Don’t Set Goals. Instead, Build Systems.

Is what you’re doing getting you to where you want to go? How do you know?

“It’s no fun to reach the top of the ladder only to discover it’s propped against the wrong wall.”

You may have your ladder on the wrong wall, and that’s a problem.

For years, I had been a baseball pitcher who had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, I could never quite live up to what many people thought I was capable of. I made the Varsity team as a Sophomore in high school and was awful. The rest of my high school career was marked by lots of hype and few results. I was supposed to be something special when I got to college, yet that was not the result for my first two years. I was always being hyped up only to underperform.

During my sophomore year of college (2015), I decided that I was sick of this happening and set out to prove to myself that I could be better at this game than history had suggested. I invested the small amount of tax return money I had received into Driveline Baseball’s Online Max Velo program and set out with no intention other than to try not to suck anymore.

My initial purpose in devoting myself to training was to explore my potential. While it didn’t happen overnight, I did eventually get better. In fact, I got better than I could have ever imagined. My first “goal” was to throw 90. It has always been this number shrouded by mystery for me, and it was really the only concrete thing I wanted to prove to myself that I could accomplish from the beginning.  I saw guys on TV throwing 90 and wanted to find out if I could actually do it. Turns out, I could.

Soon thereafter, I went through an internal debate/crisis. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ve hit 90 now, what am I trying to do next?”. Instead of just plugging along trying to explore my potential, I decided that I would try to throw 92.

At that moment, I began to climb a ladder propped up against the wrong wall.

My purpose for playing baseball became chasing a number. While I did eventually get to most numbers I set out to achieve, it destroyed my desire to play the game of baseball. Each game became nothing more than a mound velo contest. I remember throwing a shut-out, being congratulated by my teammates, and saying, “Thanks, but I only hit 88.”
That’s ridiculous. This is not an indictment on anyone or anything other than myself. I do not want to get into a debate over the culture of baseball or anything macro. I am simply sharing my experience of scaling a ladder against the wrong wall.

On top of trying to reach a certain number, I was trying to achieve something else that that was ultimately detrimental to the enjoyment of my baseball career. Not only was I trying to throw harder and harder each time out, but I now had the stupid goal of trying to play professional baseball. This is a goal so uncontrollable by most athletes, especially someone at a small NAIA college, that it is not even worth thinking about. Easier said than done, I know. I felt that now since I had entered the 90 MPH club, I should be setting my sights higher. I should try to climb a higher wall that was more unpredictable than the first one. That was a mistake. Instead of setting my sights on professional baseball, I should have maintained my system of training each day with the intention to explore my potential. I likely would have achieved similar velocities but would have had upped the probability of in-game success. I can’t help but think I would have had a more successful senior season if my game days were anything more than a caffeine-laced mound velo contests with myself trying to make the scouts’ guns flash a 5 (95 MPH). I had too much ego to admit it to most, but I was destroying myself by climbing a ladder against the wrong wall.

On the surface, it looked like I was having the time of my life climbing the velocity ladder. Sure, there were some awesome parts — I’ll never forget the first time I threw 100 MPH on a pulldown or my summer 2016 Plyo Velocity day at Driveline. While there were plenty of incredible moments, climbing the wrong wall lead me to despise baseball. I had taken the life out of something I used to enjoy so much and was now dealing with the consequences of it. I had let societal expectations (“You threw 94, dude you are going pro!”) and my own foolishness distract me from continually plugging away, exploring my potential.

Don’t Set Goals. Develop Systems.

Last week, I encountered a quote by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. I heard it and something immediately clicked inside of me.

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

a comic strip about goals

What does this mean? In my experience, goals are a really horrible way to orient your life. That’s very contrary to most life advice you’ve received about accomplishing anything, but I believe that most people who do something great are really bad at explaining how they got there. I’m proud to say that the explanation for quitting baseball today is very different from the explanation I gave a month after moving on. It seems that I am continually peeling off layers of my experience that helps me get to the core that explains past and present behavior. I have been using this information to make better decisions so that I don’t end up making the same mistakes in the future.

I mentioned that something clicked inside of me when I encountered, “Losers have goals. Winners have systems.” I uncovered another layer of why I was able to accomplish what I did, and why I thought I disliked baseball. The goals were making me miserable. The goal set me up to fail. If I didn’t throw 95 in the game (I never did), it was a failure. I could have thrown a no-hitter, and I still would have been a bit dissatisfied that I hadn’t hit my velocity goal. Maybe you’ve had the same experience.

The system I had in place was consistent training and education. I dedicated myself to every component of training (Physical training, nutrition, sleep, recovery, etc.) as well as education so that I was able to understand what I was doing. This habit eventually became so ingrained that I was spending an average of four hours a day training alone. I would then return home and spend hours reading, watching videos, listening to S&C podcasts, and networking through social media. The system developed over time. Doing this consistently helped me bump into success.

The moment I put a goal in place that I couldn’t control (Get drafted), I lost my vision for what this whole thing was about. From the start, I had been fed up with mediocrity and wanted to prove that my history was not my potential. Nothing more, nothing less. I simply wanted to see what was possible with my long-levered, 6’5″ body that everyone seemed to believe had lots of potential. I wanted to see if they were right. I wanted to see if history had been a liar.

Develop a System that Climbs the Right Wall

You may be wondering how climbing the right wall and developing systems relate. Systems are the greatest way I have found to ensure one stays on the proper metaphorical wall. If you have a vision for where you want to go, you develop a system around that vision. Keep it small at first. For example, I have a vision to one day write multiple books. I want to test the waters of writing, so I write no less than 500 words before I do anything else in the morning. If I write exactly 500 words each morning for 30 days, I will have written 15,000 words. Stretch that out to a year, and that’s 182,500 words. You can see the compounding effects of an executed system in this example.

Continually operating within the system helps you to be on the proper wall. I am glad that what we set out to do is not often where we finish. Fortunately, operating in a system allows you to pivot when it becomes obvious that you need to. Systems keep you flexible; goals make you bull-headed.

Take a Personal Inventory

I want you to stop right now and take an inventory on whatever you’ve been doing. Whatever it has been that you’ve been up to, I want you to stop and reflect on what it is you’ve been up to and think about your ladder.

  • Which wall was your ladder against at the start?
  • Which wall is it against now?
  • If you get to the top of the wall you’re on now, how will you feel?
  • Is there another wall that you’re wanting to climb?

I strongly recommend that you keep your ladder against the correct wall.

Now, there’s still plenty of time for me to readjust the ladder. Heck, I’ll be 24 in 12 days. No matter your age, if you are above ground, you have time to move the ladder. The worst thing for you would be to scale a ladder you had no intention of climbing.

As Seth Godin so eloquently wrote:

Your first mistake was getting on the A53 bus, the one that goes crosstown instead of to where you’re going.

Mistakes like this happen all the time.

The big mistake, though, the one that will cost you, is staying on that bus.

I know it wasn’t easy to get on the bus. I know you got a seat. I know it’s getting dark outside. But you’re on the wrong bus, and staying on the wrong bus won’t make it the right bus.

If you really want to get where you set out to go, you’re going to have to get off the wrong bus.

Conclusion: Moving Your Ladder

If you’ve realized that you’ve gone too far up the wrong wall, you’re likely wondering how much time you’ve lost doing the wrong thing. The fact of the matter is that you have lost some time, but it is not too late. Although Elon Musk hasn’t created the time machine quite yet, you can get back to your system and begin to climb the properly placed ladder. The great part is that it often doesn’t take that long to climb the first 80%.

The Pareto Principle states that for many events, 80% of the results come from 20% of the work. You can get 80% there with very little effort in the grand scheme of things. Use this to your advantage. Now, squeezing out the last 20% requires 80% of the effort, and that’s where the greats in any endeavor are made. But, you can use the Pareto Principle to your advantage by getting yourself into the upper fifth of your potential in relatively minimal time.

Yes, you messed up. So did I. The worst thing for you would be to keep going up the wrong wall. Starting now, begin to descend down the wrong wall, develop your system, and restart your climb towards the thing you truly set out to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *