There was a short, insightful post by Seth Godin a few days ago about goals that really hit home with me. I've recreated it in full below (italics mine):
Doing goal setting with friends and colleagues is always motivating and invigorating for me. You hear things ranging from, "I want to help this village get out of poverty," or "I want to double our market share," or "I want to be financially independent."
What you rarely hear is, "I don't want to fail," "I don't want to look stupid," or "I don't want to make any mistakes."
The problem is that those goals are really common, and left unsaid, they dominate. If your goal is not to be called on in class, that's a largely achievable goal, right?
Think about how often your goal at a conference or a meeting or in a project is, "don't screw up!" or "don't make a fool of yourself and say the wrong thing." These are very easy goals to achieve, of course. Just do as little as possible. The problem is that they sabotage your real goals, the achievement ones.
It's not stupid to have a stated goal of starting several ventures that will fail, or asking three stupid questions a week, or posting a blog post that the world disagrees with. If you don't have goals like this, how exactly are you going to luck into being remarkable?
I see a lot of parallels here with regard to developing a race strategy and then executing it. How many times have you gone into a race with a plan to run X-minute pace or to stick with That Guy, only to find yourself doing something completely different mid-race? How often have you made a split-second decision during a race that was the opposite of what you told yourself you'd do?
You could look at these situations and say, "well, you can't overplan your races, you need to just react, to just compete." That's more or less what Matt Tegenkamp said about his Beijing performance recently, after he didn't execute the plan he had prepared and finished 13th in Beijing. And there's some truth to that, for sure. But to be able to approach a race that way, you have to have no unspoken goal "not to mess it up."
My guess is that Teg went to Beijing with spoken goals (get a medal, put yourself in a position to medal, conserve as much energy as possible in the prelims without taking unnecessary risks, etc.) but also at least one unspoken goal: don't do anything stupid that will mess everything up. And it's that unspoken goal that paralyzes you mid-race, when you're trying--in a split second--to figure out if you're doing anything stupid or not.
I'm not trying to pick on Teg, really, and for all I know I'm wrong about his particular goals. I do know I've gone into races where I was saying one thing (perhaps to convince myself) but reacting based on something else. Often I was reacting based on a fear of the unknown. ("He went already? Should I go with him? What if I blow up? Or get stranded in no man's land? Oh crap the race is over.")
And then when the race was over, I always rationalized some external factor as being the reason things didn't go as I said they would. ("I don't know what happened, coach. My legs didn't feel that good and I couldn't tell my splits and he kind of surprised me and and and...") I never said to myself, "you had an unspoken goal to run a safe race and not embarrass yourself, and you weren't ready to take the necessary risks or experience the necessary pain."
I think this idea of an unspoken goal is incredibly insightful. It has helped me to put so much of my past running experience into a different perspective. I encourage you to take a moment and think about whether you're not doing the same thing to yourself. If you're not sure whether you do it or not, think about the last thing you mutter to yourself as you step to the line. That's your unspoken goal.
I'll end by returning to Seth's last paragraph, but I'll change it for a more running-centric message:
It's not stupid to have a stated goal of running a race strategy with a losing-be-damned attitude, or making a reckless move mid-race, or even entering a race with no goals at all. If you don't set goals in open contrast to your natural approach, how exactly are you going to luck into being remarkable?