One Mindset Change That Can Make You More Successful

Cognitive biases hinder our success. Here's one way to not let that happen.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

 Joshua Earle/Unsplash
Source: Joshua Earle/Unsplash

There's a big difference between setting goals and setting the right goals. It can often mean the difference between success and failure.

How do you know if you are setting the right goals? Part of it has to do with identifying the things that you actually want to achieve. To do this, make sure your goals reflect the things you are truly passionate about, not the things that people want you to achieve or that you would feel guilty or shameful about not achieving.

But there's another piece of the goal-setting puzzle, and that has to do with setting goals that are a bit outside of the realm of attainability. You may not achieve them, but you'll likely end up achieving more than if you had set less ambitious goals.

To understand why, consider a recent paper published in the Journal of Sports Economics. A team of scientists led by Ryan Elmore of the University of Denver found that changing a golf hole from a par-5 to a par-4 without changing any of its physical characteristics caused professional golfers to perform better in tournament competition.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers examined data from two famous golf venues, Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California, and Oakmont Country Club in Plum, Pennsylvania. It just so happened that both of these venues hosted multiple U.S. Open championships between the years of 1992 and 2007. Not only that, but both courses re-labeled one hole from a par 5 to a par 4, without changing any of its other characteristics, between tournaments.

This created a near-perfect natural experiment for the researchers to test the effect of this "reference point" change on player performance. They found that in the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the average score on hole Number 2, then a par 5, was approximately 4.65. During the 2000 U.S. Open, when the same hole had been re-labeled a par 4, the average score improved to 4.40. The same pattern of results emerged at the 1994 and 2007 U.S. Opens at Oakmont, where hole Number 9 changed from a par 5 to a par 4.

In other words, when professional golfers conceptualized a golf hole as playing one shot harder than it had in the past, their scores improved. There’s only one logical explanation for this, according to the researchers: Loftier goals lead to better performance. 

How might this apply to your own life? Perhaps you have the goal of running an 8-minute mile. Try setting your goal at a 7-minute mile instead and see if your times go down. Or perhaps you have the goal of earning $50,000 next year. Try increasing that amount to $75,000. You might not make it all the way there, but you'll probably do better than if you had set a less ambitious goal.

One caveat to this approach has to do with the risk of setting overly aggressive goals. It's one thing to set goals that are slightly outside of the realm of attainability. However, if you set goals that are completely unreachable, it may cause you to disengage from those goals. It's generally best to set goals that are challenging without feeling intractable. And, as you improve, keep setting new and more difficult goals.

LinkedIn Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock


Elmore, R., & Urbaczewski, A. (2019). Loss Aversion in Professional Golf. Available at SSRN 3311649.