How to Achieve Your Big Goals: Challenge Your Assumptions through SMART Life Experiments

Life Experiments

Life ExperimentsThink about the last time you set a big, transformational goal for yourself. Maybe it was to change careers, feel more confident in your work or assume a leadership position in your organization. Thinking big is a hallmark of entrepreneurship so you have undoubtedly done this!

For some people, it’s a matter of setting the goal, breaking it down into a series of smaller, more manageable SMART goals, identifying the challenges and taking the actions to overcome those challenges and working towards the goal: the SMART goal process.

But what often happens?

For a lot of people, these big goals often are derailed because we make big assumptions about ourselves that we cannot overcome:

  • I’m too old to switch careers.
  • I have to be spot-on perfect in order to feel confident and be good enough to make it.
  • I’m too young to be taken seriously as a leader.

How true are these statements?

While they may feel true, they are really assumptions. And if you believe these assumptions, they can keep you from achieving that big goal.  A lot of people think that if they just exert willpower, work more productively, learn new skills or try harder, they can accomplish their goals. Yet, just think about all those New Year’s resolutions like losing 10 pounds or going to the gym 3 times a week:  these often fall by the wayside.

Why is this so?

Two Harvard professors who specialize in adult development, Robert Kagen and Lisa Laskow Lacey, have been studying this very issue nad have come up with an extraordinary process known as Immunity-To-Change ™ which they lay out in their book  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good).

Kagen and Lacey posit that in order to achieve your goals, it takes more than willpower.  Instead of taking actions towards your goal, you pinpoint the behaviors and habits which undermine your goal, figure out the underlying assumptions which are driving those behaviors and gradually change those behaviors by devising experiments that challenge those assumptions.

Ultimately, Kagen and Lacey help us to change our mindset, rather than give us technical solutions which are often quick fixes but do not lead to lasting change.

I was fortunate to participate Bob Kagen and Lisa Lacey’s workshop on the Immunity to Change process where I learned how to facilitate the process. I will be blogging a lot more on this program in the future but for starters, here is one aspect that fascinated me:

How can we begin to chip away at those assumptions and start the process of lasting change that is so critical for success?

This requires us to step back and be objective by investigating the following:

  • How true are these assumptions?
  • What is your evidence for the truth of your assumptions?

The task involves engaging in experiments in order to assess the truth of the assumptions.

I have long advocated doing life experiments as a way of figuring out your career path, inspired by the work of Herminia Ibarra.  In her book Working Identity:  Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Ibarra shares her research of people who were able to make successful mid-career transitions by experimenting in different areas and discovering their new career path by trial and error.  I use this concept to encourage clients and students to conduct life experiments in order to discover new possibilities for themselves in personal and career development as well as in career transition.

Kagen and Lacey’s workshop helped me to take those experiments to a deeper level.

First, you design your experiment by looking at the behaviors that undercut your big goal.  This helps you to focus on the behaviors that you want to change.

Next, your experiments should meet the following SMART criteria:

S Safe: When challenging your big assumptions, start off with an action that feels safe. Otherwise, if it feels too risky, you probably will not do it

M Modest: Make your experiment easy to run and on a small scale. Otherwise, it will feel too overwhelming.

A Actionable: Conduct your experiment in the near term so that you can begin to build momentum.

R Research stance: The goal of the experiment is not to achieve the goal  but to gather enough data so that you can evaluate the truth of your assumption.

T Test:  Once you run your test, you assess what you learned about the truth of your assumption and you devise your next test.

You start off with small, safe experiments NOT to change your behavior but rather to gather data that tests those assumptions. In effect, you adopt the stance of a researcher who is studying the impact of those experiments on your assumptions.

Allow me to share my own process with you.

Those of you who know me know how much I love to learn. I read a lot of professional articles and books, as well as novels for personal enjoyment. I attend and listen to lectures on a wide variety of topics. I participate in programs like the Immunity-To-Change ™ workshop, as well as attend continuing education classes. And I constantly challenge myself to up the ante with the goal of being a life long learner.

The problem?

I often feel overwhelmed by my perceived need to learn everything NOW.


Because I assume that if I don’t read everything, listen to all the lectures, attend programs and keep up with the all the latest developments, I won’t know enough to do what I do and I won’t be an expert.

So here’s my SMART experiment:

  • Read one article or chapter a day slowly and take notes.
  • Then, evaluate how I feel about the state of my knowledge and assess the impact of reading in a different way on my learning process.

I am in the middle of the experiment right now. So far, I feel a lot calmer as I read. I don’t feel the need to learn everything. I am enjoying myself. That feels great!

So if you feel stumped on achieving your big goal and are determined to move yourself forward, I encourage you to think about the following:

What’s your big assumption?

How true is it?

What experiments can you run to test the truth of that assumption?

Let me know how it goes! And I will share more about my process as well.

Here’s to our ongoing life experiments!