A Big Goal Is Not The Same As a Vision

When you have a vision, you know where you want to go and you can see your next steps – but you won’t be able to see the entire path.

Vision is not about the path, it’s about the destination. As you take each step, the next step becomes clear as long as you stay focused on your vision.

     You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.   ..~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Goals are important.

Goals quantify and define the steps you must take. They are the signposts that let you know you are moving in the right direction. They are measurable and answer questions like When? and How much? (rather than Why? which is addressed by your vision).

Too often leaders set goals without first answering, “For what purpose?” and without clarifying their values. When goals are not connected to a clear purpose and values, people often work at cross-purposes with each other, not “rowing in the same direction.” Unsure of the purpose of their activities and without values to guide them, they remain dependent on leaders to provide direction.

A goal can have a picture of the end result and still not be a vision.

If you have a goal to lose weight, it is very helpful to create a mental image of yourself looking thin. It is powerful to create a picture of what you want (rather than struggling with what you want to resist). You can more easily sustain your energy and commitment. However, even though you have a powerful picture, losing weight is a goal, not a vision. Unless it is connected with a vision of something greater, like a healthy body or positive self-image, you are likely to put the weight back on.

A vision is enduring and provides clarity for the next step. A goal ends.

One way to distinguish between a vision and a goal is to ask, “What’s next?” A vision provides clear ongoing direction—it is clear what you should do next. As you take each step, the next one becomes clear. A vision continues to act as a beacon, guiding you in setting new goals once current ones have been achieved.

Once you have reached your goal, it is finished. Future direction is unclear because the goal was an end unto itself.

Consider these two examples – one of a vision, the other of a goal.

  • Both provide a picture of the end result.
  • Both are powerful.
  • However, one ended …and the other continues.

A Vision

Martin Luther King Jr. described his vision of a world where people live together in mutual respect. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, he described a world where his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He created powerful and specific images arising from the values of brotherhood, respect, and freedom for all—values that resonate with the values that founded the United States. The test of this vision is that it continues to mobilize and guide people beyond King’s lifetime.

A Big Goal

President John F. Kennedy announced a goal for the Apollo Moon Project: to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s. The underlying purpose and values were not clear. Was the purpose to win the space race? to begin the space defense initiative? or in the spirit of Star Trek “to boldly go where no one has gone before”?

The image of the end result was powerful; therefore, the goal was reached in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But lacking a vision that provided the answer to “What’s next?” NASA has shown neither clear direction nor outstanding performance since.

28 comments to A Big Goal Is Not The Same As a Vision

  • MLK’s vision appealed to the shared aspirations of millions of people.

    He clearly knew it wasn’t about him, it was about “us.”

    In his last speech, he said he’d seen (vision) the promised land. He then want on to say “I might not get there with you.” This meant the vision wasn’t about him, but about what we all hoped for.

    That’s what made this vision oh so powerful.

  • Great post Jesse! Thanks helping clarify the difference between goals and visions.

  • Marye Gail Harrison

    Hi Jesse,
    Thanks for making this important distinction. I appreciated your very concrete example about losing weight. At the risk of over personalizing this blog conversation, may I share my personal example about vision and goals and steps.

    I have struggled with weight loss much of my life. For the last 8 years my vision is on my refrigerator. It is “A healthy weight is a gift I give my heart.” I do have weight goal. I have reached it in the past 5 years but then I gained some weight back. Eventually, my vision caught me again – my weight was no longer healthy. So started taking steps again to lose weight by tracking what I eat and how much exercise I do. I am happy to report that I am more than half way to my weight goal again. But only the vision of a healthy weight as a gift to my heart sustains me and helps me maintain healthy practices. Thanks for the reinforcement today.

    • An important aspect of a vision is that it condenses a lot of information and provides a symbol of much more. “A gift to your heart” is such a symbol – it makes you happy and also literally is good for your physical heart. Mary Kay’s bumblebee is another example of a symbol (the bumblebee is so big and it’s wings are so little, that it shouldn’t be able to fly, but it does). Mary Kay’s vision is to supply wings (financial freedom) to housebound women. This is another distinction between a vision and a goal. A vision provides a symbol. A goal provides a sign. It is simply a marker along the way. And when you’ve reached that marker, there is no information to guide you further.

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience to illustrate this important point, Marye Gail.

  • I am SO glad that you wrote this so that I can direct my clients to it everytime they give me a goal in place of a vision (or a strategy for that matter). I’m constantly clarifying the difference between the direction you’re going and how far you want to travel (the difference a between vision and a goal). Because much of my work is with teams, I find teams need also understand the mandate of the team. This defines what the organization is relying on the team to accomplish together. So for me, the flow is vision (why and where are we going), goal (how far do we want to get), and mandate (what is our role in pursuing the vision and achieving the goal).

  • Alex Dail

    Do you find symbols like Mary Kay’s bumblebee make vision statements more powerful?

    • I absolutely do, Alex – when it really describes the purpose, values and aspirations. It’s a short-hand way to convey a powerful, meaningful message. On the other hand, if the symbol is merely a marketing tool, it provides no guidance and will be short-lived. Although a real symbol can be great, it’s not necessary. A powerful vision will create it’s own symbol over time. For example, “I have a dream” has become a symbol – it implies so much more than just four words.

  • Jesse,

    This is a great post. It can be so easy to confuse the terms goal and vision, but they are completely different. As you mentioned goals end at some point whereas visions continue. Both are very important and I don’t think you can have one without the other and still be successful. The key to success is setting your vision and then making goals that are perfectly aligned with the vision. Thanks for sharing this great post!

    • Hi Brandon, Thanks for taking the time to comment and for highlighting the importance of having both vision and goals and the importance of knowing the difference. As you said so well, “The key to success is setting your vision and then making goals that are perfectly aligned with the vision.”

  • Alicia Lopez

    Jesse,

    Just read your awesome post! Concepts like vision, mission, goals, beliefs, values and attitudes get lost in translation because of lack of clarity and concrete examples. Thank you for taking the time to clarify the difference between goal and vision. Your image also captures the essence of your message to your readers. Thank you:) Alicia

  • Two words: “You rock!”

    Your examples will help me help others never again to struggle with the difference between a VISION and a BIG GOAL. Thank you Jesse for yet another wonderful post.

    Kimunya

  • Excellent post! You have made it very clear why so many of us are at a loss once a major goal is achieved. More time needs to be spent on creating a vision that will endure. Thanks, Jesse!

  • “When goals are not connected to a clear purpose and values, people often work at cross-purposes with each other, not “rowing in the same direction.””

    Excellent point – when aligned with personal and professional goals, true motivation is achieved.

  • Simon Harvey

    Jesse, what an awesome post. And great examples of a goal vs vision. Of course you got me with your bit on “rowing in the same direction.” As a lover of rowing and having done a lot as a kid (in dinghy’s), I know exactly what happens when two people try to row together (even in the same direction) with mixed goals, or a goal and a vision or even a vision but no goals. It can be anything from disaster to an inordinate amount of wasted energy and very slow progress, to the disappearance of any goal or vision and the replacement of both with one of survival.

    We (as kids) used to have lots of vision but I think perhaps for the most part got stuck with the lack of setting goals, we probably did not know what they were, of what the difference was (so I shall share this with my kids tonight at dinner).

    When you look at teams that struggle you have to think that perhaps this is much of their problem. Perhaps they get stuck with many different personal visions (not a shared one), and many different goals. Add in a coach that has a vision that does not align with the team’s and hey presto, in UK football, relegation material.

    Anyway thanks for bringing up such an important point even though your book “Full Steam Ahead” is full of them, it is a great reminder and great timing.Thanks again, I am going to use your examples next week in a workshop.

    • Hi Simon, You remind me that vision is the starting point (without it you’re not going anywhere) but not only do you need to align goals, you also need to clarify roles and how you will coordinate your efforts. I think we do have more dreams as children but they get squashed before they mature into a vision. You might be interested in a recent post about this Dig Below Your Dreams to Discover Your Vision. Thanks so much for your kinds words and insightful comments.

  • Great Post Jesse,

    Goals and visions can both inspire people. But you are right a beautiful and strong vision can continue to inspire.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Lieven

  • Great post Jesse – been following your writing and your input is always strategic, practical and challenging. Great leaders need great resources and yours are exceptional. Best to you! – Bill

  • Martha Ngugi

    Wonderful post; this is my fist time to read your post and I must say that this is so good. I can now differentiate between a vision and a goal and I have learnt that without a vision even with a very big goal I can have a block in whatever I plan to do.

    Keep it up.

    Martha.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      So glad to hear this was helpful to you, Martha. Too often people achieve their really big goal and instead of feeling great, they feel empty. because they didn’t really understand the purpose. When you know your “why,” you are better able to set the right goals.

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