Performance vs Learning – A Quick Note on Goal Setting

Performance vs Learning: a quick note on goal setting - a metaphor

I think a lot about goals. I spent so much of my life not doing what I wanted to do (for a variety of reasons that are all my fault), that I obsess a little with actually seeing the fruits of my labor.

I also spend a good amount of time thinking about the best way to go about this. Time is a scarcity, like it or not. The problem is that it’s also what we need most to flourish our creative pursuits. Ideas have to marinate. They need room to breathe. Experimentation must flourish lest we end up rinsing and repeating garbage and not growing as artists and learners.

So how do we balance this weird world of process and product?

Well, goal setting has a lot to do with it.

BUT what’s the best way to go about this?

Performance Goals vs Learning Goals

A while back when I first had the idea for this blog post I was, reading Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.”   It’s a great read all around. The primary argument he makes is in counter-intuitive findings that suggest humans perform better when motivation emerges from internal forces vs external forces. For example, an external force would be something like a pay bonus or praise by others, while an internal force would be the feeling of satisfaction you get from finishing a challenging task. The takeaway is you’re more likely to find motivation from wanting to do something versus someone paying you to do something.

One part of the book that really interested me was his discussion on goal setting, and how the actual process of goal setting can impact how we look at the work we do.

He breaks goals into two categories: learning goals vs performance goals. Learning goals are just as they sound, they focus on learning. For example, it could be gaining skills like guitar, or perhaps learning a language. Conversely, performance goals are pretty much what happens at work. Increase sales by 10%, optimize processes by 15% over the quarter, etc.

Clearly, Pink favors the learning goal. He believes we can frame all of our goals as learning goals, allowing us to harness the power of our inner motivation. He believes that doing so gives the person space to explore creative and unique solutions. Whereas a goal that’s simply based on performance has a way of just getting done. Meaning, a person that just has to get something done, gets something done as easily and simply as possible.

How I do it

So clearly, this kind of thinking has a real value for those of us trying to figure out how to be creative in our spare time. But how can we really use this kind of logic to bring about creative and unique work?

Based on the above, you could argue that it’d be just fine to toss out the idea of external motivation and performance-based goals. But, I’m not all that convinced that’s the right thing to do.

Especially when we’re talking about creative endeavors, certain tangible, deliverables can have a real impact.

At work, it’d be a pretty difficult conversation to have with your boss about how you’ve failed to meet your numbers for 6 months in a row because you were “learning.” But…it’s really not that uncommon for someone writing a book to justify spending that same 6 months trying to fine-tune a chapter.

The trick with hobbies, especially creative hobbies, is to know when to cut the cord. And for that reason, I think performance goals still have their place. Moreover, the benefit of it being a hobby is that the final product of that goal doesn’t have to be at any particular level. That is to say, your last painting doesn’t have to look like the Mona Lisa. BUT, it does need to get done.

If you know about some of the systems I use, you’ll note that I hold myself to real performance goals. Typically, they’ll be things like publishing X number of songs in a year. However, I also hold myself to some real learning goals: spend x number of hours working towards Spanish. Or, explore creating songs that have certain forms of instrumentation or etc.


Drive is critical. Motivation really is the make or break of getting things done. Especially when those things are the “extra” things in our life.

Honestly, you probably wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already have an itching desire to do something. And that probably signifies a certain level of internal drive. From that, I can probably assume you agree with a lot of what Pink talks about.

And that’s a good thing! It means we just need to get a little more refined in reframing our goals to get the most out of every bit of motivation. Thinking about how we can craft our goals around exploration (and possible results) can have a real impact on how we explore everything in our creative and learning lives

I value process WAY over product, so I think this is the way to go. It frees us of just pumping out junk.

However, one big caveat. One of the biggest killers of that drive is that you won’t have anything to show for your time. There is something to be said for output and quantity. And perhaps, that output (even the bad stuff) can be a part of our learning journey. A way to reflect on where you’re at in your creative journey.

And perhaps in that is the trick. It’s fine to hold yourself to real deliverables, but those deliverables should not be the end in and of themselves. They should be part of a larger learning and creative journey you’re on. One that might never stop.

So work hard, think hard, and allow yourself to explore. But don’t forget to know when it’s time to cut the cord.



Performance vs Learning - A Quick Note on Goal Setting

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