Multi-Dimensional Goal-Setting

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This is something I’ve talked about in my Make Your Nerves Work For You sessions at various events over the years, but I think it’s worth mulling over in a wider context too. Goal-setting is not just about managing performance psychology, after all. (Though I think this wider context does help draw attention to the way that things we think of as specifically performance-related issues are often rooted far deeper in our whole relationship with our praxis.) And first blog-post of the New Year feels like a good moment to share these thoughts.

So, this is a nice simple formulation, borrowed from sports psychology. It distinguishes 3 different types of goal:

  1. Outcome Goals. These are things like, ‘coming in the top 10 in the competition’, ‘passing the audition’, or ‘getting invited back to do the gig again next year’. That is, they are objective measures of success, bestowed by others. These are useful types of goal to have precisely because achieving them (or not) entails direct feedback on how you are doing from people or institutions external to the ensemble. They are objective measures of success.

    But by the same token, you only have limited control over your success in these kinds of goal. You can prepare well and execute your plan appropriately, but you have no control over how anyone else does. So if this is your only kind of goal, you are giving over control of how you feel about yourself and your achievements to other people, and failure will have a disproportionately devastating effect on your self-image. (And, indeed, the pressure will produce increased performance anxiety.)

    Outcome goals matter, but they need balancing with other types of goal. This is not just for the emotional health of the ensemble but also so that you get a more rounded and grounded sense of how you’re doing. External feedback is necessary, but needs interpreting in the context of your own artistic journey.

  2. Process Goals. These define success in terms of things you have been working on as an ensemble. These can be technical elements (legato, good articulation, tempo control) or artistic elements (continuity of characterisation, subtlety of nuance); indeed, balance between these types of process goal is a good way to ensure balance in your rehearsal focus. They should be consonant with the outcome goals - things that your outcome goals will reward if you get them right - but they are independent of anyone else’s performance.

    This kind of goal is also measurable - you can tell to what extent you achieved it - but its achievement lies in the hands of the ensemble. It is in your power to win on process goals whatever happens in the external outcome. Likewise, it is possible to achieve your outcome goals having not quite nailed the process goals, and this can feel quite awkward. I’ve known gold medallists feel quite bad about contests they won when they didn’t feel they did the job they could - and to their mind, should - have done.

    So process goals aren’t just emotional consolation prizes you give yourself when your outcome goals go awry, they are the means by which you maintain your integrity through self-knowledge.

  3. Personal goals. Process goals and outcome goals are things the whole ensemble/team work on together. The individuals within the group also need to have their own personal goals that reflect where they are in their individual journey. Someone who has never performed before may have the goal of remembering what they have rehearsed in the new environment; someone who errs on the side of over-thinking their performance may choose the goal of letting themselves relax and enjoy the performance by trusting their preparation.

    Personal goals can often sound like process goals, just framed at an individual level, possibly reflecting errors in previous performances. (‘This time I am going to get the words for verse 1 and verse 2 in the right order.’) They are there to customise the experience in ways that promote individual growth as well as development of the overall ensemble.

The thing that has come into focus as I write this is how any type of goal needs to include the possibility of failure if success is to be meaningful. If something is guaranteed to occur, you don’t need to set it as a goal as it is going to happen anyway. The ‘achievable’ element of SMART goals is important (no point in saying something is an aim if there’s no way you can do it), but slam-dunk achievable will never feel as good as achievable-at-a-stretch-if-I-work-at-it.

The skill in goal-setting is thus, first, to aspire at the right level: near enough possible to motivate the work to make it happen. Second, it is to have an appropriate range of aspirations, such that failure in one dimensions doesn’t blow off the whole performance, whilst few enough that everyone can have a realistic crack at all of them.

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