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How to set goals that lead to fulfilment, even if you don’t achieve them

By Laurie van Dalm, Chief of Staff at Permutive

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

How often have you achieved a goal you set, only to find that the feeling of achievement all too quickly evaporated to make place for the “now what”, or worse, the “so what”? You’ve landed that promotion, you ran that marathon. 

You achieved what you set out to do, and everyone agrees it’s impressive. And yet, somehow there is a lingering feeling of letdown. 

Or perhaps you didn’t quite achieve the goal, and you’re left feeling guilty and perhaps a bit ashamed. 

Here’s why this keeps happening: if you measure yourself by norms of success that have no grounding in your own values and aspirations, you will lose even if you win.

It’s tempting and easy to measure our success based on arbitrary norms that we are conditioned to value. Too often we set goals not because they align with our own personal definition of success, but because the rest of the world “get” them and therefore they receive acknowledgement, praise and support. Those norms are often binary (either you win or lose) and insatiable (more is always better). 

As an alternative, let me show you the framework I use myself to set goals that can help you feel fulfilled, no matter whether you achieve them or not.

Understand your aspirations 

It starts with understanding what your aspirations are. Aspirations describe a qualitative state. They are something to which you aspire but you can’t ever fully achieve nor can it be objectively measured. If you struggle to identify your aspirations, think about the common denominator in the things that move you into action. The causes you support, the courses you’ve taken, the travels you enjoyed most. What was it about these things that gave you energy? 

Let’s take an example: I aspire to learn new things every day. 

There is no objective measure of learning, so there is no end point to this aspiration.

Set your goals, but don’t get too attached to them

Next, you set your goals. These are the efforts you want to experiment with in order to achieve those aspirations. They can be short and explosive, or long and sustained. I say experiment because it’s important you discard them if they don’t serve either your aspirations or your values (but more about that later). In our learning example you may set the goal of learning to fly a rocket ship to the moon. 

Be explicit about the conditions created by your values

Finally and arguably most importantly you want to define your values. In this context your values are the conditions under which you are willing to achieve your goals.

For example: I value time with my family. Therefore I don’t want all my rocket-flying training to get too much in the way of spending time with them. Let’s say your grandmother is visiting who you haven’t seen in a very long time but it clashes with anti-gravity training. Because you’ve been explicit about the conditions under which you are willing to achieve your goals, you say no to training that evening. 

What’s more, understanding the conditions that your values create allows you to eliminate those feelings of shame. It’s not that you are not good enough or lazy, you simply are choosing to honor your values. Also, who knows, you might learn more from speaking to your grandmother then you will ever do from launching into space.

Check in

What is important here is that you check in with yourself regularly, every three weeks or so. Remind yourself of your aspirations and values and then see how you are tracking against your goals. If you managed to launch that rocket into space, great! But don’t forget to check if you aren’t compromising on your values in the process. Have you not gotten any closer? Review if the goal was aligned enough with your aspirations or whether it was too prohibitive given your values. 

The most important thing to remember is that a goal that isn’t aligned to an aspiration or is pursued in a way that runs contrary to your values is worthless. It might still get you recognition, but it won’t give you any fulfilment. Even if it’s rocket science. 

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