Are Your Students Setting the Right Goals?

Last month, I met with some college seniors to set some goals for the year. It was both an enlightening and hilarious experience, as student goals ranged from “I have no idea what to write down” to “I still want to be a professional athlete” to “I want to own a mansion and make a million dollars a year.”

The one trait they all had in common—their goals were all material ones. 

One Big Difference

One pattern that’s different today from each of the three previous generations is the type of goals students are setting. I’m sure you’ve observed the Millennials whose goals revolve around the desire to have financial prosperity and popularity. Since the dawn of the 21st century, this has been an increasing pattern: external goals versus internal goals. What’s up with that?

I enjoyed a marvelous conversation with Dr. Jean Twenge two years ago at our National Leadership Forum in Atlanta. She shared her hypothesis on this reality.

Jean Twenge’s theory suggests that increases in anxiety and depression we see today are connected to the shift from “intrinsic” to “extrinsic” goals in students. Intrinsic goals are ones that deal with one’s own development as a person, such as becoming competent in a career you’ve chosen or developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, in contrast, are connected to material rewards and other people’s judgments. They include objectives like high income, status and good looks. Twenge cites research that teens and young adults today are, on average, more oriented toward “extrinsic” goals and less toward “intrinsic” goals than they were in the past. You may recall the annual poll of college freshmen stating that most students today list “being well off financially” as more important to them than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” The reverse was true in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Problem with External Goals    

My problem is not merely that external goals are more superficial. There’s something more sinister going on than meets the eye. Consider the examples of intrinsic vs. extrinsic goals above. Do you see a pattern in the differences? The fact is, extrinsic goals are, in actuality, less in the hands of the goal setter. They are goals that depend on external forces to comply; they are not in the control of the one who sets the goal.  This can be a problem.

I’ve written before about the work of Dr. Julien Rotter in the 1950s. He created a questionnaire determining whether students had an “internal locus of control” or an “external locus of control.” In short, did they believe their success was within their reach and up to them—or was it up to external forces or other people.

Psychologist Peter Gray writes,

“The shift toward extrinsic goals could well be related causally to the shift toward an External locus of control. We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. I can, through personal effort, quite definitely improve my competence, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get rich. I can, through spiritual practices or philosophical delving, find my own sense of meaning in life, but that doesn’t guarantee that people will find me more attractive or lavish praise on me. To the extent that my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals, I can control my emotional wellbeing. To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others’ judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state.”

Double Win: Two Good Reasons to Help Your Students Set Internal Goals      

Two big reasons I work with students to set internal goals is that I want to cultivate in them an “internal locus of control.” I want them to believe that success is within their reach, and that personal, internal goals are more satisfying than external ones. When they do, they also experience more peace of mind. So, as you mentor your students, let me suggest the following:

  1. Have your students write down their goals for this year.
  2. Help them evaluate whether their goals are more external or internal.
  3. Coach them to re-write any external goals, converting them into internal ones.

Not only will these goals be more rewarding, but they might just help those students decrease their anxiety. I’d call that a double-win.

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The Art of Self-Leadership helps young people:

  • Build strong character based on integrity and emotional security
  • Develop habits of self-discipline and initiative to achieve their goals
  • Choose their own set of core values for making wise decisions in life.

Are Your Students Setting the Right Goals?