Is Success Really Tied to Goals?

by | Apr 19, 2012 | 2 comments

Any book or speaker on success points out the need for setting goals. In fact, if you have heard many motivational speakers or read books on the topic, you have heard the story of the 3% many times. It goes something like this.

Back in 1953, the graduates of Yale were surveyed to find out who had written definite goals for their future. The result was that only 3% of them did. Then, 20 years later (in 1973) these same graduates were again surveyed. And of all the graduates, those in the 3% who had written goals had achieved more and made more money than the other 97% of graduates.

Is the 3% rule of goal setting true?

The details of the story are often embellished. Sometimes you will hear it coming from Harvard. The story is often followed up by telling us that we need to all set goals if we expect success.

Goals study Challenge

Here is the shocker. The story is NOT TRUE. Tons of reputable authors and speakers use this story – but it is NOT true. I had used this same story since I had heard it so often, but one day as I was planning a talk I thought I would research it so that I could give some real details. In my search, our found no such study ever documented. In fact, I did find this from Yale about the 1953 3% study:

“It has been determined that no “goals study” of the Class of 1953 actually occurred. In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one’s goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period. The secretary of the Class of 1953, who had served in that capacity for many years, did not know of the study, nor did any of the fellow class members he questioned. In addition, a number of Yale administrators were consulted and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study. There was no relevant record, nor did anyone recall the purported study of the Class of 1953, or any other class.”

So we skip goal setting? 

The reason I write this now, is because my last post on overplanning. Often goal setting can become part of the overplanning process.

I personally still think goals are highly valuable – but we have to have some balance. More on that next time.


What do you think?

Is goal setting useful for you?

Has setting goals helped you achieve anything? 


BTW – someone did do a study to prove goals work. Not near as impressive in scope, but a good start. And not by Harvard or Yale. See about the goals study at Dominican University.

About the Author

Dale Callahan

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  1. Andrew Webster

    There’s a very good book called “Succeed: How we can reach our goals” by Carol S. Dweck and Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D that goes into the research Heidi Halvorson on how goal-setting actually works. Terms like “reticular activating mechanism” come up!

    Carol Dweck has written another very interesting book called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” that looks at how people end up with either a fixed or a growth mindset, and how that affects our ability to have great lives.

    Tempting though it can be to think of goal-setting as being very hand-wavy and tree-huggy, these two books make it abundantly clear that there are good solid biological/psychological mechanisms in operation around goal-setting. Understanding these mechanisms means one can have some power around doing life, rather than having life do you!

  2. Dale

    So true – the mental game here is critical. We just have to be careful not to become professional goal setters!

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