Check Your Goals…

Hanging around the worlds of education over the past 10+ years I’ve come to the conclusion that our goals are simply not powerful enough. To be more accurate, they really aren’t goals at all. They’re more like objectives, or maybe targets.

Moving up in rankings is not a goal. Achieving some threshold on a set of assessments is not a goal, nor is obtaining a desired pass rate. While there is nothing wrong with these activities, and in fact they can be significant steps forward, they need to be framed within larger and more meaningful aspirations in order to be impactful.

When thinking about goals I like to employ the “necessary and sufficient” rule that was first introduced to me in graduate school, when we were studying human reasoning and problem solving. We learned that certain concepts that are highly logical and well defined can be described by a set of conditions that are both individually necessary and collectively sufficient to define that concept. Take a square for example. If you know that a shape has 4 right angles and 4 equal sides that are all connected, you know that it must be a square. There is no ambiguity.

Clearly, few problems in life are so logical or well defined that they can be reduced to a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Yet I find helpful in setting and evaluating goals.

Once you have a working set of goals consider immersing yourself in a game of logic to help refine and test them. To test the sufficiency condition, ask yourself, “could I possibly achieve my vision without successfully completing this goal? If the answer is yes, then your “goal” is not actually a goal, but probably an objective or some lower level activity that might be helpful but not essential.  So keep trying, going progressively “higher” until you find one that is critical. To test the sufficiency condition imagine that your “goal” is successfully met to the highest possible degree and then ask yourself whether that success would result in meaningful change with regard to your overall vision.

Why is it important to make sure our goals are both necessary and sufficient? Well, the undeniable truth is that the complexities of the challenges we face today- especially in education- can only be addressed through powerful and clearly articulated visions and corresponding goals that can be translated into action. If we continue to invest our resources and energies (both individually and collectively) working toward goals that aren’t even goals, then we will never get unstuck and actualize the potential of our greatest natural resources – human capital.


About mbhuber2013

convener and co-founder of BTEP, instructor for Tanzania Study Abroad course; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at University at Buffalo

One response to “Check Your Goals…”

  1. Dave says :

    Thank you for some truly good morning mental “coffee”. I particularly like the perspective that measures and targets are not goals….I call that chasing the numbers, and as a former manager I know that this strategy has a very short shelf life with staff motivation no matter how rigorous the measure. I love the posts Mara, very helpful as always!


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