What Studying A Bank Robber Taught Me About Goal Setting


I’ve been a banker for more than 20 years. During that time I’ve read and studied not only the finer points of bank finance, marketing and management – but also bank security. As part of those security studies I have repeatedly come across one name – Willie Sutton.
From the 1920s until 1952, a fellow by the name of Willie Sutton terrorized the banking industry by robbing over 100 banks and becoming the most famous bank robber to ever make the Most Wanted list.


As legend has it, after being arrested he was asked why he did it. Willie’s response: “because that’s where they money is!”

Willie’s chosen profession as a criminal is not one to admire. In fact, as a career banker I completely detest his chosen career path. But I hate to say it: we can probably learn something from Willie when it comes to goal setting.
There are three basic steps to goal setting. These steps are completely transferable and do not discriminate. Whether your goal is to be the President of the United States or the world’s most famous bank robber – they work just the same.

The three steps are simple yet more powerful than any $1,000 weekend training session you attend – unless it’s my $1,000 training session, of course!


Dr. Seuss once said, “waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite. Or waiting around for Friday night or waiting perhaps for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil or a better break or a string of pearls or a pair of pants or a wig with curls or another chance. Everyone is just waiting.”

So many of us spend our days and nights waiting for our big break, waiting to win the lottery, or just waiting for something better. We become bitter and live miserable lives because the big break never happens, our lottery numbers don’t come through and nothing good comes our way.

If we are to live our dreams the first step is simple – decide what we want to achieve in life. Willie Sutton knew one thing. He wanted to be a bank robber. His singular objective allowed his name to live on decades after his capture and well after his death. He knew what he wanted and he achieved it because he had great goal setting skills.

There are many areas in which we can achieve in life. There are goals related to career, personal finances, education, family, personal health and fitness, public service and play. No one can adequately focus on so many areas at once. As such, it is best to work on no more than three at one time to ensure that you do not spread yourself too thin.


No one goes to bed one night an ordinary person and wakes up the next day as President of the United States. The process takes years and requires following a path or roadmap that takes you from step A to step Z.

In the case of someone wanting to be President the steps may include: 1) become high school class president, 2) become fraternity/sorority president in college, 3) become editor of the law review in law school, 4) become a clerk for a high profile judge, 5) successfully run for mayor, state senator, governor and Congressman, 6) run and win the Presidency! Each one of these steps requires sub-steps. And each sub-step may also have to be broken down.
The best way to ensure success and the achievement of goals is to break each goal down to a set of steps that move you in the direction of the goal. The more granular each step becomes, the more realistic and likely the achievement of each goal. Each step should be measurable and given a timeframe for completion.

Instead of setting a vague goal of being President of the United States create a set of steps that are performed every day and that build upon each other so that one day in the future, the high school class president wakes up as the Commander In Chief. Also, revisit the steps continuously to refine the steps, add color and make any necessary changes.

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Willie Sutton did not look to rob the biggest bank. Nor did he choose to rob the one with the most money in the vault. He just decided to rob one bank after the other. Nothing fancy. Nothing too high profile. In the end, his misguided goal left him in jail for life. But his process of breaking it down to one-bank-at-a-time made him the greatest bank robber ever. Something that decades later, regardless of how lawless he may have been, we continue to talk about.


Taking the time to figure out what you want in life and then making the commitment to break it down to daily tasks is just a waste of time and amounts to just a mental exercise without execution.

Execution is the process of “doing.” Execution is picking up the phone, sending the email, taking the meeting, writing the letter, drafting the memo, getting the grades, etc. Without execution everything is just a dream.
Self help guru Denis Waitley once referred to this as living on Someday Isle. “Someday I’ll do this.” “Someday I’ll do that.” Nothing ever happens on Someday Isle. Execution takes you from Someday Isle to living your dreams.
The benefit of breaking down the goal into bite-sized pieces is that the job is not overly onerous and does not seem impossible. Breaking a goal down into small and manageable steps makes achieving goals achievable, realistic and less prone to procrastination.

Sutton’s bank robbery career spanned over 30 years. He was like a machine. He woke up, picked a bank, robbed it, moved on to the next. Flawless execution.

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These three steps, while extremely simple, are also extremely powerful. If you are serious about achieving your dreams the outcome as simple as 1-2-3!


Jesse Torres

JESSE TORRES is an author, Community Banker and Contributor to Click here to follow him on twitter.

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