New Year’s Goal-Setting Questions for No-Goals Creative Professionals

Note: I’ve updated this oft-read post from December 2010 for this year’s readers. Enjoy.

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 used to never make goals. I had tried, but I would forget about them within a day or two. Even as my businesses and my life as a writer have boomed, goals just didn’t factor into what got me up in the morning.

But maybe there’s a way for us creatives to look toward the horizon without compromising the present.


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 last year 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 many of my clients aren’t goal-driven either. As 2012 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. So, how can I help these artists, writers, designers – some of them with their own micro-businesses – move forward and innovate?


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 2012?
What is calling you to act well in the world in 2012?
What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel?

That second question – What is calling you to act well in the world in 2012? – I have asked of myself almost every morning this year. It came to me two years ago 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 you can fall into old-school-type of goal-related questions:

By the end of 2012, 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. But it’s the reductive nature of numerical goals that leaves me feeling flat when I or some of my clients think of these types of goals too much.

Here’s where Pink’s book helps again. 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 a way to phrase goal questions for 2012 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 2012.

In a post soon, I’ll share with you how I’ve worked with intentions as a useful daily creative tool for over 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 2012? What is calling you to act well in the world in 2012? 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? Revise your answers with specifics, measureables (how you will know if you’ve met the goal), and time bound phrases (i.e., deadlines).


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? I’d love for you to share your visions and goals for 2012 here – and share your strategies for effective vision-making and goal-setting.

See you in the woods,

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  1. A few months after my father died in 2004 I woke up and realized I would be facing the first birthday without him, ever. All of the fear and terror in my prior 39 years seemed minute compared to the all encompassing panic I had in that moment. So after discussing with my family, since I couldn’t be home on that day, I booked a trip (alone) to a warm sunny place. It was on that trip that my grief lost its hold on me. That was seven years ago, and going away for my birthday has become a tradition now, as well as key to my spiritual growth and contentment.

    In that first birthday trip, and every trip thereafter, a question arises, the same question, for me it is simple, “who do i want to be when i grow up?” I’ve come to realize that this question was at the heart of every conversation I had with the magnificent refractive/reflective mirror I called my dad, and once he left my physical life the question moved within, surfacing during the intensive solitude I gave myself around each new year of being me.

    My birthday was just about a week ago. This year’s answer to the question seems to be centered on learning to enjoy this life in new ways. Until now the ways I enjoyed life seem to be relatively consistent, but since I am aware that there’s no limit to enjoyment and wonder, it seems about time to step into new possibilities to appreciate the gift of embodiment.

    I am delighted, enchanted, and excited to see this “practice” here. I am not goal oriented either. “Success” for me is not defined by having achieved specific milestones. It is more about the process of expansion along the way, in fact, completing something I set out to do is less pleasurable than the recognition that I took a step, that my intention today was manifest. Even when I fail fantastically, that same gratification has been there, and is possible.

  2. Antoinette ~ Thank you for this heartfelt response. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss but am heartened by your resilience and perspective. “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” Such a rich question for us “middlers” to ask, isn’t it? I also appreciate what you observe about feeling gratified more by feelings of expansion than by accomplishing something. But do we have to make a choice? I’m wondering if there’s not some interplay between expanding without attachment to outcome and still feeling gratified when the outcome is desirable.

    Just wondering. Cheers.

  3. Jeffrey, Wonderful post, and I agree with the no-goals practice. Your approach provides more value. I often have thought that spending time developing a life philosophy is much more important than developing yearly life goals. I believe some of the points you are advocating fall into this approach, too. Thanks for all you do, and best wishes in the year ahead! Jon

    1. Jon ~ I hadn’t thought of what I’ve done or am advocating in terms of developing a life philosophy since I was in my 20s, but you’re right: That’s exactly what I’ve been up to. Meaning drives me and many of my clients and colleagues and friends – and you.

      Here’s to a meaningful vision made manifest in 2012. Cheers.