SMART Goals and Philosophy 1

In Why Businessmen Need Philosophy, Dr. Harry Binswanger identifies the ultimate CEO in your life is your philosophy.  What does that mean in practice?  Take goal-setting.  Based on what I understand about philosophy, I would suspect that an ideal approach to goal-setting would be based on your values – clearly identified, objectively defined, and do not contradict reality.  How does Objectivism relate industry best standards for goal-setting – to create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound)?  Below, I discuss specific quotes from Rand that relate to these best practices.

Any mistakes in this application belong to me and not to Rand.


Goals implicitly assume that something is changing.  They are changing from one point to another.  Those points can be identified.  What has Rand said about change?

“They proclaim that there is no law of identity, that nothing exists but change, and blank out the fact that change presupposes the concepts of what changes, from what and to what, that without the law of identity no such concept as“change” is possible.”

My take: Epistemologically, identity proceeds change.  If the point of a goal is to induce change in a certain direction, then we have identify the facts about the topic of change.  Otherwise, we will only change randomly in any direction.  I want to induce change in some direction, I need to clearly identify and specify the start and end point.  The clearer, more specific, I can identify those points, the more focused my actions can be to induce the necessary change.


With goal-setting, you are dealing with reality.

“When it comes to applying his knowledge, man decides what he chooses to do, according to what he has learned, remembering that the basic principle of rational action in all aspects of human existence, is: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that man does not create reality and can achieve his values only by making his decisions consonant with the facts of reality.”

Goals must relate to the facts of reality. This requires objectivity.

“Objectivity begins with the realization that man (including his every attribute and faculty, including his consciousness) is an entity of a specific nature who must act accordingly; that there is no escape from the law of identity, neither in the universe with which he deals nor in the working of his own consciousness, and if he is to acquire knowledge of the first, he must discover the proper method of using the second; that there is no room for the arbitrary in any activity of man, least of all in his method of cognition—and just as he has learned to be guided by objective criteria in making his physical tools, so he must be guided by objective criteria in forming his tools of cognition: his concepts.”

How do we determine the specific nature of reality?  Measurement.

“Measurement is the identification of a relationship—a quantitative relationship established by means of a standard that serves as a unit. Entities (and their actions) are measured by their attributes (length, weight, velocity, etc.) and the standard of measurement is a concretely specified unit representing the appropriate attribute. Thus, one measures length in inches, feet and miles—weight in pounds—velocity by means of a given distance traversed in a given time, etc.”

My take: From the section on specificity, we see that we must identify the relationship between where we are now and where we want to be.  This identification requires objectivity in defining the relationship, with direct reference to reality.  This relationship is measurable.  While the measurement may be difficult to evaluate, it exists and should be used to verify progress towards a goal.  The measurements should not be arbitrary, but correspond to the necessary conditions of the goal.  This also means that if a goal is not measurable, chances are it has not been objectively defined.  Setting a goal to be a “good reader” is too vague.  What does it mean to be a “good reader”?  The practical effect of non-measurable goals is an inability to track progress.

While I would not consider measurability an absolute necessity, the process of identifying a measurement focuses the mind on specifying the goal objectively.


The point of goals is that they are something you are working toward.  If it is not attainable, then how can you work toward it?  While the purpose of this goal setting practice is primarily psychologically focused, it also has philosophic implications.

“The Law of Identity (A is A) is a rational man’s paramount consideration in the process of determining his interests. He knows that the contradictory is the impossible, that a contradiction cannot be achieved in reality and that the attempt to achieve it can lead only to disaster and destruction. Therefore, he does not permit himself to hold contradictory values, to pursue contradictory goals, or to imagine that the pursuit of a contradiction can ever be to his interest.”

My take: Contradictions kill goals in their tracks.  As Rand notes, pursuing contradictory goals will end in failure.  Goals can also contradict reality, including the reality of who you are and your access to resources.  For example, I could set a goal be a billionaire by next Christmas.  While not metaphysically impossible, the facts about my skills and knowledge contradict the necessities for completing the goal (at least at the present time).  But note, I can improve my skills and knowledge and so as to bring the attainability of that goal closer in subsequent years.

There is also a fair amount of research that shows that setting goals that slightly stretch your abilities leads to the best results.  In other words, pick goals that are attainable with slightly more effort than you think you have.


Goals implicitly identify what’s important to an individual.

“The key concept, in the formation of a sense of life, is the term“important.” It is a concept that belongs to the realm of values, since it implies an answer to the question: Important—to whom? Yet its meaning is different from that of moral values. “Important” does not necessarily mean“good.” It means “a quality, character or standing such as to entitle to attention or consideration” (The American College Dictionary). What, in a fundamental sense, is entitled to one’s attention or consideration? Reality.”

She goes on to say:

“Important”—in its essential meaning, as distinguished from its more limited and superficial uses—is a metaphysical term. It pertains to that aspect of metaphysics which serves as a bridge between metaphysics and ethics: to a fundamental view of man’s nature. That view involves the answers to such questions as whether the universe is knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not, whether he can achieve his goals in life or not. The answers to such questions are “metaphysical value-judgments,” since they form the base of ethics.”

Rand makes clear that the base of ethics is not some arbitrary, subjective notion, but based on the facts of reality.

“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”

My take: When it comes to goals, Objectivism clearly concludes that goals should not only be relevant in general, but relevant to our own life.  For examples, when I identified my 5 year goals, I made sure they were relevant to my situation and were the most meaningful.  This is the only life I have, so I should make the most of it.  Goals direct the self-sustaining and self-generated action.  If however, your goals contradict the necessities of life, they will harm your ability to survive.  A goal to see how much poison I can drink without dying is just stupid on its face.  Equally stupid might be a goal to see how much beer I can drink in one night.  In a business, a relevant professional goal would be one that corresponds with the corporate strategy (is important).  It becomes a win-win solution for both the individual and the organization.


Change implies something occurring over time.  Here Rand has the least to say other than to acknowledge the role of time in achieving values.

“Since a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep, and the amount of possible action is limited by the duration of one’s lifespan, it is a part of one’s life that one invests in everything one values. The years, months, days or hours of thought, of interest, of action devoted to a value are the currency with which one pays for the enjoyment one receives from it.”

And in the realm of productivity:

“Agriculture is the first step toward civilization, because it requires a significant advance in men’s conceptual development: it requires that they grasp two cardinal concepts which the perceptual, concrete-bound mentality of the hunters could not grasp fully: time and savings. Once you grasp these, you have grasped the three essentials of human survival: time-savings-production. You have grasped the fact that production is not a matter confined to the immediate moment, but a continuous process, and that production is fueled by previous production. The concept of “stock seed” unites the three essentials and applies not merely to agriculture, but much, much more widely: to all forms of productive work.”

My take: It takes time to be productive and work towards one’s goals.  And given our limited time alive, we should choose those goals carefully.  While time is just another “measure” and should be included with the measurable section above, without it, we would not get the cool acronym SMART.


While Rand had little to say specifically about goal-setting, I would imagine she would find these industry best practices to be congruent with her philosophy.  Indeed, one of her students, Dr. Edwin Locke, established much of the goal-setting research and literature from which SMART goals emerged.  Choose goals with the most relevance to our long-term happiness.  Choose goals that we can attain and do not contradict our other goals, nor reality.  Choose goals that are measurable, to ensure objectivity, and choose goals that are specific, to ensure identity.  Do these things to create SMART goals and you will be well on your way to a happy, successful life.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at

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