Why our obsession with goal setting is killing kids' creativity - Technical.ly Delaware


Apr. 12, 2018 12:57 pm

Why our obsession with goal setting is killing kids’ creativity

The only constant in James Massaquoi's youth was uncertainty. Here's why more young people like him should learn to embrace ambiguity.
There’s a better way to inspire innovation among students.

There's a better way to inspire innovation among students.

(Photo by Flickr user kyle rw, used under a Creative Commons license)

This is a guest post by University of Delaware student James Massaquoi.
Kids like me do not go to college.

Children from low-income families are almost 20 percent less likely to go to college than middle-class children, never mind graduate. Only 13 percent of single-parent kids graduate college, and that is without isolating African-American students. My parents are from the 10th-least-developed country in the world and both dealt with addiction problems while raising me. I lost my dad when I was 11 and moved seven times from 3rd to 9th grade.

Kids like me do not make it where I am and even when they do, they don’t succeed.

I am an outlier and it is not hard to tell.

When people hear my story, they often ask me how I was able to do it: How did you not end up just like everyone else? What I usually tell people is “My parents made sure to read to me before I went to bed, I have more mentors then I could ever count, and I got pretty lucky.” While it is true that most of my achievements have nothing to do with me, I still had a small part in it.

While I am a natural born leader, supremely intelligent, ruggedly handsome and devastatingly humble, what has always made me so different was my lack of direction.

The only constant growing up was nothing was constant.

Besides my sister and my mom, things would be dramatically different month to month. So, I adapted and became indifferent towards change, because it was always normal for me. Building an apathy towards structure allowed me to adapt quickly and casually. This meant that when I was 13 I could handle the emotional stress of moving from a house in the suburbs to an apartment right next to the local projects without my grades suffering. Now that I am 20, it means that I can handle extreme pressure associated with being a college student and an entrepreneur. My ambivalence and comfort with an always fluctuating status quo is my superpower.

James Massaquoi. (Courtesy photo)

James Massaquoi. (Courtesy photo)

My friends find this tremendously strange and most are the exact opposite of me.


Many of them already know what their career will be, and some of them have already decided at what age they will have children. They have something that I have not experienced in over 10 years: faith in certainty. They truly believe that what they want to happen will happen and that their plans will go according to plan. I find that to be fascinating because they still believe in Santa Claus! Uncertainty has always been my reality.

A year and a half ago I was invited to help run a workshop through a college prep program for students of color called TeenSHARP and I thought, Why not? Watching my impact on the kids from just sharing my story and helping them complete the activity was life-altering for me. That one workshop led to me becoming an entrepreneurial studies teacher to those same students, teaching them college courses for credit from the University of Delaware.

Next, I became an education advocate with 50CAN and created my own UD minor, Nonprofit Leadership. Then I created an education-focused newsletter where I wrote weekly about local and national education news and my own experiences in school. I even became a mentor for Dual School, an accelerator program for local high school entrepreneurs. Most recently I worked as a policy intern for Gov. John Carney. I am not even sure if I want to work in education or politics, I just know I care about it. I have no “end” goal.

Recently my professor made us watch a goal-setting video. The speaker, motivational guru Tony Robbins, was describing in detail the power of goal setting. I quickly found myself laughing because of how dangerous his lesson was. While I am not saying that goal setting, or motivational talks are not important or impactful but just that’s not the way things work in the real world. What gets you higher is not what you aspire to be it is what you are doing day by day, hour by hour.

Your habits dictate your success, not your goals. This is not some revolutionary idea, but I just think it needs to be put in a better context.

Many writers and inspirational speakers have conveyed the idea that your habits lead to your goals. It is a common trope in the entrepreneurship space and basically means that once you have picked your goal, then what you do day by day is what will get you there. For example, Bill Gates started coding every day when he was still in grade school and his habit of constantly coding is what got him to his goal of being a tech mogul. The concept makes sense but only if you have an idea of what your goals are. If you don’t set your goals, then when someone tells you to set your habits, you’ll have no idea what to do. And this is the foundational mistake of these goal-focused motivational speeches and workshops. When young Bill first started coding he wasn’t doing it because he wanted to be worth more than half the planet one day, he just liked coding. He had no master plan, he was just having fun. No one who is just starting will ever have any idea where they will end up.

We have taught an entire generation that they need to know the end goal before they can even start, creating a barrier so intimidating that no one ever starts.

I spend my weekends attempting to dismantle this colossal wall in kids’ minds that has paralyzed them. The thing my generation is scared of more than anything, even public speaking, is to start something. A movement, an event, a startup, a club, anything. We do not attempt. We do not try because we know what comes with starting, questions.

“Where do you think this will take you?” “How will this help you get a job?” And my favorite: “What is the end goal for this?”

Any entrepreneur will tell you their experiences with these questions, how they almost made them quit, how the pressure of not knowing almost destroyed their will to try. Questions like these kill the spark of creation and innovation and are what I try to teach children to deal with.

Have you ever asked anyone what they majored in during college, and then asked them what they do for a career? It is a sobering experience and something I recommended to all young people unsure of their major/career choice. It is something we never talk about; your major has little impact on your career. Turns out the choice you were forced to make when you were 18 is not binding. Surprising, right?

When I imagine an entire generation of kids who instead of doing something because it will “help them reach their goal” just acted on their desires and because it mattered to them, I get so excited. Because I can see my impact, I can see the kids I interact with changing, and more importantly, I can see their impact, too.

If some kid from Dover, who barely got into state college can do everything I have done, what happens when the best and the brightest start?

We have a responsibility not just as an entrepreneurial community — whether you are an established tech billionaire or some young hopeful college kid — but as human beings to start changing the way we perceive goal setting.

Instead of forcing children to decide what they want to be before they have had a chance to even peek into the professional world, we need to push them to accept the fact that no one has any idea what they’ll be doing at 35 when they are 18, and that is perfectly fine.

To start doing something or building something today doesn’t mean you have to do it forever. And it is OK to fail. The questions need to change. Instead of “How this will help you get a job?” we need to ask, “How can I help you?” Instead of “What’s the end goal of this?” why not ask, “Are you having fun now?”

We need to stop paralyzing our greatest resource, we need to tear down that wall, we need kids to embrace ambiguity.

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