If Your Goal Is Success, Don't Consult These Gurus

For years, motivational speakers have celebrated a Yale study on why people succeed. It's powerful! Compelling! Too bad it doesn't exist.

The repertoire of consultants, trainers, and motivational speakers, nothing comes before the power of setting personal goals. And in the annals of personal goal-setting, no story outranks the Yale University Class of 1953.

The story, as told by consultants, goes like this: In 1953, researchers surveyed Yale's graduating seniors to determine how many of them had specific, written goals for their future. The answer: 3%. Twenty years later, researchers polled the surviving members of the Class of 1953 -- and found that the 3% with goals had accumulated more personal financial wealth than the other 97% of the class combined!

It's a consultant's dream anecdote: a vivid Ivy League success story that documents the cause-and-effect relationship between goals and personal success. It's powerful! It's compelling! It's also completely untrue -- as the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) found out.

First stop: consultant Jay Rifenbary's 1995 book, No Excuse!, in which he cites the famous Yale story. Rifenbary couldn't document the study, but his researchers happily confirmed its proliferation across the consultant landscape: "We've attended hundreds of motivational seminars and heard it many times," say Mike and Marjie Markowski.

The CDU turned next to the reigning guru of personal achievement, chisel-jawed infomercial king Anthony Robbins. There, on page 200 of the 34th printing of his best-seller, Unlimited Power, Robbins writes, "The difference in people's abilities to fully tap their personal resources is directly affected by their goals. A study of the 1953 graduates of Yale University ... "

To find Robbins's source, the CDU contacted Robbins Research International (RRI) in La Jolla, California -- only to learn that the files concerning Unlimited Power had "met a disastrous end." RRI referred the CDU to personal effectiveness consultant Brian Tracy, who directed the CDU to the dean of motivational speakers, Zig Ziglar.

Sure enough, in the middle of his best-selling video, Goals, Setting and Achieving Them on Schedule, the evangelical Ziglar drops to his knees and cites -- you guessed it -- the study of the Class of 1953. "Those 3%," preaches Ziglar, "accomplished more than the 97% combined who had not set those goals."

But where had Ziglar found the study? It would be hard to pin down, explained a spokesperson from Ziglar's Dallas headquarters: "Mr. Ziglar is always reading. He reads more than two hours a day!" One possible source -- "Try Tony Robbins."

Instead, the CDU went directly to the source: retired lawyer Silas Spengler, secretary of the Class of 1953 since graduation. According to Spengler -- who listed his future occupation in the Yale yearbook as "personnel administration following a course of business administration at Harvard," and who instead went into the navy and then to law school -- he never wrote down any personal goals, nor did he and his classmates ever participate in a research study on personal goals.

As further evidence, Spengler provided excerpts from the 1953 yearbook. No one stated personal goals, but most of the graduates predicted their future lines of work: Roberto Goizueta, Coke's CEO, predicted his future would be with Cuba's Compani Industrial del Tropico S.A.; William Donaldson and Dan Lufkin, founders of Wall Street's Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, forecast futures in law. Forrest Mars, Jr., now chairman and CEO of Mars, Inc., listed "no" for employment possibilities.

Finally the CDU went to Yale for the last word on the Class of 1953. Research Associate Beverly Waters reports that a recent outbreak of articles citing the study in publications as diverse as Dental Economics and Success magazines prompted her to undertake an exhaustive search of Yale alumni archives -- where she found no evidence that such a study had ever been conducted. Says Waters, "We are quite confident that the 'study' did not take place. We suspect it is a myth."

Not that hard evidence like that has ever stopped a consultant. From his Solana Beach, California office, consultant Brian Tracy responded to Waters's findings: "Heard this story originally from Zig Ziglar. If it's not true it should be."

Lawrence Tabak (ltabak@aol.com), a writer based in Kansas City, didn't graduate from Yale and never set any goals for the future.

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7 Comments

  • Jos Cervantes

    So funny to read all the comments from the wanna-be life coaches coming to the defense of these myth-promoting motivational speakers, and trying desperately to discredit the author. The point of this article (that they are clearly missing) isn't that goals are inherently bad. The point is that there is a right way and a wrong way to illustrate something. Citing made-up collegiate studies from 1953 is never a good (or ethical) way to illustrate a point, even if you're Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar or Brian Tracy. It only makes one wonder what else these feel good phenoms might be fabricating.

  • Arthur Holmes-Brown

    The non-existent study doesn't disprove the worth of written goals. It just means most people don't do their research as rigorously as they should. But please...look around. Try creating a city without written goals, try building a house without written goals. Try achieving any academic qualification without written goals (yes it might be the curriculum writers that write them and you simply agree). Take an overseas holiday with no written plans. Every achievement begins with a goal whether written, verbalised, memorized or 'intuitively' known. The bigger and more complex the goal - the greater need for written documentation. So I guess if you omitted to set written goals in your senior year the good news is you are not doomed to failure - but please don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • jasonvandehey

    Oh, look, Lawrence Tabak DOES have a book! If this is the same Lawrence Tabak, then you likely set a goal to get this done, unlike the millions of un-published wanna be authors. I bet it even has a section about setting aggressive goals.. on paper.
    How to go from...Zero to $126,650 in Six Months by Lawrence Tabak (1990)

  • jasonvandehey

    Makes one wonder what Lawrence Tabak could accomplish if he had set goals or would set written goals. One can only wonder. The good news is that you're still breathing.

    Honestly I don't believe that you have no goals. The truth is that you probably have a book in your mind, and maybe something down on paper. If you would have written down your goal a year ago and put a time on it and built a structure, you'd probably have an e-book out right now. GO read Zig Ziglar's book GOALS. In fact, Zig has a whole section on CRITICS in See You At The Top, and it's not good... for the critics.

  • Jos Cervantes

    The author in no way stated that goal setting was not important or relevant to the achievement of one's objectives. The article is merely pointing out a mythical study that was perpetuated as truth by several high profile motivational speakers. Thanks for letting us know about his book, though. I would buy it for the mere fact that he's willing to do some research and get his facts straight. I won't be buying any Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar or Brian Tracy books any more, on the other hand.

  • Don Joergens

    What A Fantastic Debunk. Thank you.Lawrence Tanak! Goals Are Indeed Important But As Your Research Proves, That If The Most Successful Individuals Wrote Their Early Goals And Maintained a LaSer Focus They Never Would Have Found Their True Business SuccesS. Goals Are Good But Vision Is Great.