Learning Goals vs Performance Goals

whos-got-your-backWe are all familiar with performance goals:

  • Lose 10 pounds.
  • Earn $100,000 this year.
  • Make 20 sales this month.

Those goals have to do with specific accomplishments, and they can be motivating. They can also be frustrating. When you lose just nine pounds or make 17 sales, you feel like a failure.

On the other hand, learning goals are about taking the steps that will get us to our other goals.

For example, instead of (or in addition to) the performance goal of losing 10 pounds, there could be a learning goal of discovering a fun way to exercise or learning to cook healthful meals.

I heard a presentation the other night by Keith Ferrazzi, who was talking about the concepts presented in his new book, Who’s Got Your Back: The Breakthrough Program to Build Deep, Trusting Relationships That Create Success–and Won’t Let You Fail. The book is about building a few lifeline relationships in our lives, with peers who will support us, encourage us, be honest with us and ultimately not let us fail. That includes setting the goals by which you will define success. Your lifeline friends can help you identify those goals, keep you on track and hold you accountable.

One part of Keith’s talk that resonated strongly with me was the talk about learning goals vs performance goals. In the book, he says:

Certain goals, known as “performance goals,” imply a finite result, like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But to me, far more important is developing a process and a road map that help you achieve [the goal] in a given time. In other words, you should be thinking about the rainbow, not just the pot of gold.

That is a wonderful image. How often do we get caught up in the quest for the pot of gold (sometimes almost literally) and forget about the rainbow? Performance goals are fine. They give us a target to aim at and it is satisfying to reach them. But learning goals help us the acquire the skills and knowledge we need to move toward those performance goals.

So the next time you are setting a goal, don’t just look at where you want to end up. Think about the path that will take you there, and beyond.


  1. says

    The problem with goals is people set them to high and eventually give up when they can’t make a goal.

    Most weight loss programs suffer from this and that’s why people yo-yo with their weight. When I started losing weight I made my goals 5 pounds each goal, before I knew it I had lost 15 pounds and taught myself a lifelong lesson on proper nutrition along the way.

    • Cathy Stucker says

      There is nothing wrong with setting goals that cause you to stretch, or even the occasional goal that seems impossible. However, if you always set goals that are way beyond your reach, it gets frustrating.

      That’s why I like the idea of “learning goals” and your idea of small milestone goals. Both can take you a long way!

  2. says

    I love the idea of learning goals. Making sure you have new skills and a good support network will go a long way to achieving your goals. I am very lucky because my hubby is super supportive of me and my goals. So are my 2 grown kids. It really helps to set me up for success.

  3. says

    Great post, Cathy. I have “chronic rush-to-the-finish syndrome” and at least half my mind is usually on the next ten tasks. They say a bad habit takes 21 days to break, but I’m still working on this one after more than 21 _months_! (Maybe the primarily mental ones take longer because with no way to remove yourself physically from the source of temptation, it’s a lot easier to constantly fall off the wagon!)

    One of my friends says you shouldn’t set goals like “get x new clients” or “earn x freelance dollars” because that kind of goal depends largely on the actions of others, and that you should stick to goals that are more exclusively within your control. Any thoughts on that?

  4. says

    Katherine, that is a great example of why learning goals can be so effective. You can’t control what other people do, but when you set learning goals you make changes that make you more effective–and you can control what you learn!

  5. says


    I heard Keith speak last year too and he got all of us in the audience to set a performance goal and a learning goal. Losts of research shows that learning goals are more effective in improving performance than performance goals.

    As for me, I look at the outcomes I want to achieve and then set learning goals such as “I’ll learn 3 strategies that will help me do x.” This really helps me be motivated and open to learning opportunities when they show up.

    • Cathy Stucker says

      Rodney, I tend to think of most performance goals as having a beginning and an end. When you reach the goal, you have reached the end. (Of course, you can always set a new goal.)

      However, learning goals are about acquiring knowledge and skills that stay with you forever.

      Both types of goals are important, and I like the way you use them.

      Thanks for your comment!

  6. Geoff Rogers says

    Kathy –

    Is it necessary for a person to value learning to set learning goals? Value learning that does not necessarily lead to a concrete outcome?


    • Cathy Stucker says

      Geoff, someone who does not see the value in learning will probably not do well with learning goals because they will not be willing to work toward something they do not value.

      As for learning that does not lead to a concrete outcome, we often do not know exactly what the outcome will be when we set out to learn new things and acquire new skills. However, if what we are learning takes us in the general direction we want to go, the outcome will likely be good. I find that sometimes I get results that are not what I expected from taking on a new challenge. They might be better than expected or just different.

  7. says

    Learning goals are so important. They make it possible to grow into the person you really want to be. My goals this next year are to implement everything I have learned over the past year, which should take my online business to a whole new level. I enjoyed reading your post!

  8. says

    Setting and achieving goals really is an exact “process” and all parts of the process must be completed to ensure success. First of all, what some folks call goals are really not true goals at all, but merely to-do lists. When you want to achieve a major goal in your life, you must define the goal clearly and then develop a strategic and a detailed plan to support the goal. Without this process, the goal will probably fail. I’ve been involved in this planning process for more than 40 years, and have tried many different methods for achieving goals, and only one works. Your kind of on target with your “rainbow” theory, but it needs a bit more than that alone. You see, anyone can set a goal, but accomplishing that goal takes a considerable amount of planning.

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