The science behind goals, grit, and creating your best life with Caroline Adams Miller (Pt. 1)

The mind-money connection

If you could use help figuring out your goals—and actually accomplishing them—bestselling author and coach Caroline Adams Miller has some amazing insights for you.

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Brian Ford (00:09):

Welcome to Money and Mindset With Bright and Brian, where we blend personal finance with positive psychology to help you feel more confident about your money. I'm Brian Ford, a bona fide finance nerd who's made a career out of helping people achieve financial wellness. I'm here with my friend and co-host, Bright Dixon, who studies how we can cultivate our best qualities through positive psychology. Howdy, Bright.

Bright Dickson (00:32):

Hey, Brian. I'm super excited about today's show. We're going to talk with the amazing Caroline Adams Miller about the science of setting—and how to pursue—your goals. Caroline's a bestselling author, speaker, and a leader in the world of positive psychology. And let me tell you, she's done the research and there's really a science to it.

Brian Ford (00:51):

Oh, I have a feeling this is going to be a good one.

Bright Dickson (01:00):

Caroline Adams Miller is one of the world's leading experts on the science behind successful goal setting and the use of good grit to achieve hard things. She's a bestselling author, an in-demand executive coach, and a popular speaker, who combines science-based research with real-world examples, including her own personal history to help people create their own happiness. Caroline, we are so honored to have you on the show.

Caroline Adams Miller (01:23):


Brian Ford (01:24):

Welcome, Caroline.

Caroline Adams Miller (01:25):


Bright Dickson (01:26):

So Caroline, let's jump right into it. I'm really curious, how did you first become interested in the topics of goal setting and grit? What's your personal connection to these topics?

Caroline Adams Miller (01:36):

I think it goes back to when I was eight years old in the finals of a swim meet, my father chose that moment to tell me how my great-uncles Platt and Ben Adams had been in the finals of the 1912 Olympics and became the first siblings ever to go one, two in the same event in the Olympics. But in particular, my father told me about Platt's mindset going into his final jump, the standing high jump. He set a world record and won the gold medal. But he talked about how important it was not just to have the preparation, but to have the mindset, and how grit was involved in that. And it had a huge impact on me.


Later, I was an early victim of bulimia and hit my last bottom in 1984. Competitive swimmer still at that point, although it took it away from me. And I hit my bottom at 22 and started to work my way back to health at a time when no one got better. It was considered a death sentence. And I realized when I went back to Penn—because I did get better and I've stayed better since then without relapse—when I went to Penn, I was taught goal-setting theory, which I'd never heard before. And as an executive coach, I'd combined all of those previous interests of mine: grit, goal setting, excellence. How do you pursue it? How do you get a resilient mindset? And I realized that there was no science to the work I was doing because I hadn't been taught goal setting.


So that became my book, Creating Your Best Life. But on top of that, for the next 10 years, I studied Angela Duckworth's work on grit. Because the research shows that the happiest people don't have easy goals or low goals, they have hard goals. Winning the Olympics is certainly a hard goal. Overcoming bulimia when you have no role models is a hard goal. I realized you can cultivate grit. And if you can cultivate grit, that's a topic we all have to know about. Because if the happiest people pursue hard goals, then this X-factor, grit, which can be cultivated, I've got to understand that. And that led to my book Getting Grit. So that was my backstory and how I came to go back to school and study and then write about it.

Brian Ford (03:46):

Caroline, I love that. I almost wish I was just listening to this podcast instead of a co-host because I'm taking notes and I'm like, wait a minute, I got to ask her another question. We appreciate you sharing your personal story. Thank you for that. And I want to talk to you about why does having and actively pursuing goals matter to our overall well-being? I mean, I like that you said that the happiest people go after difficult goals, but how does this matter with our overall well-being?

Caroline Adams Miller (04:13):

You have to have a purpose. You have to have something to get up and pursue, because we know from science that having no clear direction, just waking up and reacting to life, not only doesn't feel purposeful, you can end up feeling lost in life and being a spectator in your own life. In fact, we know from people dying in hospice care that that is their number one regret, that they lived someone else's life and didn't dare to even conceptualize or pursue their ideal life.


We also know from self-determination theory that all living beings, we're all striving to accomplish something. You can't wake up and just exist. There has to be a purpose. And then, finally, I'll just quote Dan Buettner of Blue Zones. He went around the world as a National Geographic explorer, and he found all of the communities where people live long, healthy lives, not just long lives, healthy lives, positive lives. And he found one of the key common denominators in these communities all over the world is that every single one of them woke up with purpose. Every single one of them knew there was something unique that they offered to the world that usually involves serving others that gave them a reason. “Ikigai” is the Japanese word to get up. And if we don't have that, we really do begin to die while we're alive.

Bright Dickson (05:34):

That's a lot to think through. But, Caroline, it reminds me of that idea of everything grows towards the light, and if you don't have a light, you’ve got to decide what your light is, and that's the direction you're going to grow in.

Caroline Adams Miller (05:45):


Bright Dickson (05:46):

When we come back, we're going to talk about money goals specifically because this is Money and Mindset, and you know we’ve got to talk about that. So we'll be right back.

Brian Ford (06:05):

On a recent episode, we talked about budgeting as a way to envision your future self. And setting money goals also, it's a big deal for your future self. And as we just discussed, also setting goals is a pretty big deal for your current self in addition. So we're going to spend this segment talking about financial goal setting, and really what we all can do to make sure we're looking out for our future selves. So Caroline, how should we think about setting goals around money? Are financial goals different than goals in other areas?

Caroline Adams Miller (06:35):

What an interesting question. I do think we should all have financial goals. The question is, what's the “so what” behind those financial goals? What is the number that you're trying to achieve or the number of possessions that you're shooting for? What does that represent to you? Because in goal setting, we know there are two kinds of goals. Intrinsic, things that you set for yourself, and there's a passion and a purpose behind them. And then extrinsic, which some people have for financial goals, they just want to pile it up or impress others or please somebody else, parents, community, whatever, the world at large. Those extrinsic goals not only don't make you happy as you pursue them, but when you achieve them, there's a hollowness.

Bright Dickson (07:20):

Yeah, that makes sense. And I think that extrinsic, intrinsic thing plays in, Brian, a lot when you talk about values too, right? So how do they cross over to other goals? So do financial goals intersect with other goals? So if I want to achieve something in my career, am I going to have to cross-plan financial goals around that? How do those intersect, Caroline?

Caroline Adams Miller (07:41):

Yeah. So for years I've been trying to figure out how to bridge OKRs with KPIs because that's a language many people speak. The missing piece is the in-between. How do you actually get to the KPIs if you have an objective and key result you're pursuing? And one of the key things you have to actually look at—I call it the bridge methodology—is “I” for investments. What are the investments you're going to have to make of your time, your money, your resources, your energy in order to achieve a specific kind of goal?


You don't want to have stupid grit. You don't want to be pursuing something to the detriment of yourself or other people. But we do have to have money, just for example, to go to school, to learn something new, take a micro-course to add some knowledge to your life. So you always have to be asking yourself, what is the investment of money, time, energy that I need to make in order to accomplish this hopefully extrinsic goal, a dream I have that's my dream that I set for myself.

Brian Ford (08:42):

I like that, Caroline. I like when you said “so what,” and Bright you know I love talking about values. I mean, I love personal finance not because I like people to pile up their money, although that is okay, but I like people to have that “so what.” What if you did reach your financial goals? So what? What would it mean in your life? And as people start to contemplate what they value, what they care most about in life, whether that's centered around their family, it might be travel or their children's education, then we can start to realize, okay, now I know what I'm really working towards when it comes to these goals. It's not just the piling up of money and looking good in front of other people. So I appreciate that conversation. Thank you. Well, Caroline, what keeps us from achieving or even pursuing our financial goals, and what can we do to get around these obstacles as we start to goal set?

Caroline Adams Miller (09:33):

Oh, so many things. Between us and our positive outcomes, if we have another hour I could really go into it, but I'll just say a few of them. One is willpower. And truly one of the biggest concerns in the field of positive psychology is what has happened to the self-regulation that used to be so much more common. The Protestant work ethic in the United States, we live in a quick-fix society. If you have to work hard for it, you may not want to put in the time. Everybody wants to take a shortcut. Not everybody, of course, but that's a piece of it.


Another big one is who's the tribe around you? What are you listening to? I mean, we know the easiest way to change a habit is to change the circle around yourself. And that's social contagion theory. So you really have to take a look at who is around you. That could be one of the biggest determinants, along with your environment. When you wake up, what are the signs you see? What are the places that you go to that impact how you think? And also, what is the story that you tell yourself about who you are?


I ask all my clients to figure out whether or not they're living their “should” self, their actual self, the person they just wake up as. Should self is the person you think you should be because someone else told you to be that way. Or your ideal self. Who's your ideal self? Who do you want to be? What is it that's going to make life meaningful? And so I ask everybody to think about that, because if you haven't taken the time to think about that, you might just be living an actual or should life and passing out programs for everyone else who's on stage in your life, but you're not on stage yourself.

Bright Dickson (11:14):

I really relate to that should thing, Caroline, I feel like I've got a lot of shoulds that I haven't maybe really examined, and I think I've gotten some of them, but I think even maybe five or 10 years ago I was just ruled by shoulds. And it was a constant anxiety that I really hadn't thought through at all, because while I had all these shoulds, I also resented the shoulds. And it meant that I didn't get that much done, which is another theme I want to pick up on, is sometimes I get a little stuck at the beginning. So next we're going to look at some practical tips for really going after your goals. So stay tuned.


All right, Caroline. So let's say I've come up with a few goals that I want to achieve this year. I've even written them down. I'm feeling good about it. What now? Caroline, let's get into how we can take these abstract goals and turn them into concrete action. So once I've set my goals, financial or otherwise, what should I do to get started pursuing them?

Caroline Adams Miller (12:25):

There's a bunch of things I think you have to think through before you just say, "Here's my goal, and off I go." That's not a professional thing I can encourage people to do. The first thing you have to ask yourself, is this my goal? Is this someone else's goal? What's the “so what”? So what if I achieve it? How's my life different? How's someone else's life different? What does it mean to me?


But goal-setting theory by Locke and Latham says at that point, if you set the right goals—meaningful, intrinsic goals that are yours—you have to ask yourself, is it a learning goal, something I've never done before? Or is it a performance goal, something I have done before? Meaning you could write those steps down on a checklist and teach it to somebody else. A learning goal is a do-your-best condition, which means you have to give yourself grace in the process of learning how to achieve that goal.


And the first thing you want to do is flatten your learning curve. Who else has accomplished this goal? Who else has successfully quit smoking? Who else has successfully lost weight? Who else has successfully changed their job or their profession? There are people who've done many of the goals that are common to all of us. And you really do need to study exemplars of success and flatten your learning curve as fast as possible.


When you can, when you do, it becomes a performance goal that you can replicate. So what's a performance goal? Performance goal is something, let's just say you're a factory where Oreos are being created and you know how to create an Oreo cookie. It comes out on the assembly line and there's nothing new, no technology. You can say at the end of the day we're going to have 500,000 Oreo cookies in this factory. Well, the same is true of us. If we've done something before, the only way to set what's called a challenging and specific goal, a goal that's passed your fingertips is to take what you've done before and ask yourself, how do I challenge myself to go outside of my comfort zone and see what I could accomplish if I really did push myself?


Most people, however, set no goals or low goals, not challenging and specific. Low goals is where we're most comfortable because we don't want to disappoint ourselves and we don't want other people to see that we're not accomplishing our goals. The courageous thing to do is to stretch your arm out, look past your fingertips and say, "That's where I'm shooting to go," because that's where people end up proudest of themselves. One last thing I'll say. The research is pretty clear. At the end of every day, we all scan our days for what we did that day that we are proud of. We all do it, whether we know it or not. And the only things that end up making us feel proud of ourselves are the things we did that were outside of our comfort zone. And so if you're actively avoiding that kind of stress, you're living a very unfulfilling, probably unhappy slash mediocre life, where at the end of life you're going to turn around and go coulda, shoulda, woulda.

Brian Ford (15:22):

Powerful. I also really like when you started talking about studying exemplars of success. I like that. So, Caroline, what structures, what support and feedback should we put in place as we start pursuing our goals?

Caroline Adams Miller (15:36):

Well, there's so many interesting TED Talks that say, "Tell everyone, don't tell everyone." So let me tell you what the science says. The science says tell the right people. And so what you want to do is set your goals according to the standards I just put out here, and just shortcut, I wrote all this in Creating Your Best Life, which ended up being the first evidence-based goal-setting book ever published. So I know we're giving a lot of people information quickly, but you want to spend some time looking at this.


You want to tell the right people because you do need accountability. You do need cheerleading. You do need support, and you need people to help you pivot or recognize the signs that your life or your pursuits of that goal no longer suit you. And they might be hurting you, as I said, with stupid grit.


So who are the right people? I'll just add that piece right here. We know from Shelly Gable's research that when you share a piece of good news or a dream with somebody else, there's only one right way to respond. And that is the tell of whether or not someone should be in your life or not, whether they should be privy to your goals and dreams or not. And that is, did they respond with curiosity and enthusiasm? Any other response, they just told you don't share anything personal, private, or important about yourself with them, because they will derail you, probably more quickly than you think.

Bright Dickson (16:59):

Yeah, and it's amazing, isn't it, how fast people kind of drop once you put people to that test. That you're like, ooh, not that person, not that person. And I think for me, I followed the sharing the goals with the people who I know are going to have that curiosity and enthusiasm. And to me, it's less about sharing the goal and more about knowing that I matter to them, that my goal matters to them, and therefore I matter to them. And having that sort of feedback is critical.

Caroline Adams Miller (17:29):

And I'll just say there's a gender breakdown on this topic that is really worth just sharing here. And that is something like 84% of women do admit to being surrounded by frenemies, friends who are enemies. And why do women do this? Why do we shoot ourselves in the foot, lower our chances of accomplishing our goals? It's because we don't want people to think we're not nice. And that can really handicap a woman who wants to live her best slash most ideal life. And we know in the field of positive psychology that we're in a crisis situation with middle-aged women who are dying younger than any previous generation from diseases of despair, which is often just a lack of purpose.


I think women have to be ultra-cautious about who they spend time with, who they listen to, whose phone calls they take. I think women have to be even more thoughtful about this topic and should all be in carefully designed mastermind groups to help them be accountable to pursue and achieve their goals.

Bright Dickson (18:32):

Yeah. It's like to achieve is kind of vulnerable sometimes, right? Because you're putting yourself on the line and you want to be surrounded by people who are game for that and who are participating in that, too. So Caroline, I have this terrible problem where I will set a goal and I'm like, yeah, I'm going to do it, this year's the year, but then I don't really follow through. And it's like it just takes too much to get going. So number one, am I alone in that? And number two, what do I do about it? Help me, help me, Caroline.

Caroline Adams Miller (19:05):

Oh boy. No, you're not alone. And actually as we're recording this, we're coming up on the saddest Monday of the year, which is called Blue Monday by researchers, because most people have abandoned New Year's resolutions by the third Monday of January because they haven't set goals correctly. They've set too many, they're overwhelmed. Credit card statements come in, et cetera, et cetera. People abandoned their goals.


So no, it's not uncommon to feel the way you do. I think for goals that involve willpower, it's important to strip it down to one, not two, not three, one. The skills you learn in having willpower, in overcoming short-term kind of distractions can transfer into other kinds of goals. So I think you have to be really careful about how many goals you're setting. I also think this bridge methodology, brainstorming, relationships, investments, decision making, grit, and excellent standards is something everyone should walk through in order to make sure that they've created that platform for success.


We all want to get into action, but if you haven't done the research to create the platform, and one is who should be in my life and who shouldn't? I think we are derailed unconsciously by the people around us and the environment around us more often than we think. And so a lot of different factors have to be looked at.


But I'll just throw one fun thing at you. Before I went back to school to get this positive psychology degree in 2005, I did a daylong workshop with the world's procrastination expert. I didn't know such a thing existed. But anyway, it was brilliant. It was fun. But he said something that has stuck with me and changed my life. He said, "We all have a tendency to procrastinate that involves something called anticipation of a hassle." So we start to build up in our heads that whatever it is we're going to do is a hassle, and we think it's going to be all this energy and time to get set up to pursue the goal. The number of goals that are abandoned because we anticipate a hassle instead of just getting started is extraordinary. So everybody should map their own procrastination sequence and break it because it's a chain of thoughts and behaviors that we can all break, but we all have a chain and we need to break it and then be accountable.


Absolutely be accountable to the right people to get going. And I can't think of anything better than a mastermind group. That was my most recent book, an e-book, because I think everyone should be in one. And if you don't have a group that has your back, that knows your dreams and goals, that sees and sculpts you the way you want to be seen and sculpted, it's called the Michelangelo Effect, then I'm not sure how you can actually get traction. Because getting going is hard, continuing to go, you need support to. So those are my thoughts.

Brian Ford (21:57):

That's terrific advice, Caroline. Thank you. I am not immune to that problem, either. As we wrap up this episode of Money and Mindset With Bright and Brian, we want to just touch on a few of our top takeaways. I'll go ahead and kick us off. And I told myself I'm only going to have one, but I've got a couple. I can't wait to go back and listen to this episode again just simply as a listener. But a couple things that stuck with me.


One, happy people go after hard goals. That one hit me pretty hard because I feel like I was setting more difficult goals early on in my career and in my marriage, and I think I've gotten a bit complacent. So happy people go after hard goals. And then the second one that stuck out to me is when you tell somebody about your goals, did they respond with curiosity and enthusiasm? And I will tell you that I thought about that one, not just about thinking about the people I tell my goals to, which I know that was the purpose of the statement, but I started thinking about myself. And I think that one hit me. I want to be the type of person that when someone tells me their goals, I want to respond with curiosity and enthusiasm. So those are my top two takeaways. But, Caroline, what's one or a couple things that you'd like to leave us with that stick with you from our conversation today?

Caroline Adams Miller (23:15):

Boy, I love your takeaways, by the way. You really hit on two huge ones, especially am I an active, constructive responder to others? That's a perfect response to that. I didn't say this pivotal research that I do want to share because it fits into everything we talked about, and I was stunned by it, and I've lived my life differently. A new piece of research in 2005 showed that all success in life is preceded by being happy first, not vice versa. And if that doesn't hit you between the eyes, I don't know what does. Because I think a lot of us think we'll be happy after we accomplish our goals. The research flipped that upside down. So the first thing, the main takeaway from all of this for me is, are you flourishing in your own life? And if you're not bringing out the best in yourself, showing up as your most positive, optimistic, zestful self, then I'm not sure how you're going to have the wherewithal and the subsequent energy to actually pursue those goals you've carefully set. Because it lays the groundwork, it's the rocket fuel for success.

Bright Dickson (24:16):

Yeah, that's huge, Caroline. I think for me, my two are number one this difference, this discrimination between a performance goal and a learning goal. I think that's really helpful for me. And then eventually, once you learn it, your learning goals become performance goals, right, if I'm understanding it?

Caroline Adams Miller (24:32):


Bright Dickson (24:33):

But that difference makes it really helpful for me to give myself that grace when I'm learning something new. Because I love to learn, but sometimes I don't like that messy middle part where everything's not tucked in and looking perfectly. So that's really helpful for me. And dagger in the heart on the anticipation of the hassle thing. That gets me so hard because I really do anticipate that hassle. And then I'm like, oh, it's not worth the hassle. And then I just miss out on something that could be really cool, really great, really fun. And that's part of the learning, right? The hassle is part of the learning. And I think that that really got me. So thank you for those two things, Caroline.

Brian Ford (25:23):

Okay, well that's going to do it for this episode of Money and Mindset With Bright and Brian. But Caroline will be with us for our next episode to talk more about grit and how it plays into our lives. And for everyone listening out there, a friendly reminder of some other great resources for getting joy out of building better money habits, you can head to

Bright Dickson (25:47):

And if you liked this episode and want to share the good vibes and great advice on goal setting, please consider telling your friends and family about the podcast and be sure to subscribe for episode alerts. So we'll see you next time.

Speaker 4 (26:04):

This episode of Money and Mindset With Bright and Brian is brought to you by Truist.

When we set out to do difficult things, we make it possible to achieve what we really want in our personal and financial lives. Research backs this—showing that the happiest people don’t have easy goals!

In the first part of a special two-part episode of “Money and Mindset With Bright and Brian,” bestselling author and executive coach Caroline Adams Miller joins Bright and Brian to discuss the link between your happiness and your goals.

Listen in to learn:

  • Why your financial goals should be aligned with your purpose
  • How to set challenging and specific goals without becoming overwhelmed
  • What your support system should look like—and how to support others
“We all scan our days for what we did that we are proud of. The things that end up making us feel proud of ourselves are the things we did that were outside of our comfort zone.” –Caroline Adams Miller

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