the goal post

Posted on May 12, 2014

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I donated a coaching session to a non-profit I’m passionate about and the woman who won wants some help with her goals. And really, what could be more life-transforming? Every dream that you have will remain amorphous until you learn how to put it into some kind of realistic action plan.

Like most of my clients, you’re probably already familiar with the idea of SMART goals and you probably already know that it’s wise to break down big goals into small, manageable steps. If you’ve worked with me or read this blog, you may even be aware that getting through the scary obstacles that accompany any big goal usually requires a lot of self-bribery in the form of little rewards given to one’s self along the way.

So I don’t need to go over all of that. You already know how to set your goals. Except that you’re probably doing what most of us do, which is neglecting to see the forest for the trees.

Years and years ago, I used to be a middle school teacher. One of my favorite things to do was create curriculums and when I mentored new teachers on this complex skill, I would tell them what I was taught: Begin with the end in mind.

But the thing about curricula is that they have to be written before the students start the school year; they have to be written and planned before the teacher even knows the abilities or interests of the students, sometimes even before a budget has been approved.

Therefore, although you have to begin with the end in mind-you have to be able to articulate what exactly you want your students to learn- you can’t set anything in stone.  You have to set things up so that there’s some room to revise and tweak what you’re teaching to meet your students’ needs.  And if you really want your students to succeed, sometimes you have to be willing to completely throw out what you’ve planned for something that works better.

What I’m trying to say is: It’s hard to begin with the end in mind because there are so many unknowns. And yet, if you don’t begin with the end, you won’t know where or when or on what to focus your energy.

The solution that almost all of us have accepted, then, is to create short-term plans. Those of us who are goal-centered focus on things like completing a master’s degree, losing 20 lbs, remodeling the kitchen.

Not that these goals aren’t admirable or achievable, but really, what’s the point? Once you’ve got your degree or you’ve lost 6 sizes or you now have a kitchen with built-in shelving, then what? What are we really after when we make and achieve our goals?

And what about when we don’t achieve them? What do we do when a goal that we’ve made that turns out to a mistake? Usually we either keep trekking forward even though we know it isn’t right for us (the whole sunk cost fallacy) or we quit and feel like we’ve failed.

I’m arguing in favor of something different. I’m arguing in favor of accepting that one day, (hopefully one day far, far into the future) you aren’t going to be here any more. I’m talking about accepting your death as a real thing that will happen to you. Start there.

And then, rather than make a list of stuff you want to do or people you want to meet or things you want to acquire, start thinking about how you want your life to feel, how you want to feel in this one human life that you’ve been given. Because all of your goals actually come back to that, how you’re hoping they’ll make you feel.

Feelings are vague and they change constantly and they are very individual. This is why goal-setting workshops and strategic coaches and CEOs often ignore them in favor of more ‘substantial’ things, like lists and spreadsheets.

Feelings don’t seem stable enough on which to erect strong foundations.  What makes you feel successful and beautiful and happy and grateful may be much different from what makes me feel that way. And what makes you feel successful and beautiful and happy and grateful now may be much different from the things that evoke those emotions in you ten years from now.

The other day I was cleaning out a closet and I found an invoice from my stay in the ICU after my son was born. I had kept this invoice because there was sensitive information on it and I meant to shred it. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; that afternoon I had walked to the park with my 2.5 year old and he was cracking up while he watched two big fat bees chasing each other and I thought Had things gone a different way, I may never have seen this.  

Sometimes, the universe reminds us that we don’t actually have to be here at all.  We should keep in mind that the only thing any of us can know for sure is that things will change.

In some self-help book I read, it said to make a list of 1000 dreams and so I did. I have it hanging up in my office. It’s kind of like a watered-down bucket list because some of the dreams are just things I like to do that are easy to accomplish, like take a bubble bath in a quiet house or spend an hour reading a really good book. Some of the things are bigger plans, like taking a trip to Italy or writing a novel, and some of them are pipe dreams that I know realistically I will never have time to achieve.

But each time I look at that list, I feel a giddy sense of excitement. There’s so much to look forward to; there are so many adventurous possibilities ahead! That’s the whole point of it, I guess. Of crafting goals, I mean. They aren’t meant to imprison you or define you or determine your success or failure as a person. Done right, they are meant to make you feel good in the present moment and excited about the future. And they are meant to change, because you will change and your feelings will change.  

Be like the insightful teacher who understands and accepts that the curriculum she created over the summer doesn’t fit the students in her class in the fall. Be brave enough to choose something different. Give yourself permission to change.

Don’t wait until you’ve got that advanced degree to feel smart and accomplished. Don’t wait until you’re 20 pounds lighter to allow yourself to feel sexy. Don’t wait until you have granite counter tops to cook a dinner you love. Find ways to feel those feelings now because you have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Choose and make goals that make you excited to get up in the morning, sure, but don’t forget the whole point of the game.

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Posted in: Setting Goals