I used to make New Year’s resolutions, but none of them ever came to fruition. In the same vein, I’ve spent a lifetime making wishes when blowing out birthday candles. I don’t recall any of those wishes ever materializing. Why?
I suspect the key lies in one word of the above dictionary definition: determined. But there’s a twist. Yes, a course of action must be decided, but the far greater element is whether you, the resolution maker, have determination. Why do you want this thing? Is it an idle fancy or does it spring from a need so deep that not achieving it would constitute an unbearable failure?
“Wish. An expression of a desire, longing.” —The American Heritage Dictionary
My best friend and I started writing novels when we were 19. Started is the key word. I don’t think any of our projects ever made it past the 10,000-word mark. Some of our ideas were damned good, and I still think they have the potential for great success. As a writing team, we work very well together. We’ve shared in a lot of fun and built many happy memories over the years. But there’s obviously a missing component somewhere. We were wishing to be authors. We were not resolved. There was never a sense of fighting against unbearable failure, nothing compelling that said “this must be done,” and without that our pursuits went where nearly all such birthday and New Year’s wishes go: nowhere.
Consider weight loss, a topic near and dear to me during 2011. Why do so many of us try and fail to lose weight? First off, the principles and methodologies recommended by most “experts” are inherently flawed. More important, though, is the matter of resolve. Losing weight—making any life-changing behavioral modification, in fact—requires a foundation of deep-seated resolve. A desire to “look better” is superficial. Even wishing to “feel better” is too nebulous. As I detailed in my earlier blog post, my own resolve springs from too many years of painful memories spent watching loved family members erode and become crippled by diseases that could have been prevented.
In my 40th year, officially entrenched in “middle age,” I resolved not to force such memories on my own children. The thought of doing so filled me with despair. It would mark an unbearable failure, and this became the foundation from which I was able to achieve my goal.
In Where Does It All Go?, we detail how to construct such a foundation through the identification of one’s values and goals. In a nutshell, values are the core principles we hold that define who we are by shaping our thinking and actions. Goals are the things we plan to achieve. (My use of the word “plan” rather than “wish” is not accidental.)
Now, here’s the key idea: it is almost impossible to achieve your goals when they are not in harmony with your values. This is part of why dieters stay fat when they lack values that will inspire a healthy lifestyle. This is why people who wish to be rich rarely become so, because they lack the values that align with deep success and the accumulation of wealth.
The months I spent writing and rewriting these chapters reflected my own soul searching. Who was I? What did I really want? What difference would it make? Where was my foundation?
Slowly, I found answers. Motivational author Tony Robbins often says that to get good answers we must start by asking better questions. I finally started asking them and forced myself not to shy away until I had answers that could withstand constant scrutiny and cross-examination. With my life’s gas tank at the statistical half-full/empty mark, I was increasingly aware of the need to find the right answers before even more years slipped away.
What was the result? At the end of my 39th year, I self-published my first book. Sure, it was a book of poetry, and I don’t aspire to be a poet in the professional sense, but it was a start. In my 40th year, I self-published three non-fiction books. Proud as I am of these, I still view them as a warm-up, a learning experience. I’m stocking my writing shop with the tools necessary to build bigger and better works to come. This type of one-step-at-a-time thinking was totally alien to me in my youth, and I believe it’s a vital component in successful goal achievement.
Naturally, everyone has different values and goals. Here at the dawn of a new year, I wanted to take this opportunity to share mine with you in the hope that they might inspire you to find your own answers. Don’t let your New Year’s resolutions be another idle toast at midnight, another wish that vanishes into the air like smoke from a blown out candle. We are not here to dissolve into particulate nothingness. We are here to build, achieve, and realize our individual potential.
My Values and Goals
My collaborator recommends keeping your values and goals lists down to five items or less. I’ve found that a longer list of values can usually be consolidated. The simpler and more foundational the concept, the more it encompasses. In my list, I strove for a mix of near- and intermediate-term items. Usually, goals with a longer time horizon will necessitate the establishment of shorter-term mileposts. This is why I used the word “plan” earlier. Without a plan, nothing ever gets accomplished, which is why so many wishes fail. Not only do they lack a value foundation, they also lack a defined strategy of steps that leads to achievement.
I maintain a Google Doc that serves primarily as my daily to-do list, but it begins with the following values and goals lists so that I can see and review them several times each day. Many people believe that such reinforcement has significant psychological benefits.
Value #1: Following my bliss.
Joseph Campbell, this key bit of advice from the master of comparative mythology and religion resonates deeply with me. Today, I can point to virtually every major failure or mistake in my life and see how it stemmed from not following my bliss. I failed to pursue that which brings me true and meaningful happiness and elicits harmony in my life.
As an example, not too long ago, I spent two years studying how to day trade financial options. I thought I had the brains and will to be successful at it and thus find a shortcut to the riches I desired. This goal did not align with my values. Deep down, I know I’m not a financial whiz. The pursuit cost me many thousands of dollars, and in the time I spent trying to master day trading I could have written a novel...perhaps two.
Value #2: Nurturing and elevating those around me.
As an only child, I grew up with a sense of selfish entitlement. It took a long time, parenthood, and the influence of my sublime wife to shift my world view. Now it’s clear to me that lasting happiness derives from helping and sharing with others, not from things one consumes or hordes. Sometimes, old habits die hard, but I combat them as best I can and believe that building up others is the surest way to improve oneself.
Value #3: Educating and entertaining the world through writing.
Why do I love to write? If I’m honest, there’s probably an element of narcissism to it, but the years have shown me that I derive little satisfaction from writing that does not somehow positively impact the reader. I’ve been paid thousands of dollars for writing projects that I found boring and meaningless, and invariably I finish such projects feeling empty and unsatisfied. It’s not about the money, which I both need and appreciate. It's something else. For me, writing is one of the few tools I have for realizing value #2. I discovered when involved with theater in high school that I derive immense satisfaction from entertaining people, but I’m a better writer than an actor (I hope). And to my mind, educating people is one of the best ways possible to nurture and elevate them.
By now, you should see that these three values are complementary and interlocking—a sure sign that they are harmonious facets of a single entity.
Value #4: Relentless pursuit of increasing effectiveness.
More broadly, how can one become more effective in the achievement of goals? Whether the answer is time management, knowledge accumulation, practicing skills, or any number of similar things, I believe it’s fundamentally important to strive constantly for better tools and practices with which to attain our objectives. Again, this value is complementary with the preceding three.
Over time, I’ve experimented with having other values on this list, but they inevitably strike me as being personally irrelevant or just more complex iterations of these four ideas. So for now, the list stands at four items.
Goal #1: I will be a full-time book author by my 50th birthday.
And to think, once upon a time, I wished to have my first best-selling novel on store shelves by the age of 25. The irony is that in my early 20s, I had far more time and far fewer responsibilities than I do now, and it would have been much easier to write that novel. But because I didn’t recognize (or hadn’t yet cultivated) the four values described above, I was invariably distracted by pursuits that were not in harmony with my own best interests.
Much as I find some aspects of my career in journalism and freelance writing rewarding, it’s virtually impossible to retire in my line of work. There is no residual income stream. Every new dollar must be generated with work that starts from scratch, and I haven’t seen a per-word rate raise in over a decade. Needless to say, this doesn't make things any easier as I get older. Thus it’s imperative to begin cultivating passive income streams with works that will continue to offer value to readers and generate income over the long-term. With a little luck and a mountain of hard work, my plan is to have these passive income streams at least covering my basic living expenses by 2020. This is a finite, measurable objective.
Goal #2: I will have amassed a $100,000 cash cushion by my 45th birthday.
Why not? I’m nowhere close to this amount today (although I could have achieved it already if not for the value-less blunders made in my 30s). But I believe that if I live each day in accordance with my values and direct my efforts accordingly, this is feasible. Again, this goal is a finite, measureable objective that lends itself well to periodic mileposts.
Goal #3: I will send my children to Oregon Episcopal School.
Like many self-employed people, on paper, I make too much money to qualify for financial aid (which was how my dad was able to send me). If I ignore amassing a cash cushion, this goal becomes more feasible, but I can’t sacrifice immediate financial security, especially in the current economic climate, for the more questionable necessity of a superior education. You don’t build a gazebo when your home’s roof is leaking.
So for this goal, I don’t have mileposts or definite dates, which makes it uncomfortably close to being a wish. The difference is that this goal is founded on my values—specifically #2 and to a lesser degree numbers 1 and 4. Also, in my mind, not sending my kids to OES or an equivalent school (of which there’s really only one in our area) would constitute a profound failure on my part.
Goal #4: I will be able to do 10 consecutive pull-ups by my 42nd birthday.
Now we come to the short-term items. Last year, my goal was to lose 40 pounds by my 41st birthday, and I made it. The fact that I achieved this pales beside the fact that I was able, largely through my writing, to educate others about my methods and inspire them to pursue similar life changes. Clearly, this aligns well with my values.
This year, I’m ready to progress beyond weight loss and into general fitness. Obviously, there are many ways to measure fitness, but in the interest of keeping things simple, I’ve selected a simple goal: 10 pull-ups. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t been able to do a complete pull-up since junior high. As a child, fitness was never a priority in my family, and it shows.
On the surface, pull-ups doesn’t seem to mesh with my values, but I know that to be able to achieve this goal, I will have to cultivate a bed of learning and discipline, some of which I will hopefully be able to pass on to those around me.
Goal #5: I will publish my first novel by my 42nd birthday.
Here it is, set in stone. There is no more time for dilly-dallying. I have a good idea already under development that I think is both entertaining and, to a lesser degree, educating. More importantly, in the hour each morning during which I work on this book, I can sense how right it feels to be working on it. In that one hour, I am pursuing my bliss.
The book may bomb. It could end up sucking. It is, after all, my first novel that will be completed, and I have no illusions about the odds of hitting a home run my first time at bat. But to achieve goal #1, goal #5 must happen, and it should assist in the pursuit of goals #2 and #3. Again, cooperation between goals is important.
That’s it. The perhaps scary and long-winded peek inside my head is over, and you now understand the process I went through in creating feasible goals rather than idle New Year’s resolutions. I hope you can do something similar.
Don’t just blow an idle wish into the breeze when that big ball drops. Make a plan...and make it happen.