Not Trying to Be Good: What We Can Learn from Babies about Goal Setting


My goal for 2015 is not to be good.

And don’t worry: my goal is not to be bad either.

Instead, as I look forward to 2015, my goal is to be better.

“Be good” goals are end result goals that simply serve to prove your talent or ability. For instance, winning an award or getting a promotion are “be good” goals. “Get better” goals are goals that focus on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.   Examples of “get better” goals include exercising three days a week, learning a new language or reading a book a month.

“Be good” goals are attractive because it is comforting to believe we have the ability to get our goals. We want to be good enough to win and to get promoted. It says something about who we are: smart and capable.   And there is nothing wrong with wanting to prove that we are smart and capable.

But “get better” goals are more effective because they instill the idea that we can get the ability to achieve our goal irrespective of our current ability. These goals say something about our confidence in ourselves to figure out how to do something, even if we don’t currently possess that skill. We can show up at the gym three times a week, and we can sit down with a book for 20 minutes each evening studying or reading, even if we never have done so in the past.

“Be good” goals prove we have a lot of ability and that we already know what we are doing. But that proof of ability backfires on us when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult. The result: anxiety and a loss of motivation. After all, if making mistakes is evidence of our incompetence, why keep trying if we are risking looking even more foolish?

“Get better” goals are practically devoid of these problems because when we are thinking of goals in terms of learning and mastering a skill it is much easier to accept the inevitable mistakes along the way. Anxiety is absent because errors are normal, and our motivation stays with us despite setbacks.

Think about a baby learning to walk. If the baby’s goal was to “be good” at walking the baby would give up immediately because it takes at least a year to become a strong walker. But since a baby’s goal is to simply “get better” at moving through the world each day (while testing our skills as baby-proofers), the baby simply keeps trying with very little loss of enthusiasm along the way.

Babies are not alone in this “be good” versus “get better” goal efficacy. A Leigh University study illustrates how “be good” goals effects academic performance. Two groups of students were asked to take a test. The first groups was told that the test was a measure of how smart they are (“be good”), and the other was told that the test was an opportunity to learn a new problem solving skill (“get better”).   Then the scientists gave the students an exam where the questions became increasingly difficult, including some with unsolvable problems.

Would there be any difference in the results between the two groups?

The difference was significant. Those pursuing the “be good” goal on test did worse on the test as they grew more frustrated with the questions, but the “get better” goal test takers were completely unaffected by the difficulty of the questions.

Think about the work in your own life. I suspect you find work more interesting and enjoyable when you think about it in terms of progress rather than perfection. Personally, I am quite aware that if my goal was to write a perfect blog this year (be good) no one would be reading anything I wrote because the level of anxiety to be perfect would have long diminished my motivation to post.

But since my goal was simply to write two blog posts a week (be better), each week I have met that goal with some pretty good results along the way.

I am sold on the “get better” mentality.

Yet as I think more and more about “be good” versus “get better” goals, I am wondering if we are not making some unintentional errors in how we are guiding gymnasts through this sport.

In a sport where anxiety and loss of motivation are two of the primary reasons kids leave it, would we not benefit our kids if we helped them reframe their “be good” goals into “get better” goals?

Would it not make more sense to give permission to not do everything perfectly from the start, to acknowledge that there is a learning curve and that improvement takes time?

Ought we not consider removing the focus from “selecting talent” (a fixed trait, be good quality) to “developing abilities” (a growth trait, get better quality)?

Should we think more carefully about the unintended consequences that result from competition formats at very beginning levels and young ages that award placements in rank order (“be good”) instead of individual achievement (“be better”)?

I am not sure I have all the answers, but am throwing out the questions for us to reflect on as we enter a pre-Olympic year.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on “be good” versus “get better.”