In the past few posts, we’ve looked at why goals work and how one should write them.  But there is a deeper question:  what should be the subject(s) of your goals?  Let’s take a closer look.

The Substance – The Subject of Goals

Most people associate goals with their career.  That is only one possible area of focus.  In fact, I strongly urge that achievers should set and meet goals in a wide variety of different categories that go far beyond the workplace.

Why?  We are not unidimensional. Each of us has interests that extend in differing directions. By acknowledging this, and setting goals in these different areas, we may achieve greater overall satisfaction.  We may also confront difficult issues of balance (career and family, financial and toys and adventure) while we can still take meaningful steps to mediate these potential challenges and conflicts.

Thus, in my personal goal-setting process, I include the following subjects:

Personal Mastery:  including personal development (e.g., new skills), education, health, and creativity. Here, in my own personal goals, I have goals concerning topics that I want to learn about, physical weight and vital statistics goals, and creative goals involving writing, music, and fine arts.

Connection: including family, personal relationships, community relationships, and business relationships. Here, I try to quantify the extent to which I maintain and develop new relationships and strengthen those I already have.

Someone might object that it is impossible to quantify goals in these areas. I disagree. Of course, a goal described as “build my relationship with my son” would be imprecise. But I can have goals like “take my son on at least one adventure per week,” “read at least an average of one story per night to my son,” and “teach my son an average of at least one new skill per week.” Similarly, having the goal of “enhance intimacy with my wife” is not going to provide sufficient precision (nor is it especially romantic). However, “take my wife on at least one date per week” would be a step in the right direction.

Career:  including current job objectives and future objectives. Too often, career goals focus on only money and promotion. There is much more to quantify here. One can have goals relating to on the job training, giving a certain number of presentations, making a certain number or dollar volume of sales, and numerous other similar objectives.

Contribution:  including charitable, public service, political, and other areas. Instead of exhorting ourselves to “get involved,” one could have goals like the following: “join at least one community service organization”; “be elected to a leadership position on the XYZ board”; “raise at least $5000 for the ABC Foundation”; “run for mayor,” or even “be elected mayor” (see the difference?).

Financial:  including revenues, expenses, investments, and so forth.

Spiritual:  including religious and other. Again, some may object to the notion of having spiritual “goals.” I’m not necessarily advocating that you write down the date by which you achieve nirvana (though I would not object). You could, instead, have goals relating to Scriptures you would like to read, good works you would like to perform, spiritual practice that you would like to engage in, or inquiry that you would like to make of a spiritual nature.

Toys and Adventure:  including places I want to visit, things I would like to own, and experiences I’d like to have before I die.

One excellent example of this last category is the famous “life list” created by adventurer and lecturer John Goddard.   When 15 years old, Goddard wrote 127 things that he wanted to do during his life, ranging from river exploration (seeing the Nile, the Amazon, the Congo, the Yangtze, etc.), to mountain climbing (Kilimanjaro, Matterhorn, Everest, etc.), to accomplishments like becoming an Eagle Scout, learning to water ski and snow ski, running a five-minute mile, and lighting a match with a .22 rifle.  Goddard has accomplished a remarkable 108 of these 127 goals, most having nothing to do with “career” as such.

Perhaps if Goddard had simply wandered through life without this list, he would have met many of these goals.  He might have ridden a horse in the Rose Bowl Parade.  He may have learned to fly an airplane.  He may have milked a poisonous snake, ridden elephants and camels and ostriches and broncos, and circumnavigated the globe.  But it is unlikely he would have accomplished so many things if he had not written these goals down and used them as a blueprint for life.

Generating Ideas.  Goal-setting can be a remarkably enjoyable and liberating process.  Many of us already have some goals, and refining them according to the process above is relatively simple.  Others may be stymied, uncertain about what they want or afraid of failure.  If you are in this position, the best way to begin is to imagine 100 things that you would like to do before you die—things you would do, as numerous people say, if you knew that you could not fail.  Use the categories above, or Goddard’s Life List, as prompts for your imagination.  Suspend judgment during the exercise.  You can always go back and cross something out later.

Identify Tensions and Contradictions.  In setting goals, be alert to the tensions that develop if you have goals that contradict each other.  If you aspire to become a Roman Catholic priest, but you also want to have a spouse, this might require substantial planning and forethought (there are some, I understand, who have achieved both). If you want to make an annual salary of $1 million per year and work full-time as a social worker, you may need to engage in some serious prioritization.

The remedy in each case is not necessarily to abandon one or both potentially conflicting goals, but to explore what can be done.  You may be able to prioritize, first making the money and then doing the social work (or vice versa).  Or you may be able to dig deeper behind a potential goal to determine what interests are being served and whether those interests could be served in some other way that would be compatible with other objectives.  (For example, maybe you don’t need $1 million per year if you budget properly.)

Goals Are Not Panaceas – But They Tend to Work. Having goals increases the likelihood of achievement.  Of course, they do not provide guarantees.  You might have goals but be unable or unwilling to follow through.  You may have goals that are unrealistic, so that you get discouraged.  Furthermore, research suggests that even having goals and achieving them is no guarantee of what we term “success.”  You might be so Type-A that you achieve and achieve without stopping to bask, without stopping to consider the reason for the achievement, and without having a plan for what you are aiming at.  Moreover, lots of things can go wrong along the way.

So goals are not a magic bullet.  But, on balance, they are one of life’s best practices.