By Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson
At the time I am writing this chapter, my son, Max, is just over a year old. Right around his first birthday, Max took his very first steps. Now he is toddling non-stop (and falling non-stop) all over the house. Even though he is my second child and I’ve been through this process before, you never get quite used to watching your baby crash into things or fall on his face. Watching him zigzag across a room at high speeds, arms flailing wildly, fills me with anxiety. I want him to learn to walk—in fact, it’s my goal as his parent to help him to do that. So I have taken precautions. I bought new plush carpets to cover our hard tile floors. I set up safety gates to block stairs and entrances to rooms with sharp-edged furniture. In the rooms where Max is free to toddle, I’ve gotten rid of everything pointy. I make him wear little shoes with rubber slip-resistant soles to give him better traction. If I could find a helmet in his size, he’d be wearing it.
My husband also has the goal of helping Max learn to walk, but his approach couldn’t be more different from mine. He encourages Max to climb the stairs, and just about anything else. He leaves the floor strewn with obstacles and watches to see if Max can navigate around and over them. While I constantly am offering Max my hand to steady him, my husband keeps his hands to himself and waits to see if Max can do it on his own. He isn’t particularly concerned when Max falls, and is thrilled to see him master new challenges. He laughs, loudly, at my zealous childproofing. (Though when I bring home one of my more expensive safety gadgets, he stops laughing).
We both have the same goal—helping our son to learn to walk—but we think about that goal very differently, and so we approach it in completely different ways. For my husband, helping Max to walk is about helping him to achieve something. Learning to walk is an accomplishment. It’s an opportunity to move forward in his development—to gain a new and exciting ability. My husband approaches Max’s toddling steps with a sense of eagerness—he can’t wait to see what Max will do next, and he feels his job is to facilitate that progress however he can.
For me, helping Max to walk is about keeping him safe while he learns. Learning to walk is fraught with danger. It’s an opportunity for your child to really hurt himself if you’re not careful. I approach Max’s toddling steps with a strong desire to be vigilant—I feel like my job is to keep him safe while he learns, and I can’t wait until he masters walking so he can stop falling down so much. I want him out of jeopardy.
According to psychologist Tory Higgins, my husband and I have the same goal but we each have a different focus.My husband has what Higgins calls a promotion focus with respect to the goal of helping Max to walk. Promotion-focused goals are thought about in terms of achievement and accomplishment. They are about doing something you would ideally like to do. In the language of economics, they are about maximizing gains (and avoiding missed opportunities). When his father lets Max tackle the stairs, he is trying to give him an opportunity to gain something—a new skill.
I, on the other hand, have a prevention focus when it comes to Max’s walking. Prevention-focused goals are thought about in terms of safety and danger. They are about fulfilling responsibilities, doing the things you feel you ought to do. In economic terms, they are about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve got. When I put up the gate that keeps Max off the stairs, I’m trying to avoid a loss—in this case, a serious injury.
Like being good and getting better, promotion and prevention goals can be the very same goals, just thought about in very different ways. As a professor I’ve seen these differences countless times among my premed students. It’s easy to spot the ones who are trying to get into medical school because they’ve always dreamed of being a doctor (a promotion focus), and the ones who are more worried that if they don’t get in, they’ll let their parents and themselves down (a prevention focus). Both kinds of students will work hard to get in—both will be devastated if they fail. But they will work differently. They will use different strategies, be prone to different kinds of mistakes. One group will be motivated by applause; the other by criticism. One group may give up too soon; the other may not know when to quit.
Think back to your high school or college classes once again, and try to remember what it was like when you were trying hard to get a good grade. Did you think of getting an A as an achievement, something you ideally hoped to attain? Or did you think of getting an A as an obligation—something you ought to be able to earn? Do you spend your life pursuing accomplishments and accolades, reaching for the stars? Or are you busy fulfilling your duties and responsibilities—being the person everyone can count on? In most situations, do you think you are focused more on what you have to gain, or what you have to lose?
In this chapter, you’ll learn whether or not you see the world, and your goals, in terms of gains or losses. And you’ll see how it’s shaped your choices, your feelings, and they way you’ve pursued your goals in the past. Unlike being good and getting better, I’m not going to be telling you that one goal is better for you than the other. Everyone pursues both kinds of goals to some extent, and each goal has its pros and cons. Since most people have a dominant focus—a way they tend to look at the goals in their own lives—the trick is to be able to identify your focus, and then do the things that will work best for you. Whether you’re pursuing promotion goals or prevention goals, in this chapter you’ll learn what you can do to improve your chances of reaching them.
Excerpt from Chapter 4 ofSucceed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson (Hudson Street Press, 2011).
Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist and expert on goals and motivation, and the associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School. Her research has explored how goals and strategies impact persuasion, self-regulation, achievement, person perception, and well-being. In addition to “Succeed,” Dr. Grant Halvorson is the author of 9 Things Successful People Do Differentlyand author and co-editor of academic book “The Psychology of Goals” (Guilford, 2009).