Plans Are Not Goals

Anyone who has read any of my articles related to the subject of
learning/teaching guitar knows I am very goal oriented in my teaching.
Before I begin teaching or coaching (yes there are differences between the
two) I always begin by asking the student what his or her musical goals are
(both the short and long term). Most of these students don't really have
(or at least aren't able to communicate to me) any true goals. Because of
this, they often have had only limited success in working with previous
teachers, and usually even less success trying to teach themselves. It is
easy getting almost every student to answer my question, "What are your
short and long musical goals?" the problem is, they confuse plans with
goals. In their mind, these two ideas are interchangeable, having the same

A plan is: "something ones does towards the attainment of a desire goal",
"something one will do towards the attainment of a desire goal", or at
least, "something one intends to do towards the attainment of a desire

A goal is: "something one wants to achieve", "something one wants to attain"
or "something one wants to obtain".

At first it may appear that these things (plans and goals) are basically the same, but the nuance of the two meanings are really very different. In simple terms: goals are the "What", plans are "How".

Here are some typical replies I receive from new students when I
ask them about their goals:

  • I want to learn lots of music theory.
  • I want to go to a music college or conservatory.
  • I want to relocate to another city/country where there are more
  • I want to play fast.
  • I want to play on stage.
  • I want to learn more about the guitar.

My response to these types of answers would often be, why? For
what reasons do you want this? If I can give you these things today, what
will you do next? To want anything from the list above is OK, but those
things are only tools (or potential tools), now what will you do with these
tools if you get them?

I like offering people this analogy. Lets say you and I (a couple of
musicians) want to go into business together as home builders, mechanics or
general handymen. We will invest all of our savings and maybe take out a
loan from a bank to have additional money to buy all the tools we will need
(plus a truck, rent a small office, pay for advertising, buy insurance,
etc.). Now we have hundreds of tools, so we should be in business right?
Wrong! We (let's assume we both) have no idea how even build a simple bird
house correctly, so how could we build a house, or fix a furnace or remodel a
kitchen? You see, we spent all of our efforts on obtaining tools and other
things we would need, but never invested anything (time or money) in
learning how to use all the tools we have. Don't be the mechanic that owns
every tool available, but cannot build (or fix) anything with them.

Here is an excerpt from an email I received recently from a very
talented guitarist living in Brazil who truly wants to pursue a career in
music as a virtuoso guitarist, "Thank you for kind reply Mr. Hess and
about your interest of my goal and information about your lessons. I have
some answer for you now. I think about want to live in America in a big city
with musical environment. I want to be all times with other good players.
I do not have good way to learn music theory here and I think it is
important I can master it in the future. I want to go to music school so I
can have a certificate."

My reply to him: "You said your goals are to study music at school and want
to live in "musical environment".

"These types of things are part of plans, but they are not true
goals. If you come to the USA and go to college here, what will you do
after you graduate? Going to school is a great thing, but it is nothing
more than a partial plan. It is only a mid term strategy. Before spending
tens of thousands of dollars on school, ask yourself what you see yourself
doing 2, 5 and 10 years after college. The answer to that question is your
goal! Living among music and musicians is part of an environment and a plan
but it is also not a goal itself, right?. You want more out of life than
only to live with a bunch of musicians don't you? I think you also want
more out of life than a piece of paper at the end of 4 years of hard work
right? Define for yourself exactly what these other (bigger aspirations

"Tell me what your (musical life) dreams are. We should work
together from focusing on these dreams, not only to concentrate on
relocating here and finding a school to attend besides your lessons with me.
This is always the place to start before you plan anything. Know and define
your long term outcome, then I can help you with strategies to get there.
In my opinion, it would be a mistake to blindly make plans without knowing
where your destination is. Think about it. It is the future of your life
we are talking about. Once you have clarity of purpose, I can begin to
teach you."

After several more emails back and forth we were able to discover what it was he really wants out from music (and from life). As you can probably guess, in the case of my Brazilian student, his real goal (among others) was to become a professional musician. Of course, some of you may have more simplistic goals (which is perfectly fine too). Whatever it is you truly want, know what it is and know why you want it. After that has been clarified in your mind, you will be ready (hopefully with the aid
of a teacher, coach or at least mentor) to begin truly effective planning.

Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.

Visit his site to discover highly effective music learning resources, guitar lessons, music career mentoring and tools including free online assessments, surveys, mini courses and more.

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