In a recent Reader’s Digest article, best-selling author and ex-teacher Philip Pullman put his finger on what’s gone horribly wrong with the teaching of English in schools today and points the way to a common goal-setting mistake made by millions of people. It’s the mistake of turning goal-setting into project management. They’re not the same.

According to modern thinking by educationalists, particularly those setting examination questions, when a child now reads a set piece of writing they are: “tested for their ability to decode, select, retrieve, deduce, infer, interpret, identify and comment.” Reading for enjoyment doesn’t enter into it any more. Allowing reading to work its own magic has been dumped in favour of scientific analysis.

Philip Pullman says, “They have turned reading a book into a chore. They have squeezed and analyzed it to death in order to create systems that can be measured and tested. They force every response to a piece of writing through a mesh, so it comes out black or white, yes or no, this or that. So it can be tested and measured.”

Arguably they have done this for all the right reasons at the time. Teams of well-meaning experts have put scientific ideas into modern practice so they can quantify and measure a child’s progress in the best interests of the child and the teacher. Again, it is all sensible, logical, universally accepted and most certainly well-meant. But does it work? In particular, has adding science to goal setting been good or bad. I thank bad. Very bad.

There was less science, less analysis in the fifties and sixties. Yet this was a generation who put men on the moon, created the Corvette Stingray and the Jaguar XKE, the Boeing 747 Jumbo and Concorde, broke sound barriers, space barriers, race barriers and generally created a world looked upon with great nostalgia. Despite reams of experts, the 2006 generation has produced nothing like that level of achievement. Arguably educational excellence has diminished.

In the world of self-improvement and goal-setting, the experts and gurus have taken on board exactly the same institutionalized thinking currently taking place in schools, that is to use the principles of science to analyze things to the nth degree and break things down, logically and sensibly into a situation where things can be measured, tabulated and project-managed.

Because of this thinking the goal setting techniques you read about today are only partially correct. As a result they only partially work.

Modern goal setting has been taken over by a new tool masquerading as goal setting. Goal setting has become Project Management. And once again it makes perfect sense. The idea of breaking down a process into manageable steps, having a well-defined deadline you can work to, making each step measurable so you can compare it with your original time estimate and make course corrections is wonderful, perfect and highly laudable project management. But it’s not goal setting.

The modern interpretation of goal setting is to set a goal as a targeted desire. We give it a time-frame (by the 6th April I will have …) and then plan how to achieve it. Finally we break down the plan into manageable time-steps. As we go along we revisit the timing of our plan, making corrections as necessary.

This is not goal setting, it’s project management and it has a major flaw. What if you haven’t got a clue how to get the goal you’ve set yourself? What if your dream, your goal, was so distant that your education and upbringing never gave you the tools to even consider how you could achieve it? Without knowing how to do something, this system will not let you go any further than dreaming.

The fact is that true goal-setting has less rules and more success. By going back to basics we rediscover that goal-setting has an extra and magical property that can seemingly work miracles. But here I have ventured into the Badlands of modern thinking. Magic and Miracles are ridiculed by science which not only demands proof but also repeatability. If it cannot be reproduced in a lab, it’s not science. Therefore love isn’t science, art isn’t science, giving your life to save a stranger’s child is not science. But they exist just the same, as does the magic in goal setting.

The object of goal setting is to allow IT to come up with the plan. Then we take the plan and project manage it. It’s two separate processes. Sometimes, and this is true scientific heresy, the goal just happens, complete, without needing a plan. Things just happen. That’s why, for example, it’s a good idea not to put a date on a goal. You put a date on a plan.

But is it really magic? Is there no science here? I think this depends on what you call magic. The two hotbeds of modern scientific thinking are astro and quantum physics and people who work there are basically off their heads in relation to standard science. For example, the current thinking in Astrophysics is that there’s too much gravity about. Their equations don’t equate. So the Universe is now made up of 4% matter (stuff we can see), 22% dark matter (stuff we can’t see so we don’t know if it exists or not) and 74% dark energy (stuff we’ve just invented to make equations work better), a situation that David B Cline wrote in Scientific American as "mainly as expressions of our ignorance", much as the marking of early maps with Terra Incognita (unknown land)).

Science has actually come full circle and the ‘magic’ in goal-setting can be given a scientific explanation, if only by those scientists who are off their heads. But that’s another story.

Author's Bio: 

Philip Gosling is author of Success Engineering ( A former nuclear physicist he is now a successful international speaker, writer and web-entrepreneur with several books and self-help courses.