One of my best friends – who also happens to be my little sister, Beth – raised a great question.  “What happens to goal-oriented people when they are up against a goal that is out of their control, like getting pregnant?”

This is no idle question for Beth.  She and her business partner run a wonderful business, Pulling Down the Moon, devoted to holistic fertility.  In her practice Beth helps couples who are confronting the challenge of getting pregnant, often complicated by careers, stress, and other life forces beyond their complete control.  They are looking for answers and sure things, and with pregnancy or child birth, that’s impossible.

Many couples trying to get pregnant face substantial odds.  Are they setting themselves up for failure, since this goal is outside of their ultimate control?  Should all such people adjust their sights?

The short answer is no. 

Goal-theory research suggests that it is better to set goals that are capable of attainment.  That does not, however, mean that goals must be sure things, utterly within the person’s control.  If certainty were the benchmark, virtually no goal would qualify.  You couldn’t have a goal of getting a certain grade in a course, because that would depend ultimately on the instructor.  Being elected to office turns on the preference of voters.  A Nobel would depend on the Committee.  Selling five paintings would depend on the tastes and resources of buyers.  Even painting five pictures would ultimately depend in part on your continued health and vitality (over which you have some but not complete control) and (at a mundane level) the availability of supplies.

So, what should you do when contemplating a goal that depends on forces beyond yourself?

First, make clear as possible what factors are beyond your control.  This exercise may lead to valuable insights, since what appears to depend on forces of nature may in fact be largely controllable.  Thus, proper diet, proper exercise, and so forth (see Beth’s book, Fully Fertile) may play an important role in successful pregnancy.  These steps may increase the likelihood of a successful pregnancy even if they provide no guarantees. Perhaps one or another partner’s career is interfering with getting pregnant, or one’s living space is not conducive, or so on.  Identifying these various factors may lead you to find many that you can influence, and which may in fact help you reach your goal.

Second, map out well-defined, measurable intermediate objectives, to put yourself on the path to achieve the goal even if the ultimate choice is not yours to make.  As addressed in another post, measureable goals work better than “do your best” or ambiguous ones.   Thus, bringing one’s vital statistics into target zones, which are objective and measurable, may enhance one’s fertility. A woman may be able to exert substantial control over these measurable elements even if she cannot force successful conception.

Third, seek the benefits of flow by finding ways to appreciate the value of the process itself.  As Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers points out, outsized success ordinarily requires substantial practice.  Mastery tends to require thousands of hours of study, and someone will not devote hours and hours if they don’t find some way to love the process.  The concept of flow captures that notion.  Our favorite experiences tend to be those that challenge us sufficiently that we lose ourselves in the moment.

For successful pregnancy, our genes have generally provided sufficient motivation to engage in sex.  But what about the other factors beyond the sex act itself?  Is it possible to find ways to love the process of eating well, getting sufficient (and appropriate) exercise, and so forth?  To the extent you can learn to enjoy those processes, you increase the likelihood of achieving the ultimate goal.

Outside of pregnancy, the same general principle would apply.  To the extent one can learn to enjoy the process of meeting people and speaking in public, you may enhance your likelihood of election to public office.  If you learn to enjoy painting, you may commit sufficient time and energy to create this generation’s Mona Lisa.

To learn to “enjoy” such things, you may need training and study.  Finding that training and study may well be within your control.  Thus, even though the ultimate goal may be beyond your control, you may be able to find – and achieve – many goals that draw you closer to prize.

What do you think?  Are there other tools available?  Give me your reactions.