Often times the things that make a per­son suc­cess­ful in life are also what will make a busi­ness suc­cess­ful.  A phone call I received this week remind­ed me of this.  Sev­er­al years ago, my wife and I attend­ed a small church in Rich­mond, Indi­ana where the pas­tor asked us if we would be inter­est­ed in being youth spon­sors and start­ing a youth group.  They had a group of kids in 4th to 5th grade and want­ed to be sure they had a pro­gram for them to grow into.  Being young and naïve we accept­ed the challenge.

We were pleas­ant­ly sur­prised when with­in the first few weeks we had a dozen or so junior high kids.  I remem­ber ask­ing one young lady what she want­ed to do in life.  She told me that her goal was to grad­u­ate from high school.  When I asked her what she want­ed to do after that she told me she had nev­er real­ly thought about it. No one in her extend­ed fam­i­ly had ever grad­u­at­ed from high school, so that was a lofty goal for her.  As I talked to oth­er kids in the group, I real­ized that no one in their lives were help­ing them to pre­pare for their futures.

I quick­ly real­ized that it did not make sense to teach these kids eter­nal things when they were not yet equipped for this life.  We start­ed to offer tutor­ing ses­sions twice a week and ses­sions where we taught mini-sem­i­nars on life.  We had ses­sions on per­son­al finance, per­son­al hygiene, career options, lessons about being a good spouse in the future and oth­er sub­jects.  Often the things we cov­ered were deter­mined on the sto­ries the kids were telling about their fam­i­ly life.

With­in 3 months we had 75 kids attend­ing on a reg­u­lar basis.  As the pro­gram evolved we gave each kid a ‘life plan binder’ in which they wrote their goals for their lives.  Every week the kids got a hand out, usu­al­ly with a work­sheet that they added to the book.  The goals of one young lady named Crys­tal includ­ed get­ting a high school diplo­ma, becom­ing a nurse, find­ing a hus­band who respect­ed her and own­ing her own home.

This week I received a call from this young lady.  The last time I saw her was when I helped her fam­i­ly move when she was a young teenag­er.  Her father had passed away when she was in the 8th grade and her fresh­man year her moth­er decid­ed to move to Vir­ginia.  I remem­ber hav­ing all of the pos­ses­sions from their rent­ed house trail­er loaded into a U‑Haul with the excep­tion of the refrig­er­a­tor.  When we put the dol­ly under the refrig­er­a­tor to move it, so many cock­roach­es ran from beneath it that most of us end­ed up run­ning from the trail­er scream­ing.  Her mom was not hap­py when we arrived in Vir­ginia with­out the refrig­er­a­tor but it had been a unan­i­mous deci­sion to leave it.

Her mom spent the next year drink­ing alco­hol exces­sive­ly. When Crys­tal could no longer han­dle the sit­u­a­tion, she went to live with aunt and uncle in Nebras­ka.  About a year lat­er her aunt and uncle were trag­i­cal­ly killed by a drunk dri­ver. Rather than return to Vir­ginia, she elect­ed to enter fos­ter care.  After her sec­ond very bad fos­ter fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence, she ran away with only the clothes on her back and her life plan binder.  Over the next few years she worked while try­ing to fin­ish high school, final­ly fin­ish­ing at age 20.  Her last semes­ter she had to peti­tion the school board to attend reg­u­lar class­es due to being age 20. She did this because she des­per­ate­ly want­ed a diplo­ma, not a GED.

She attend­ed LPN class­es and even­tu­al­ly got a job at a hos­pi­tal in Michi­gan. She mar­ried a hard work­ing young man who treat­ed her well.  She attend­ed RN class­es through the hos­pi­tal where she worked and when she passed her RN boards she felt like she had ful­ly accom­plished her goal of becom­ing a nurse.  She has a 16 year old daugh­ter and a 12 year old son and 4 years ago when life was get­ting hec­tic she and her hus­band worked it out so that she could stay at home and care for the chil­dren.  She has spent the past 4 years spend­ing time with her kids and vol­un­teer­ing with a pro­gram that helps at-risk kids.  In 3 months, they will make the last pay­ment on their house and she will have achieved her goal of own­ing her own home, some­thing that no one can ever take away from her.

I still have the binder that I used to take atten­dance back when we ran the pro­gram. I have added notes about what became of the kids as I heard from them over the years. Of the 75 kids, she is the 40th that I know of that earned some type of high­er degree.  One young man lived with my wife and I for his senior year of high school when his mom moved to Mar­i­on, IN and it was a chal­lenge to get him to keep his end of the bar­gain when it came to edu­ca­tion­al issues.  He lat­er attend­ed bar­ber school while in prison and after being released went on to take the class­es to get his cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to be an instruc­tor.  He now has his own bar­ber shop and bar­ber school in Mar­i­on and it is quite amus­ing to read his posts about his stu­dents on Facebook.

How did so many of these kids beat the odds and break the cycle of pover­ty?  First, they had a clear goal that they absolute­ly believed they could achieve.  Even though most of the peo­ple in their lives did not think they would accom­plish any­thing sub­stan­tial, they chose to believe.  I lat­er learned that many of the kids were thank­ful that we kept their life plan binders at the church as they felt their par­ents would just tell them to stop wast­ing their time dreaming. 

One of the trends in cor­po­rate plan­ning today is to set a BHAG – a “big hairy auda­cious goal.”  This is fine, but only if you tru­ly believe that you can achieve it.  I have talked to many peo­ple who work for com­pa­nies that con­stant­ly set goals that they felt were unrea­son­able which result­ed in mak­ing them feel over­whelmed and apathetic.

Sec­ond, they had a plan to accom­plish those goals.  When the kids set goals we made sure that they knew what steps they had to take to accom­plish them and what tools they need­ed to acquire.  We had fire­fight­ers, nurs­es and even a coro­ner come speak to the group to explain what edu­ca­tion they need­ed to acquire and what skills they need­ed to hone.   The employ­ees who do not buy into the BHAG, as I men­tioned above, might have been on board and enthu­si­as­tic if the plan to achieve the goals had been shared with them.

Third, they stuck to it.  Most of these kids did not take a tra­di­tion­al route to accom­plish their goals.  Most of them were dealt many set­backs along the way but they were able to turn what would be road­blocks for some into sim­ple delays.

These three prin­ci­ples of set­ting and reach­ing your goals apply to each of our per­son­al lives, our careers, our per­son­al finances and our busi­ness.  The first step of the process is to write down your goals and I would encour­age each of you to begin by tak­ing this sim­ple step toward achiev­ing your goals.