I interview A LOT of successful people and when talking with them I almost always want to know about their dreams, goals, and plans in life. What I’ve found is that most people’s lives don’t follow the path they've laid out. Instead, life gifts them with opportunities to change course and try something completely different, something that ends up being much better than they could have imagined. Or, in the case of many of the Olympians I've interviewed, they have at least had challenges that they never could have planned for, so their initial plans and goals had to change.
This idea really runs counter to what most 'experts' say about goals. So much emphasis is placed on the importance of concrete goals, determination, and pushing through barriers that I'm constantly trying to get to the bottom of it. Is a goal not written down really just a dream? Does one need a firm goal to reach any meaningful outcome? Do business owners use SMART goals to create success?
Several years ago I interviewed 21 self-made millionaires to learn about their take on goals. Their answers surprised me.
My 'goal' for this post is for you to see for yourself and form your own conclusions about how 21 very real, very successful people feel about goals and either did or did not use them in their journeys to success.
If you'd like to learn more about these millionaires' lives, businesses, challenges, failures, successes, relationships, and more, you can read the full interviews in my book, 21 Questions for 21 Millionaires.
My questions are in bolded text, the millionaires' answers follow.
MATT GIVEN - Serial Entrepreneur
Did you ever say, “Making a lot of money is my goal” or “Before I die I want to make X amount of money”?
No. I never had a number on the wall that said if I get there I’ve made it or anything like that.
It was just more doing stuff that I found interesting and following the next step in what I felt was my business maturity process.
I don’t think I’ve ever been one to follow the axiom of put your goal on the wall and look at it every day and you’ll achieve it. I never said, “I want to make this much money,” or “I want to do this” or “I want to do that.”
I think it’s more about looking for the next challenge in the maturity road, I guess.
JEFFREY LUFTIG - Consultant, University Professor
Did you ever expect your business to grow to the level it did?
It would depend when you asked me. The day I started it, I didn’t see it as a business. I saw it as a way to do some consulting and teaching and make a significant amount of money in a relatively short period of time. But “significant” changes throughout time.
I didn’t think I would have 35 employees, that we’d have satellite offices all over the world, and that I’d be flying around in my own plane; no I never saw that. I wasn’t surprised when it happened, but I never saw it.
JEFFREY HILL - Consultant, Philanthropist
Did you have written down goals?
Did you ever set out to be a millionaire?
No. My economic goal centered on where my dad came from. I thought $100,000 was all the money [in the world]. Then my goal was to have enough money so that money was not an issue in my life.
I didn’t need to have lofty goals. I didn’t grow up with a lot of things. My family had a lot of love and we worked hard.
Do you have goals now?
But you didn’t along the way?
I did as I got older.
You asked me if I did when I started. No, I didn’t. Did I have the goal of being a millionaire? I had the goal of being successful. I didn’t know what that was.
HEIDI GANAHL - Founder Camp Bow Wow, CU Regent
Did you ever set out to be a millionaire?
I always wanted to be very successful. I wanted to be a great leader or a female entrepreneur. I always had that drive, but when I set out to become a millionaire was after I lost the million dollars from the [life insurance] settlement. I knew I had to earn it back, so my whole goal has been to create a company that is worth at least a million dollars.
You had a business plan, but did you have written down, specific goals? “In year one I want to make this much, in year two this much, the company this much, me this much.” Did you have it crystallized?
For my Camp I did, for the franchise part of it, no.
You just fell into that?
By the seat of my pants.
STEVE ROSDAL - Co-Founder Hyde Park Jewelers
Did you build the business step by step or did you have a master plan in mind?
I had no master plan. I was playing volleyball.
VANCE ANDRUS - Lawyer, Serial Entrepreneur
Did you have written down goals along this journey?
I never did. I always just stayed awake and alive.
Instead of making goals and trying to fill them, I just went through life finding opportunities and taking them.
BARRY HAMILTON - Founder Red Canyon Software, Real Estate Investor
Did you have written down goals, concrete goals, that you wanted to achieve along the path?
I never went through that exercise of planning what kind of car I wanted to drive. I know a lot of people do and they’re successful with it. They’ve got their “dream board” on which they put pictures of cars, boats, homes, etc. and use that as motivation. I’ve never been like that.
I think I’m probably a little bit different. My goal was to be worth $1 million when I was 30 and $10 million when I was 40. Those were the only goals I ever had.
I don’t really set concrete ideas of where I needed to be.
I’m much more of a person who goes with the flow of karma and energy where it takes me, kind of like a feather in wind. I try not to fight where my next opportunity is coming from or where my next vacation is going to be.
I know I’m different from the guys in EO in that regard because they set that ultimate goal. I’m more into living life at the moment, right now. This 10 seconds of reality, enjoying it, and that’s what I try to embrace.
THERESA SZCZUREK - Co-Founder Radish Systems
Did you have written down goals throughout the building of Radish?
Yes. Sometimes they were clearer than others, but we definitely had a clear, written business plan, which we revised annually and turned it into an operations plan of how to guide the firm.
I have had personal goals since my early 20s.
JOHN “JACK” ODOM - Orthopedic Spine Surgeon
Did you ever have written down goals for becoming a doctor?
For the amount of money that you wanted to make?
You never had written down goals?
MARK SANBORN - Professional Speaker, Author
Did you have a visualization of where you wanted to be or written down goals?
I’m not the best guy to talk about written goals. I believe in the power of goals, but I have been far more successful personally with having a very clear sense of direction and seizing opportunities as they evolve.
I knew I wanted to be a speaker. I knew I wanted to be a successful speaker. But I didn’t have the goal of “I’ll be making X number of dollars by this date next year.”
JOHN SIMCOX - Founder JC Keepsake
Did you have written down goals?
Yes, all the time.
BILL BEGAL - Founder Begal Enterprises
Do you have written down goals, or did you as you were building your business, of what you wanted to accomplish in life?
No. Regrettably, I’m not the most disciplined paper work person.
I think part of my success was some of my gutsy decisions. Kind of like a kid on skis when they’re young: boom, down the slope. They don’t know any better.
I think some of the early decisions and gambles I made helped me to get to where I am today. Now with my business partner…some of those decisions I made then she would never let me make today.
DOUG KRUG - Serial Entrepreneur
To what did you listen and what did you trust?
Spiritual guidance. The belief that everything was there for the opportunity in it and that the question to run on is, “What is the opportunity here?”
Not all of the decisions, just because an idea comes into your head, are to move forward with it. Sometimes the answer is “this is not a fit…”
It has been an incredible journey of listening and a big piece of it is, and this is the hardest part to articulate, the thing about having goals. It is important to be clear what we want. It is equally important to not be attached to it.
We need the beacon of clarity as to what we want, but as we move toward what we want, we have to listen to everything else, all the other messages on the way to getting there. Because it may turn out that what we thought we wanted wasn’t really what we wanted.
When you opened the record store, other than the business plan, did you have a written goal?
When you started Enlightened Leadership, did you have a goal for how many books you wanted to sell?
CYNTHIA MCKAY - Founder Le Gourmet Gift Baskets, Business Coach, Therapist
Did you have written goals?
No, no written goals at all.
LANE NEMETH - Founder Discovery Toys, Serial Entrepreneur
As I interview people I ask, “Did you ever have written down goals?” “Did you use visualization techniques?” Folks are telling me no.
BRYAN WILLIS - Owner ET Investments
Did you have written down goals?
Most of my goals as far as a career were pipe dreams. I wanted to make $100,000 a year by the time I was 30. I have no idea where I came up with that or why I did, but I wanted to.
And I hoped to have a million dollars by the time I was 40. But I didn’t write any goals down. I just wanted to be able to support a family. I don’t know why I even had those other goals in mind. I don’t know that they were really goals; they probably weren’t.
LEE CARLSON - Real Estate
You said that getting into real estate was the best thing you ever did. Tell me more about that.
The things that preceded it were wheat and dairy farming.
As a wheat farmer during the mid 1950s you couldn’t make a living because crops didn’t grow; there was a drought. Then I got into dairying thinking it was going to be a regular income. It was a regular income, but it was a regular job twice a day for 10 years – it took me that long to finally get rid of the cows. Then I did some cattle trading for a year or so.
My brother and I had a farm together and we split it up. He sold his half and I figured out that the real estate agent made $17,000 on the sale. I thought to myself, “That real estate man doesn’t know any more than I do. I’m going to get into real estate. That sounds like easy money.”
I got a manual, studied it, and passed the test. A few years later, I went to school and got my broker’s license so I wouldn’t have to work under anybody else.
One of the reasons I thought farming would be good is my kids can be right here; they can work on the farm. I got smarter and said, “I don’t want my kids to do this. I don’t think they want to do it.”
My five sons and two sons-in-law all eventually got their real estate licenses and joined with me. It’s been a great business, especially to have my family with me and see them every day. I thought that would never happen when I first got into the business, but they all finally got here with me.
SHAWN KANE - Owner, Kane Consulting
Did you ever have written down goals?
I wouldn’t necessarily say written down goals. It was more personal targets I wanted to hit. For instance, “Within three months, I want to have five new clients. Within six months, I want to have those clients referring me to other clients.”
It wasn’t that I wrote the goals down. I’m not necessarily a writing-goals-down-oriented person. It’s more like, “This is the way I see it, that’s what I want to do, I’m going to do it and get it done.” And it gets done. I give myself a certain timeframe–[I don’t] necessarily write it down–and check it every month.
JUDITH BRIGGS - Men in Kilts & 1-800-Got-Junk Franchise Owner
I read a quote where you said you never had this goal of becoming a millionaire, you just wanted the business to be successful. Tell me about that.
I just looked at it in terms of allowing me the flexibility to spend more time with my family. I never really thought about being a millionaire. I knew at that point that there were a few [1-800-GOT-JUNK] franchises reaching a million dollars in revenue per year, but I never really thought about it. I just honestly wanted to go to work everyday, earn a good living, provide for my family, and drive the business and make it successful. The next thing you know, I made a million dollars in revenue. It kind of all of a sudden hit me.
Starting off I never had the goal of being a business owner.
In year two or three you didn’t say to yourself, “I want to hit a million dollars this year”?
No, no. We just wanted to continue to grow.
Even back when you graduated college, did you have specific goals of money you wanted to make or places you wanted to live? Did you write goals down?
Up until about a couple of years ago I did not, but I’m a member of Entrepreneurs Organization (EO Boston).
I’m part of a forum group, which is in essence like a board of advisors. We meet on a monthly basis outside of the chapter event. About two years ago–we do an annual retreat–we worked on our lifetime goals.
I had business goals, my top three for the year, but in terms of both personal and professional [goals] I really never sat down to write an extensive list. We challenged each other two years ago to write our hundred lifetime goals. I thought it would be a piece of cake.
I got to about 30 and said, “This is hard.” I put it away for a little bit and then as I would be talking to somebody they would say, “I went to Florida and swam with the dolphins,” and I would think, “What a cool idea. I’d love to do that.” So I added that to my lifetime goals.
Over the course of about two months I got my hundred and then some. I’m at 143 lifetime goals right now. I make it a point at least once a month to read them to see where I’m at because a goal is not a goal unless you write it down; it’s just a dream. I look at them once a month to make sure that I’m staying on track with where I want to be in life.
ROB EMRICH - Serial Entrepreneur
Did you set forth a plan? Did you write down specifics of what you wanted the foundation to accomplish?
Yes, for sure. Everything I start, I start with a plan.
Do you have written down goals at the start?
Yes. I write down goals for myself for the year, for five years, or ten years.
Every project you’re involved in, you have specific goals?
Yes and a plan on how to get there. It changes frequently, but I always have a plan.
RICHARD ZUSCHLAG - Founder & Chairman of the Board Acadian Companies
As you were younger and then as you were building the business, did you ever expect or want to become a millionaire?
Did you ever have written down goals, concrete financial goals?
Did you ever have a system of success in mind that you followed or did you make it up as you went along?
Made it up as I went along.
How do you define success?
Creating a better community with better jobs, with happy people, and being able to make a decent living. I don’t think it’s all about money. I just worked real hard and the moneymaking came by accident.
So am I totally crazy for questioning the conventional wisdom from the gurus?
I'm finding the Olympians' answers to the question about goals to be just as enlightening, but for different reasons. I'm excited to share that with you in a subsequent post.
For now, I hope you'll digest what you've learned from these millionaires. Good luck out there.