Jun 092011

Do Goals Really Matter?

Apparently The “1953 Yale Goals Study” Never Happened

“The importance of developing and pursuing clear goals has been established.” That’s how I had intended to start this post. Early on in my career, I had heard or read that there had been a study done of the 1953 Yale graduating class and the “success” they had achieved. The study supposedly found that the 3% of 1953 Yale graduates who had set clear, written goals had amassed more wealth than the other 97% of graduates combined. I guess I had taken that for granted in all the intervening years.

As it turns out, as far as anyone at Yale knows, such a study never took place. Here’s the statement from their website:

It has been determined that no “goals study” of the Class of 1953 actually occurred. In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one’s goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period. The secretary of the Class of 1953, who had served in that capacity for many years, did not know of the sudy, nor did any of the fellow class members he questioned. In addition, a number of Yale administrators were consulted and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study. There was no relevant record, nor did anyone recall the purported study of the Class of 1953, or any other class.

Source: http://faq.library.yale.edu/

This surprised me, as for so long, I like many other business people, athletes, consultants and coaches I know, had taken this for granted. So I decided to do some further research. As if hearing it directly from Yale wasn’t enough, in a quick Google search, I found a link to a Fast Company magazine article that comes to the same conclusion: the 1953 Yale “study” never happened – it appears to be a myth that was latched onto by a few and simply caught on over time. See the Fast Company article here: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/06/cdu.html.

Ok, so as a coach, a business person, a parent, a consultant, an athlete, a human being who has preached and used goals quite effectively my whole career, these findings left me in a state of “cognitive dissonance.” That is, something that I thought I knew and had taken for fact was now de-bunked, leaving me in a state of confusion. So I decided to do some more research. Frankly, I did not find anything particularly convincing, in the form of a credible longitudinal study that shows the positive effects of goal-setting. I will have to do more research, but in the meantime, I’d be interested to know if anyone else can point me to credible sources.

I did find one study by Professor Gail Matthews at Dominican University, which looked at goal-setting and achievement over a much shorter period of four to six weeks. Her study had three main findings, according to the summary she posted:

1.) Accountability is important: those who committed to and followed through on sending progress reports to a friend achieved significantly more than those who did not.
2.) Public commitment matters: those who sent their commitments to a friend accomplished significantly more than those who just wrote action commitments or did not write their goals.
3.) Writing your goals is important: those who wrote down their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not.

Professor Matthews does not have a full copy of the study up on her site as of this writing, but you can see her site here and you can see a copy of the study summary in PDF form here. If you have any problem accessing the PDF of the summary, let me know, as I downloaded a copy.

Well, having Professor Matthews’ study out there helps to regain some confidence in third party validation of the importance of written goals. That said, it does not look at a very long period of time and since the study’s details are not provided (yet, at least), it’s hard to know exactly what was studied. It appears to me that there’s room for a great deal more study in this area.

So, we are left without a great deal of secondary data to make a determination about the value of goal-setting. At this point, I can only reflect on my own experiences in all aspects of life – those where I set written goals and those where I didn’t and the associated outcomes. On balance, based on my experiences and those I’ve seen of my colleagues and clients, my belief is that having written goals is very important. I also believe that, just as with a business plan, a lot of the value comes in the process of developing the goals, in committing to a course of action, rather than in the plan or the goals themselves. As we all know from experience, life always throws a lot of “curve balls,” so it’s important to be adaptive, but it is also important to have at least some idea of where you want to go. If you don’t, as the saying goes, “you’ll probably end up somewhere else”.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin

  • MaAnna

    Interesting, and I’m stunned there is not more hard data on this topic. I’ve never been one to write goals down, and I’ve often found them to be a carrot in front of my horse that helped lead me down a certain path. Once I came near to the destination, I usually found more opportunities than I could have imagined at the start. So , I tske a moment, eat the carrot, and re-evaluate the initial goal. I think it’s a good idea to be fluid as long as it’s not just a habit of becoming constantly distracted and running off toward unproductive tangents.

  • Thanks for your comment. Yes, I too was surprised that I did not find more hard data out there on this topic. It may exist (it must!), but a relatively quick search didn’t bring up much, as I mentioned in the post. I agree with your comment and like the horse/carrot metaphor that you use. I have found goals to be very important in my own ventures (and adventures!) and in those of my clients. The key is to keep focused, as you point out in your closing remark, which may be the toughest goal of all!

  • Brian Tracy, in his book, “GOALS!” make reference to a similar study, but at Harvard in 1979. He referenced Mark McCormack’s book, titled “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” It’s the same particulars, 3% had clear, written goals and plans; 10 years later; and 10 times the earnings as the other two groups (97%) combined. This might be the study in question. I’d be interested to hear if you find out anything!

  • Hi, Jim. Thanks for your comment. I did not find any conclusive evidence that the “Harvard goals study” actually took place. Similar to the “Yale goals study,” it appears to be urban myth. If anyone has conclusive information to contrary, I’d love to know about it. Thanks, Paul

  • Pingback: Happy New Years! Some 2012 thoughts on resolutions « adVentures in Business()

  • Andreas M

    Has Dr. Matthews published her full study somewhere (couldn’t find anything yet)? There are some details that would interest me and are not cited in the summary.

  • Hi, Andreas. I have not seen anything further from her study. Please let me know if you get your hands on anything! Paul