In such an environment, exceptional job performance is both required and expected. In a high-pressure workplace, when you lead a team of 70 people, it is imperative that everyone knows what is expected of them at all times. In my company, we formalize those expectations in writing, and through regular performance dialogs we check on how people are performing against those expectations. One of the ways we accomplish this is by setting up goals and objectives for them. In work-related terms, this is a good thing; people sometimes get off track, and goals and objectives help keep people aligned and moving forward at a similar pace and trajectory.
As the years go by, new employees seem more and more comfortable with this concept of being evaluated against specific goals. Even people brand new to the workforce seem to readily adapt to a "performance culture" in which words like "accountability", "performance objectives", and "meeting expectations" are thrown around like some bad version of buzzword bingo. The fact that they are able to adapt to this world indicates to me that they have experienced concepts like this long before they came of working age. And, of course, they have - and not just from our Sad American Education System (SASS.) They get it from all sides.
In the SASS, children learn early on that their performance will be subjectively assessed each day, and that if there performance is deemed substandard they will be subject to remedial measures with the goal of improving up to a minimum standard.
At home, they are given calendars and checklists for chores, homework, and other activities deemed necessary by the parent to ensure that the child remains task-oriented; poor performance is always noted and often punished.
It happens at school, at home, in organized sports, in places of worship, at holidays, and even in the mass media. As a matter of routine, our culture enforces the concept that in order to be successful, you must not only follow the rules, you must sacrifice your dreams and set lofty goals for yourself so that you can achieve goals which are often set by others. People who dream, and fail to achieve the goals set for them by the variety of established authorities they come into contact with, are viewed as having their heads in the clouds. Unless and until they conform, they are often ostracized by their teachers, parents, and others. And like Pavlov's dogs they recognize early that dreams are punished, and goals are rewarded, often whether they are achieved or not - and regardless of who set them in the first place.
Growing up, I knew very little of goals and objectives. To me, a "goal" seemed very clinical; it involved milestones and specific accomplishments, it was planned for in advance, and it is set in relative stone, all with a specific desired end state. Knowing me at the time, I probably looked it up in the dictionary and saw a definition kind of like this one:
1. the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.
Now, let me clear about something; that definition is not all bad. I am not suggesting that goals and objectives are inherently evil; far from it, as there are few things in the world that would be as good as they are unless someone had set a goal or objective to get something done. Without goals and objectives, our National Parks System would not exist, man would have never set foot on the Moon, and we never would have discovered a vaccine for polio.
No, where the danger occurs, where goals and objectives become mindless and potentially destructive to the individual, is in cases where goals and objectives are distanced from the most exceptional motivator of all - dreams.
When I was a child, I did not have goals that I wanted to achieve, or objectives I needed to attain. I simply had day dreams of what might come to pass in my life, reflections of my joys and passions of the moment that came straight from the heart. And I had dreams in spades. I dreamed of living on a desert island, of becoming a vet, of being an NHL goalie, of marrying Farrah Fawcett, you name it. I had dreams of such vividness, variety and frequency that I was called a "dreamer", someone who would never make it in the world because I lacked an orientation toward goals and outcomes in my life. "Get your head out of the clouds", my teachers would say, or you'll never "succeed in the real world." And since teachers were authority figures for me, I believed them.
I think that most kids start out as dreamers, and I believe that most kids would prefer to stay that way. Some people think that allowing kids to dream, at least once they get to school age, is insanity run amok, because dreamers never get anywhere, they just sit and dream all day long and never actually do anything. To such people I simply ask what the world would be like without dreams. Did Martin Luther Kind start out with a specific end state in mind when he wrote his "I Have a Dream Speech", or did he start with a general notion and hope that equality would be better than institutionalized racism? Do the thousands of professional and Olympic athletes in the world start out with a goal of making it in the pros, or simply with a passion to participate and have fun, regardless of their level of skill?
Well, possibly. Achievement comes in two distinct forms, that which is attained with dreams as the launching pad, and that which is attained without. It is possible to "succeed", by someone's definition, without the joyous, unfettered, amorphous freedom that dreaming provides. The question in my mind, though, is regarding sustainability of the success.
Every day I work with people who, for many of the reasons I mentioned above, have stopped dreaming so they can set goals for themselves in pursuit of success in the "real world." When I talk to them about what they want for themselves and their families, they always answer immediately: promotions, and learning more skills so they can get promotions, and getting more responsibility so they can get better jobs and more money so they can be successful. When I then ask what their dreams are - what they wish for, what they would do if they were brave, what motivates their hearts and inspires them - they always pause. Often, they pause for a long time. When they do speak, they go back to their professional goals. When I prod them further and give them permission to dream again, they usually have no idea how to answer the question, saying "it's been so long since I've thought about that, I have no idea." Then I ask another simple question: "Is the job you're doing today related to the dreams you had when you were younger?"
Ninety percent of the time, the answer is no.
These are people who have set goals and objectives for themselves - scholastic, professional, material - without allowing the wonder of dreams to invade their planning processes. They are satisfied with their achievements, or at least in the pursuit of them, but often cannot wait until they have "achieved" to a high enough level to pursue their dreams again. They recognize, if they are lucky, that they purposely subjugated their dreams for success in the world of reality, and hope to return to the world of dreams some day. For these people, their goals and achievements are not sustainable, and are in fact illusory. Need proof? How about the fact that they don't know how to dream anymore, and need permission to even consider doing so.
An alternate reality is one in which we never forget to dream, and while we may choose to pursue goals and objectives as we define success in our own terms, we never lose the ability to step back from the real world and dream again.
I want my children to dream as often as they wish, because a dream concentrates on the feeling of the heart; a goal or objective focuses on the analysis of the mind.
I want my children to dream for as long as they like, because a dream knows no end, interested instead in the joyful experience of the detours along the way; a goal is designed to avoid detours and thus never finds alternate paths.
I want my children to dream about whatever they want, because a dream is the exercise of the heart emboldened by what MIGHT be and COULD be; a goal or objective is the exercise of a mind restricted by what CAN be and SHOULD be.
And then, if it is important to them to do so, I hope they will have dreams that crystallize and energize their passions to the point where they will set goals that help them achieve success on their own terms, in their own time.