A Coaching Power Tool created by Prakash Nedungadi
(Business Coach, INDIA)
Goals vs. Obligations: the opposing perspectives Imagine you are on a small boat sailing on the sea, with an idea to reach a point on the coast of a land where you are safe, satisfied and fulfilled. You see a lighthouse near that point and you know that if you follow the beacon from that lighthouse, it will help you get your boat quickly and purposefully to that shore. You use the beacon to constantly stay true to your direction, to navigate through the winds and tide. You start moving faster and more smoothly as well, because you are surer of where you have to reach. Since you can point to the lighthouse clearly to your teammates and crew, they find it easy to follow you. Ultimately, you pass the lighthouse, wave to it in gratitude for its guidance and then alight on the shore, truly feeling joyous of a voyage well done. You look forward to the next voyage and to search for a new shore and lighthouse to follow. Now imagine if you were back on boat in the sea where we started. However, that lighthouse which was near the shore suddenly was lifted from where it was and put on your boat! Picture yourself carrying that heavy, bulky structure on the deck. It’s getting in the way of everything. Navigating becomes difficult and speed slows down because of the weight. You curse the lighthouse, but you don’t let it go because you believe it takes you to the shore where you want to go. In the process of manipulating your way through the ship, you get in the way of your teammates and keep putting pressure on them to “mind the lighthouse”. Since you are strong and determined, you finally reach the shore, tired and spent, relieved and yet frustrated with the lighthouse because it made everything so difficult. You try to enjoy the shore with your teammates but it’s tough because you dread the next voyage that you inevitably need to take. This is how goals (for which I have used the metaphor of the lighthouse on the shore) are empowering in a person’s life – through creating anticipation, direction and clarity – and how when the same goals become obligations (for which the metaphor is the lighthouse on the boat itself), they can dis-empower by becoming a burden that you have to carry.
Note that in various contexts, goals, obligations (and objectives) are often used interchangeably. In this case, we are interpreting “obligation” as something that a person feels forced or “obliged” to do or achieve (and the obligation could be self inflicted) while a goal is something that he/she chooses to do or try to achieve. Indeed as a report from The Independent stated:
Young people who fail to achieve their life goals by the age of 30 are seen as “failures” by their peers and are under so much pressure to succeed that they sacrifice their health and leisure for success, a report has found.
(The report was from the Operations Research Corporation International amongst 1,000 24-30 year old youths in the UK)
You see this sometimes in sports, when, during a championship game, the coach or management makes its team so obsessed with winning, so pressured to “do-or-die”, that they start slowing down, making unforced errors, pointing fingers at each other or stop acting spontaneously with a great play. Due to this self-inflicted obligation, they also rationalize cheating and other forms of unethical behavior. As Michael Josephson of the Josephson Ethics Institute says:
the pressure to win in high profile schools is so great that it is almost impossible to resist rationalizing. So when competitors cheat or indulge in other unethical practices, the tendency is to redefine the ground rules rather than be at a disadvantage. The same is true in business, leading to unethical practices….
Vivek was a very successful business executive who had risen through life against several odds to a senior position in a company. He had excelled in school, in college and was always amongst the top of his class. He joined a very good company and immediately took on high targets and drove himself and his team to achieve them. Since he was intelligent and worked hard, it was possible for him to succeed and to be recognized through promotions to senior positions. But Vivek seemed tense all the time and worried about his targets constantly. Right through a project, he would be tense and nervous. His ability to think freely and creatively suffered. However, he plodded on and his strength and resilience would see him through. Even at the end of a project, when he had achieved outstanding results, Vivek could not really celebrate. He was too tired and had already started dreading the thought of the next goal he had to achieve. He put pressure on his team and family and even his friends noticed that he was always “intense”. When they told him this, he retorted “Of course, I’m tense! Shouldn’t I be, since I am obliged to get this target done?” Even on a leisure trek with his family, he would be worrying about how to get to the destination and put pressure on them to hurry to do so. It came to a stage after several years, when Vivek wanted to abandon all goals since he saw them as the shackles of obligations and wondered if his career and life had been worthwhile at all.
Obligation may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning
How do we handle goals as empowering tools rather than as dis-empowering burdens? It does not seem to be an easy question to answer. Read many articles on achieving goals (e.g. your New Year resolutions) and they will tell you that the first thing to do is to put yourself under pressure to achieve them. “Tell your friends and family about your goal,” they say, and it increases the peer-pressure on you to stick to your goal. It does make sense. However, think of what it does to you…does the pressure sometimes make you want to cheat, just a little bit? Do you feel bad about yourself when the obligation is not getting done? Does it make you unnecessarily tense while you are achieving it? And after some time, if you keep moving from goal to goal, from one New Year resolution to another, does it become something you infact, deep inside you, dread?