Do your goals keep failing? Here’s why.

Goal setting is in the fabric of our human nature. Even from a young age, our brains are wired for reward. When a child climbs the ladder on the slide for the first time, they get to the top and feel exhilarated. “Mum, did you see that!? I did it by myself!” When they practice their spelling and then get it right in the test, there is that same sense of achievement. Whether it’s riding a bike without training wheels or saving money for our first car, we’re naturally pushing ourselves to achieve, progress and get to a new goal. And the harder the task, the greater the reward.

Let's do this!

Training a young brain to stretch and reach for targets that are a little beyond them is part of helping them to grow and reach their potential. They are learning an important life principle:

Reward for effort.

One of the goals in raising a child is to instil the belief that with a little application, focus and training, we can actually achieve things that we thought were beyond us. We call this a “Growth Mindset” – that my potential is unknown and growth IS achievable. When young people believe they can do it, their brain learns that effort makes them stronger.

A working definition of Growth Mindset:

“The belief that my potential is unknown and growth IS achievable.”


At 3 years old, Max was intimidated by the size of the spider web rope climb at his local park. It was so high! But he kept seeing his brother confidently climb, so it built a belief that he could do it also. Each week, he would go a little higher, until one day he called out, “MUAHUMMM! MUM! LOOK!” Standing proudly at the top, Max had achieved his little goal.

At 6 years old, it was subtraction at school that had him stumped. But he didn’t quit – he just kept building little neural pathways of belief that he would get there eventually. And those were the words of Mum and Dad… “You’ll get there! A month ago, you couldn’t add! Now you’re doing it everyday!” Soon enough, he had it mastered.

Last year, Max missed out on the under 14’s regional cricket team. But instead of quitting, he asked a family friend to coach him. He started doing a little bit of gym and running each day. His bowling is getting quicker and he has started getting noticed. The setback of last year has served as motivation to go harder. Over the years, Max has developed a growth mindset, that with a clear goal and some effort, he can achieve.

Why goal setting is central to a growth mindset

Adolescents are growing their confidence and self-belief. They are busily working out what works and what doesn’t work. They are forming their identity and are often anxious about whether they have what it takes to make it.

Unfortunately, many teens are crippled by a fear of failure. They stop trying in key areas of growth, and the potential for embarrassment or disappointment can be stronger than the hope for achievement and success. This “fixed mindset” is often the difference between whether a teenager will flourish or retract; whether they will break through quitting points, or be defeated at the mere thought.

Setting and achieving goals is an essential part of developing a growth mindset. Every time a teenager takes on a difficult challenge and is successful, it confirms the belief that with some time and effort, they can achieve the results they want. By setting and reaching goals, a student builds resilience in the brain, knowing that difficult things are not the end story, and they can get through anything with some focus and determination.

So why do some of our goals fail?

Achieving our goals doesn’t happen by accident. If you (or your child) failed a goal, it’s because something was missing. Either:

  1. It wasn’t a clear goal
  2. It wasn’t a realistic goal
  3. You didn’t have a clear plan to reach the goal
  4. You didn’t execute your plan


They may think they have a goal, but if the goal isn’t clear or realistic or measurable, it will inevitably fail. And failure to achieve even a vague goal can actually create self-doubt and a “fixed-mindset” that blocks our belief that we can achieve more. In other words, having a half-baked goal that we don’t achieve can cause more harm than good.

“Having a half-baked goal that we don’t achieve can cause more harm than good”

You see,

  • Losing weight isn’t a goal. It’s an ideal.
  • Running fast isn’t a goal. It’s an ambition.
  • Get a good job is not a goal. It’s a wish.
  • Achieving my best is not a goal. It’s actually a defence for when we don’t quite reach our potential.

Creating goals that don’t fail

There’s a huge difference in having a desire or a hope, and actually making it a firm goal. If you want your child or student or even yourself to achieve a goal, then the best way to do it is to use the SMART goal process. SMART is an acronym that defines the 5 essential ingredients in creating goals that work. The “S” stands for Specific. “M” is for Measurable. “A” is for Achievable. “R” is for Relevant. And the “T” is for Time-bound.

Creating goals that don’t fail require us to be deliberate and concise. Taking these 5 steps will ensure your goals don’t fail, and that if they fail the first time, there is a reflection and learning process that proceeds.

The SMART Goal process

SPECIFIC – Name exactly what you want the outcome to be.

Wrong: I want to buy my first car.

Right: I want to save $2000 for my first car.

MEASURABLE – How do you measure success? What quantity, time or size.

Wrong: I’ll save however much I can.

Right: $2000 is my measurement. Breaking it down, I’ll save $100 each week, and in 20 weeks I will have my $2k.

ACHIEVABLE – How will you accomplish your goal?

Wrong: I’ll try my best to save. Not sure if I can do it but I hope so.

Right: I’ll need to work 2 shifts a week, and stop buying coffee or spending so much on weekends. I’ll put the $100 into savings first, then live off the rest.

RELEVANT – Why is this important to do now?

Wrong: I just want a car. It’d be cool to have one.

Right: I want to do a road trip at Christmas for schoolies. If I don’t start saving now, it’ll be too late and I’ll miss the trip, or worse, I’ll have to ask Mum to drive me.

TIMELY – When will you complete your goal?

Wrong: When I have enough money.

Right: In 20 weeks, it will be 15th September. I can start looking for a cheap car then. And I’ll keep saving so I can afford rego and some petty.

SMART Goal examples

Adrian, 15yrs:

S – I want to get into the top Maths class when we start Year 10 next years.

M – They say if I get 85% in end of year exams, I can qualify.

A – I need to study more. I’m going to commit 1hr a day to Maths. But not on weekends J

R – I’ve gotta take my study seriously now or I won’t get into Yr11-12 subjects, which means I won’t get into the Uni course I want. And Mum said she’d take me to Gold Coast if I got in!

T – I’ll know at the end of Term 4.


Connie, 17yrs:

S – I want the school record for shotput. I nearly got it this year. It’s 13.42m

M – 13.42m is my goal. I got 12.8m this year.

A – I’ll achieve it by training every afternoon, doing weights, and improved technique.

R – I’ve only got one more year of high school. Last shot. Literally J

T – 13th June is our Athletics Carnival.


Sam, 16yrs:

S – I need a job that gives me enough work for $100wk. That’s my goal. Get a job by Easter.

M – Easter holidays is my target.

A – I’ve written my resume. Now I’m going to approach a new place each day. I won’t just leave it at the counter, but wait till I can personally hand it to a manager.

R – I’m sick of being home all holidays. I want to work, get out, maybe buy a new surfboard.

T – My goal is Easter, which gives me 4 weeks.


Goals are ambitions that we can measure. We can know clearly if we achieved them. We can put them on a timeline and see our progress.

SMART Goals are your plan. They are your map for success. And these SMART Goals are the quickest way to developing a growth mindset. If your goals aren’t SMART, then you are just hoping to get lucky.

[SMART goals feature in the MyStrengths approach to building Strength-based schools. Enquire now about how the MyStrengths team can help you could adopt a fully integrated strengths strategy for your school or organisation by using the MyStrengths Dashboard. Read here about using SMART goals within the Dashboard.]



Picture of Dan Hardie

Dan Hardie

Dan is a counsellor and the founder of MyStrengths

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