Creating 2011, Part 1: New Year’s Goal Questions for No-Goals Creatives

I never make New Year’s resolutions. (I don’t feel so bad knowing that Luck Factor author and psychologist Richard Wiseman’s study points out this practice’s futility.) I don’t make goals. I’ve tried, but I forget about them within a day or two. Even as my businesses and my life as a writer have grown, goals just don’t factor into what gets me up in the morning.

Some 15 years ago, I led a department of 19 eclectic, rather brilliant English teachers for two crazy years as a stint as Department Chair. I was on fire, as usual, with trying to inspire the group to  revolutionize the way we taught writing. For a fleeting moment, the dean probably liked me. One day, an ambitious colleague cornered me in my office and asked what my career goals were. “My what?” I said. “My goals? My career? I didn’t know I had a career.” I resigned from that position and from full-time teaching forever later that year.

Thoreau, not Peter Drucker, was and is my hero and role model. Since I was 18 and first read Walden until now, I remain committed to this simple task: to affect the quality of this day. This one. Not the one six months from now. I gather moments more than goal sheets.

Part of me used to think myself odd, a sort of goofy entrepreneur-writer who would never amount to much because he just lacked the business mind to define “measurable goals” and make a six-month or twelve-month business plan to meet them. When would I grow up and get with the goal-getters? Then I read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The gist of the book is simple (as are the gists of most good books): Creative people – in the arts and in business and in life – are motivated from within not from without. Autonomy, mastery of something, and purpose drive us more than authority or rewards.

I’ve known this about myself since a teenager. But somehow I just never accepted or fully understood why I’m so driven every day and have been for over 20 years, and yet no carrots of money or fame light my fire the way that the joy of creating, connecting, making meaning, and building something (whether a nimble wood sculpture out back or a book or a business) do. Now I accept it.

And now I realize that many of my clients aren’t goal-driven either. As 2011 approaches, I’ve talked with several of them to help define goals for their creative ventures and businesses. Some of them know instantly what their goals are. But others clam up when they hear the word “goal” in a way I recognize. One client told me, “My goal in 2011 is not to have goals. I want to focus on now.” How Thoreau. I get that. So, how can I help these artists, writers, designers – some of them with their own micro-businesses – move forward and innovate?

Some answers came to me in questions. Last week, I had a tele-conference with my amazing Yoga as Muse Tribe – the merry band of facilitators spreading the Yoga as Muse teachings in different parts of North America. I wanted us to get excited together about 2011. Rather easily, I came up with some questions about vision, goals, and intention.

First, vision. Vision to me is sensual. It’s how the skin feels when we’re in flow, when the Tao gongs our way. Here are the questions I asked them to move into and sit with:

How do you imagine your best self acting and being in 2011? What is calling you to act well in the world in 2011? What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel?

I should’ve known their replies would undo me. This group possesses astounding authenticity and transparency.

That second question – What is calling you to act well in the world in 2011? – I have asked of myself almost every morning this year. It came to me this January and has delightfully rocked and rolled my life since. That calling of the best self is what Buddhists and yogis call “dharma.” It’s your wisdom duty, not necessarily your obligations to others. That sort of thing gets me out of bed. Daniel Pink and others in the field of positive psychology and cognitive psychology call it “purpose.” And we need it. And it shouldn’t feel embarrassing to define it or ask it of ourselves.

Second, goals. Now here I admit I fell into an old pattern. Here are the goal-related questions I asked the YAM Tribe:

By the end of 2011, what tangible accomplishments would your best self like to achieve? # of workshops? # of manuscripts completed and/or submitted for publication?  Online presence and social media presence? # of clients?

There’s nothing wrong with these questions per se. Certainly, these talented, creative facilitators benefited from thinking in such concrete terms. But it’s the reductive nature of numerical goals that leaves me feeling flat when I think of these types of goals too much.

Here’s where Pink’s book helped me again. This time he changed the way I understand two different kinds of goals and how each motivates us. Pink cites and explains lucidly the recent research of psychology professor Carol Dweck (Dweck has authored a new book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). Dweck has studied how college students work with goals. Most students are motivated either by performance goals or by learning/mastery goals.

What Dweck discovered is fascinating. Students driven by performance goals (‘to make all As’ ‘to ace this test’ ‘to get an MBA and get a high-paying job’) seek to look smart and to avoid looking dumb more than to learn. They’re concerned with appearances. They believe that intelligence is a fixed state determined at birth. Students driven by learning/mastery goals (‘to come up with a new way to use an algorithm’ ‘to refine my mastery of engineering’) want to increase their competence in areas. They enjoy learning for learning’s sake. They are less concerned about intelligence and more concerned about tasks at hand. Consequently, they generally succeed more during difficult times than the other group of students. Over the long term, they’re also generally happier with their lives.

Learning/mastery goals! Those are goals I can live with. Here’s how I phrase goal questions for 2011 now: What does your best self hunger to learn this year to respond to that calling? What does your best self aspire to do well? Exceptionally well? What does your best self yearn to create and build this year? (Keep it concrete.)

Perhaps learning/mastery goals coupled with ‘measurable goals’ will help us creatives innovate and be even more productive and, thus, gratified in 2011.

In a post soon, I’ll share with you how I’ve worked with intentions as a useful daily creative tool for ten years, and I’ll share with you how a Lakota saying honed my life path and modus operandis at age 20.

Meanwhile, you can try the New Year’s Goal Questions for No-Goals Creatives:
1. Begin with vision: How do you imagine your best self acting and being in 2011? What is calling you to act well in the world in 2011? What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel? Take walks with these questions. Move in them. Run with them. Practice yoga with them.

2. Yearn to learn: What does your best self hunger to learn this year to respond to that calling? What does your best self aspire to do well? Exceptionally well? What does your best self yearn to create and build this year?

3. Perform with authenticity: C’mon. We can put measurements on some things we want to accomplish. It can be helpful to define in measurable terms some indicators that you are acting on behalf of your best self. What are they? A certain number of pages of a book written? A number of exhibits of your work? A number of new client work? Greater exposure for your work? A national presence within your field?

Drop in the Hut
What about you? How do you work with goals? How do you phrase them? Do you find goal-setting useful or frustrating? Keep up with them? Share your vision and goals.

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  1. Hi Jeff, great post!

    I am a pathological goal setter – or at least I can be if I allow myself to be one. I figured out 2 very important things about myself in this regard.

    First, I’m an enneagram type 3 – I’m going have goals whether I set them or not, and I’m going drive to them whether I want to or not. If I don’t set my goals, they will get set by the people around me.

    Second, the kind of goals I set matters. I agree with your point about the learning/mastery goals. I also set goals for personal growth that have nothing to do with anything but joy. “Throw a party and invite everyone I love” is often one of my goals each year.

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Alicia:

      It’s good to hear from a veteran pathological goal setter. It’s a twist for me to think of “Throw a party and invite everyone I love” as a goal, but I get it. You set this goal for, say, the next three months, and then you throw one (or not). Others (myself) are probably just more impulsive. I’m a big planner – I have an elaborate, fun organizational system. Maybe I set more goals than I realize.

      Enjoy your party and goals!

  2. Jeff, I love this! I used to be very goal-oriented, but my goal is to have no goals… if that is possible. 😉

    I am going to have to meditate and practice yoga with (and drink a little egg nog with) these great questions, especially “What does your best self yearn to create and build this year?”

    I am totally into the reverb challenge as well.

    Thank you!

    1. Michelle:

      I look forward to hearing what the yoga and nog tell you.

      I have the goal – I’m adjusting my language here – of writing an article on intentions, too.


  3. I used to be mega type-A goal-setting, metrics person—and the military only honed that in me. It took leaving the military and becoming a mother to learn a more fulfilling motivation. FYI, I loved _Drive_, too. Although I still set some concrete goals–actually, they’re more like deadlines–I’ve been more mastery focused. The rewards in business, relationships, and overall satisfaction have been tremendous (compared to my previous self).

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas on how to formulate goal-setting in a more effective way. I want to share these with my team for the new year!

    1. Dr. Dolly: Thanks for your reflections and for sharing with your team. Mastery goals put a whole new spin on “continuing education,” don’t they? I enjoy asking my clients, “What do you want to learn this year?”

  4. i’ve found your site by way of reverb and i’m entranced. can’t stop reading! I love your thoughts on the different types of goal setters. i’m definitely of the mastery type, i suppose, surrounded in my career by those who wave their MBAs at me like i should curtsy, bow, or wipe their snot. :O) ironically, i’ve just enrolled in some yoga classes… i think i will be sitting with your questions and reading your blog more often. thanks for the extra push!

  5. My goals have always been related to who and what I want to be. I want to learn everything, absorb information. I have always said if I won the lotto I would sink half the money into a lifetime education.

    But my *goals* are about what person I want to be. I want to help people in a tangible way. I want to be a writer- whatever that means. I believe it means more than just putting words on a page, but does not necessarily entail becoming rich and famous. I want find passion for the life I am living.

    And I think I am close to all of those.

    1. Brooke: I appreciate what you express about your yearnings. I suspect the wants you describe are more intentions than goals – something I’ll address in a post soon. I’ve worked with intentions for years.

      Nice to know, though, you’re close to meeting your wants.

  6. I thought I never set goals..but seem to follow the what gets me up in the morning that I can’t wait to work on… Yet everyday I set a goal, I now realize for that day… and usually accomplish most of it… unlike other things in life my art drives me. I will do it before everything else. Setting it up the days project in the morning before my shower, I am pre-occuppied with the excitement of getting to it until I actually take pen or paint in hand. This article helped me look at long range goals I made that I didn’t even realize I was making and surprise to me, doing!

    If you asked me before I read this do I set goals I would have say… no, not even! Now I say… constantly… in daily bites!

    Great Article, I am bookmarking it!

  7. Jeff, thanks for the great post! It’s suddenly clicking for me why I have never been able to stick to (or even remember) goals I’ve set when attempting to take on any kind of advice – I’m not a performance-goal oriented person! All of the goals I’ve been able to keep and achieve have been related to my state of mind, body, and heart.

    I’m going to check out “Drive” over the holidays. It sounds like a good read!

  8. I was never good with tangible goals. I found that when I made conceptual or visionary goals, I did better.
    After dropping my college plans at age 20 due to financial reasons; at 36, I made the goal to complete my bachelor’s degree by 40. At 39, I thought “oops”. I still think had I not set a time period, I would have gotten further.
    I have been happy with the visual, day dreaming goals toward a direction or intention. If I could picture myself somewhere, I would eventually get there. That’s how I got to live in Europe, teach snowboarding, completed several ambitious hikes, met my husband, etc. All of those I had in focus, but without a time line or linear details.
    Your article helped me to see that I’m not weird or out of the box, just creative, and I can live with that as I always have.

    1. Terri: Thanks for this great personal example. Our intuition, imagination, and emotions influence much more of our conscious behavior that most of us probably care to acknowledge. Right – you’re not weird at all. You’re just more aware now of your leanings toward images more than deadlines.

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