Fear and Goal Setting with Teenagers

Back to school is the perfect time to set goals, but goal setting can be a challenge for many students, especially those with learning differences or those struggling in school. Too often their goals are vague (e.g., I want to be famous) or unrealistic (e.g., I want to get into Harvard with a full-ride scholarship).

What’s the downside to setting vague, unrealistic goals? These dangerous ‘goals’ contain inherent self-criticism (e.g., If I’m not famous yet, there’s something wrong with me, or I’m not smart enough for Harvard.). Instead of motivating students to work hard, unrealistic goals can make students feel demotivated and inadequate. (The upside — these emotions, though negative, are a powerful message about what’s going on in your students’ minds.)

To help students who set unrealistic goals, we must help them address negative emotions. Instead of running from them, we can help students define their self-criticisms and fears, and incorporate them into effective goal setting.

Tim Ferriss, a motivational speaker and podcaster, gave a TED Talk titled, Why you should define your fears instead of your goals.In his talk, Ferriss defines a useful concept known as “fear setting.

Instead of starting with a goal, fear setting starts with a fear. Students acknowledge something they are afraid of (e.g., “failing a test”) and then explore it fully in three steps: Define, Prevent, Repair.

  1. In the Define step, students define in detail what would happen if their fear came true. A student who fears getting an F on a test might say, “What if I fail the class?” or “What if I can’t get into college?” By giving a name to these fears, students will be ready to make a plan to prevent them.
  2. Next comes Prevent, where students brainstorm all the ways to prevent their fears from coming true. The more detailed this section becomes, the more prepared students will be to set concrete, planful goals to address their fears.
  3. In the Repair stage, students acknowledge that sometimes bad things do happen. They have to think through possible ways to help heal from something bad happening. This step helps students think success flexibly, which will help them approach their goals with greater persistence.

So, while “fear setting” starts with a fear, by the end students have realized a detailed goal backed up by a plan that takes into account potential obstacles. This strategy is similar to our favorite goal setting strategy, CANDO goals.

Want to learn more about how goal setting affects students’ motivation, persistence, and executive function? Check out a free recording of our “Executive Function and Goal Setting” webinar!

Have you tried any good goal-setting strategies with your students? We’d love to hear!

  • Michael  Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director