By Chuck Violand

October 12, 2015

While straightening up my office I came across a list of ten things you can do to ensure you finish second in anything you attempt. The list gave no mention of its author or when it had been written. Although it included a healthy dose of sarcasm and an inverted approach to what it takes to finish first, many of the suggestions made a lot of sense, especially as they relate to business.

The first suggestion on the list: Don’t train intelligently. Just train! This principle holds true in just about any area of life. In business we see it play out in the training programs we attend or have our people attend. No end game in mind, just mindless training. Frequently, we take the same course over and over because we either don’t know or don’t want to know what else we need to learn in order to grow our businesses.

If we don’t occasionally mix up our training regimen we run the risk of over-working the muscles we’re trying to build and under-working all the rest. It’s like trying to learn to play golf by practicing only with the five iron. We may become a master at playing fairway shots, but feel lost during tee shots or when putting on the greens.

In a more subtle way this also has to do with our need to feel busy. Business owners learn early in our professional careers that when we’re not busy we’re not producing income, and this means eventually we don’t eat. By extension, we then equate being busy with being productive. While we eventually realize the fallacy of this belief, it’s a tough one to unlearn. We may not be productive or be making any money, but we can feel plenty righteous telling people how busy we are.

Suggestion number two on the list didn’t hold many business lessons, but the third one did: Don’t set any goals. You probably won’t reach them anyway. That’s right, why set yourself up for disappointment? Why over-promise when deep in your heart you believe you’re just going to under-deliver? This follows along with Warren Buffet’s thoughts about CEOs first shooting their arrows and then setting the target when they see where the arrows are going to land.

Goal setting and goal achievement are learned skills, not skills most people are born with. Not only does the practice of setting goals require discipline, but it also teaches discipline, and this is something every CEO can use if he’s serious about succeeding.

On a superficial level, goal setting and goal achievement require the disciplines of analysis, planning, execution (following through), and measuring. These don’t have to be on a grand scale, but they do need to take place or you’ll end up just as the list’s author suggests—in second place. Or worse.

On a deeper level, goal setting requires us to conduct some self-discovery and to understand ourselves well enough to know the things we’re good at, and the things we’re not. It requires us to have a heart-to-heart talk with ourselves about the effort we’re willing to give and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to achieve the goals we set.

Goal setting is an activity that is easy to rationalize away when we’re young, thinking we’ll have plenty of time for it later on. Unfortunately, too often it’s not until later on that we recognize all the opportunities we missed by not planning when we were younger.