morning in order to read about mindset, depression, success and health strategies. I changed what I was eating and made an effort to control the things that I actually had control over, instead of obsessing over the things I had no control over, and I tried to learn how to let go of the rest. It felt like giving up in some ways, but now I realize I was just giving up on the things I never controlled anyway. This process of letting go was very confusing for me. How do I achieve my goals if I accept that actually achieving them isn’t necessarily something I can control?

I ended up reading and listening to 20 books in a few months, which might not be a lot of reading for some, but for me, it was, and it was the start of something. I was starting to realize that sometimes the progress you need to make to keep moving forward in life isn’t necessarily the progress you expected.

It wasn’t easy to do any of this. I still felt bad. I still felt completely defeated, but I was forcing myself to at least try to make some changes, and it was having an effect. I was starting to have an understanding of why I felt so bad. It was becoming clear to me that how I was thinking about and approaching success and achievement was causing a lot of my mental health issues, stifling my motivation to continue towards my goals, creating stress in my relationships, and generally making me miserable to be around.

Two themes started to resonate with me during my studies. One is the difference between how having a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset can cause all sorts of limiting beliefs about one’s potential and keep one from putting forth the effort needed to succeed. The other is how setting outcome versus process-based goals can lead to focusing too much on the end result while ignoring many of the things required to achieve that result.

Fixed Versus Growth Mindset

In her book, “Mindset,” Carol Dweck goes into detail explaining the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Basically, according to Dr. Dweck, people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence, personality and ability are fixed, and that these characteristics can’t be changed. Thus they see the outcome of any challenge or test as a judgment on them personally.

Dr. Dweck explains that people with a fixed mindset “feel an urgency to prove themselves over and over, because if you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”

I could relate to this fixed way of thinking, as so many of my own struggles were due to how I was thinking about my successes and failures. I felt a very strong need to prove that I was good enough to ride at the top, and if I wasn’t winning or making teams I felt as though it meant I wasn’t good enough. I was jealous of the resources that I perceived other riders to have that I did not, and I blamed my failures on a lack of resources, because if I accepted responsibility for the inability to reach my goals then it meant I was a failure.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, according to Dr. Dweck, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.” And that “although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience. They believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

A growth mindset allows people to overcome challenges in their lives primarily because they don’t see their failures as a critique of their innate abilities but rather as opportunities to grow.

Dr. Dweck argues that a person with a growth mindset ultimately can become a more complete and successful person than a person with a fixed mindset: “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?

“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”

Shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset helped me begin to understand that any failures and difficulties I experience are not necessarily a judgment on my ultimate abilities but are simply a reflection of where I am in my journey currently. I started to think of and value learning above achievement, because as long as I am willing to keep learning, I am making progress, and as long as I’m making progress, I will get closer to achieving my ultimate goals.

Process Versus Outcome Goals

Once I began to understand that working on a growth mindset would be the most helpful and healthy way to work towards achieving my goals, I needed help understanding how to set goals that would keep me motivated and happy whether or not they could ultimately be reached. This is where I started to understand how to make different types of goals. There are actually a lot of ways to go about this and a lot of different theories, but, for me, looking at making process goals instead of what I had primarily been doing, outcome goals, seemed to be a good step.

Somewhat loosely defined, outcome goals are a result you’d like to achieve, and process goals are the processes you will need to repeatedly follow to achieve that result.

Some examples of outcome goals would be: losing weight, scoring in the 20s in dressage, going to the Olympics, etc. Some examples of process goals would be: creating meal plans, sitting with or talking with judges to learn from their perspective on dressage scoring, and talking to athletes who have gone to the Olympics and asking them about the steps they took to get there.

Outcome goals give us an endpoint or a direction. It’s important to know where you want to go. Most of us end up focusing on outcome goals because they are easier to track and easier to measure. “Lose 20 pounds.” “Score a 23.”

It’s easy to obsess about achieving these goals because focusing on how to achieve them is a much more complicated question. Also, society tends to count outcome goals as a higher measure of success than process goals. “Did you get an A on that test?” “Did you win the game?”

What happens when you don’t get an A or you didn’t win? Are you a loser? Do you just not have the ability to win? Maybe the other players are just better than you. Maybe you just weren’t smart enough or fast enough. These types of thoughts are typical fixed mindset reactions, and they can be destructive to our sense of self and our mental health.

The primary problem here is that most outcome goals are not completely within our control, and when we focus on things that are outside our control we become victims of our circumstances, and we often lose the motivation to keep pushing ourselves. One of my favorite quotes, “leaving one eye focused on your destination only leaves one eye with which to find the way,” helps to illustrate this idea and is something I try to remind myself of often when I am so laser focused on achieving a goal that I am tempted to start taking shortcuts.

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Think about the things you can control that will help you reach your goal, rather than focusing on the goal itself. Shannon Brinkman Photo

While outcome goals can be destructive, process goals are more conducive to actually feeling fulfilled on your journey towards a goal, and oftentimes are more useful in the actual accomplishment of your goal. Process goals consist of things that are within your control. They have mainly to do with your attitude, your behaviors, your thoughts, your level of effort and your actions. When we focus on the things we can control we can take ownership of our path, and we can make progress in any situation regardless of our circumstances.

The most successful coach in college basketball history, John Wooden, never talked to his players about winning or losing. In fact, he never even mentioned winning a championship to them. He only talked to them about their daily effort, their attitude and their responsibilities. Wooden understood that they could win a game without putting in their best efforts, and they could lose a game even when trying their best. Wooden rewarded effort over winning, because, at the end of the day, he knew that how much effort a person gives is all they can actually control. The outcome cannot truly be controlled, so it doesn’t make sense to focus on or put energy into worrying about it.

At first it may seem counter-intuitive and difficult to stay motivated if you direct your focus away from the fulfillment of a specific goal. This is why it’s important to set process goals, so it’s clear that the motivation is to consistently give your best effort, to learn, and to do your best to see the opportunity in every obstacle or challenge. These are the things that are within your control, and, whether you fulfill your outcome goal or not, you can feel good knowing you did everything you could.

Joshua Medcalf, coauthor of “Burn Your Goals,” calls these things “controllables” and recommends focusing on “your commitments and controllables.” By choosing to focus on these things you put the process of achievement in your own hands instead of in the hands of circumstances and other people.

I still struggle with maintaining a constructive mindset and setting the right kind of goals. It’s easy to get swept up in the old way of being, especially as I get closer to achieving some of my new outcome goals. Every day I have to consciously choose what I will focus on, and believe me, I slip up often.

Here are a few of my guiding principles that I have to remind myself of daily to stay on track with a growth mindset. Some I borrowed from different authors and speakers, and some are my own.

• Everything that happens to me today is in my best interest; it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. — Joshua Medcalf “Burn Your Goals”

• Do the best you can with what you have where you are. — Joshua Medcalf

• What CAN you do?

• What DO you control?

• Talk to yourself instead of listening to yourself. — Joshua Medcalf

• My value comes from who I am not what I do. — Joshua Medcalf

• Pursue excellence no matter what. — Joshua Medcalf

• The story you tell yourself about who you are will ensure your defeat or your success. Tell yourself a good story. — “Impact Theory” podcast

• Be honest and open.

• The only thing that matters today is who I become and how I treat other people. — Joshua Medcalf

• Be a learner. — “Impact Theory” podcast

• Manage your mindset more and your problems less.

Some ideas I try to keep in mind in order to focus on the process more and the outcome less are:

• Make an effort daily to learn and grow.

• Pursue excellence in everything I do.

• Help my horses reach their full potential.

• Help my students reach their full potential.

• Contribute to the sport that I love to ensure that it continues to thrive as a sport.

• Act with integrity, honesty, humility and respect.

• Be a good husband, friend, mentor, son and brother.

• Stay positive through challenges.

• Stay open to critics.

Focusing on these concepts is a daily push, but I can do these things no matter the circumstances. The only thing standing between me and success is me. I strongly believe that with the right kind of goals and the proper mindset, I will not only reach many of my goals in life, but I will also be a more focused, stable, happy, healthy, helpful and positive person in the process.

You might be asking why I’ve chosen to share this highly personal information with you, the anonymous and often critical internet. I am a pretty private and outwardly stoic person, so sharing this is not easy for me, but in exploring why I became so unhealthy and consumed by my Olympic pursuit, and then in my quest to find balance and meaning again, I realized that other people out there experiencing similar struggles may identify with my story and may find something within it helpful. I hope that I have convinced at least some of you that it is possible to keep working towards your seemingly impossible goals if only you can shift the way you think about the process.

As I wrote this, I also realized that the same issues and mindsets that have had a negative impact upon me personally can and do impact teachers, teams and yes, horses, in similar ways. Having outcome goals is important, for individuals as well as teams, in order to know where you want to go, but focusing too much on the outcome can cause a lot of unintended consequences and can actually limit progress towards those goals. Individuals, coaches and trainers with a fixed mindset can also adversely impact teams, relationships and equine partners as well.

In the second and third parts of this series, I will explore what I’ve learned during my studies about how too much emphasis on outcome goals and fixed mindsets can impact trainers, students, horses and teams, in the hopes that what I’ve learned about myself on a small scale can start a constructive conversation about the importance of mindset on a larger scale.

If you found any of the ideas in this article helpful here are some books that have helped me.

“Chop Wood Carry Water” by Joshua Medcalf
“Mindset” by Carol Dweck
“Grit” by Angela Duckworth
“Pound The Stone” by Joshua Medcalf
“Burn Your Goals” by Joshua Medcalf and Jamie Gilbert
“Energy Bus” by Jon Gilbert
“The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holiday
“The Essential Wooden” by Steve Jamison
“Coach Wooden’s Pyramid Of Success” by Jim Harrick and John Wooden
“Start With Why” by Simon Sinek


Matt Brown has been a lifelong student of the sport of three-day eventing, studying under masters such as Derek di Grazia, Volker Brommann and Denny Emerson. He also credits horseman and rancher George Kahrl for helping him learn how to create a trusting relationship between horse and rider.

Matt has been named to the USEF High Performance Training Lists since 2013. In April of 2015, Matt and his wife Cecily moved from California to Cochranville, Pennsylvania, to continue chasing his dream of representing Team USA. He was named as a reserve for the U.S. team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and finished the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in sixth place in 2017.

You can read all of Matt’s insightful blogs for the Chronicle here.

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