Set Your Own Goals, Not Somebody Else’s

When you’re a kid, life’s easy because you don’t have to make any scary, life-changing decisions.  Mom and Dad buy the food, decide where you’re going to live, take care of Christmas, and send you off to school.  All of your goals are clearly laid out, and until age 18, they pretty much look like this:


  1. Finish Grade 1
  2. Repeat Step 1 for Grades 2 through 12
  3. Get into a good college


When you get to college, your world opens up a bit, but not by much, since your goals are still pretty structured:


  1. Finish gen ed requirements
  2. Choose a major
  3. Fulfill X number of credits to finish said major
  4. Graduate


So basically from birth until age 22 our lives follow this set structure that allows us only the bare minimum amount of choice (“Which major do I want?”) without much room to forge our own paths.  This means most of us don’t get much practice making bigger choices about what we want to do and how to get there, so when we grow up and suddenly have all these options, we get overwhelmed because we’ve never had to make this many choices before.

Supposedly when you’re an adult you get to make your own goals, but in the real world, most people’s goal list looks like this:


  1. Get a job
  2. Get promoted at said job/Leave it for a better job (repeat as necessary)
  3. Make and save a bunch of money
  4. Retire


In general terms, that’s kind of it—though in the regular working world completing these steps involves a lot of little choices about what kind of job to get, how to get it, whether you need more education to get it, and how to save money after you’ve gotten it.  So you still have to make choices, but the broader pattern of goals stays pretty much the same.

Now let’s talk about people with creative pursuits whose goals aren’t as simple as everybody else’s.  Their lives are going to involve a lot more developing of their craft, making contacts, and maybe taking side jobs kind of related to what they want to do, all while having to keep the bills paid.  As I’ve talked about before, though, this path looks different for everyone, and there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for getting where you want to go—in fact, there are so many different ways that most of us feel overwhelmed just thinking about them.

The mind-boggling number of paths you can take makes it more even important for creative people to set their own specific goals.  If you don’t, you risk floundering in a sea of endless choices like that one player who takes forever to make a move in a board game because there are WAY too many options available.  In the board game world, we call this action paralysis, and it applies equally to real life.

I’m going to steal and tweak a metaphor from Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance here—he links it to relationships, but it applies equally well to life goals.  Let’s say you’re hungry, but you don’t know what you want to eat.  You could spend hours wondering whether to make lasagna or bacon or steamed clams, but then you wouldn’t be eating anything, or even getting ready to eat—you’d just be hanging around not eating, wondering what the best thing to eat would be.  Because you couldn’t make a choice, you might end up not eating at all, or wasting a lot of time before you finally did eat, or finally eating something you didn’t really like, and that’s not cool.


This guy’s goal should be to get a better spatula.

Now let’s say you’ve picked a goal: I’m going to make chicken fajitas! you proudly shout to the world.  Just by figuring out what you want to eat you’ve cut out the action paralysis and can now start moving toward the bigger goal of fulfilling your hunger.

The great thing about deciding you want chicken fajitas is that now, all of a sudden, a bunch of other steps become clear.  Now you know you need a chicken fajita recipe and not some other kind of recipe and can actually type something into the search box to find one.  Finding a recipe lets you know which ingredients you need, so you can go to the store and buy them instead of just wandering aimlessly through the aisles staring at ice cream and Honey Bunches of Oats.  Along the way maybe you also realize you need a bigger pan to cook them in, so you can choose to either buy one or borrow one from your roommate who’s a better cook than you.

That’s when you can actually get cooking, because you’ve been able to take all these preparation steps that seemed a lot more intimidating before you got started.

The point is that setting that specific goal (the chicken fajitas) helps you find the first step toward making it happen (finding a recipe), which then helps you figure out all those smaller steps.  The smaller steps aren’t really a big deal, but they can seem that way if you don’t have a goal to give you direction.

Let’s forget the food and get back to creative work—say you want to be a writer or an actor or a musician or jewelrymaker or blogger or anything else creative people want to do.  In my food metaphor above, this is the same as being hungry, since you know you want something but aren’t yet sure how to get it.

Deciding to make chicken fajitas is the equivalent of choosing the goal (or, more likely, goals) that’ll satisfy that hunger, that’ll get you to that creative place you want to be.  And once again, choosing those goals is the hard part, because everybody’s different, starts off in a different place, and has a different idea of what satisfying that hunger looks like (i.e., maybe instead of chicken fajitas you really want some delicious reuben stromboli).

I talked about this a few weeks ago, but just to reiterate, right now in addition to my Day Job I’m working pretty intently on 3 different but related writing goals:


  1. Finding a publisher for my novel about English teachers in Japan
  2. Finishing my in-progress novel about a creative writing program in the Midwest
  3. Regularly updating this blog


I keep myself accountable by posting these here so everybody reading can see them, but also by writing them prominently in my schedule book every week, along with the smaller steps I need to take along the way.  The goals serve as my driving force and help me keep my weeks organized, in addition to all the other Day Job stuff I have to do.

If you take away nothing else from this post, I recommend actually writing your goals down, which is the hands-down best way to keep you focused.  Write them in your journal, tape them to the wall, pin them to your Twitter feed, or write them on a piece of paper that you bury in the deepest drawer of your desk.  It doesn’t matter how you do it, but writing your goals down in a way that puts them in the real world is the first step toward getting organized and moving toward where you want to be.

You know, unless you want to just fall into the same basic path as everybody else…

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