For New Year’s Resolution-Averse Creatives: Vision + Mastery

goals-calvin-and-hobbesGist: Vision and mastery can make goal-setting meaningful and effective for 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 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.

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? (Who knew I would grow up to lead a thriving business with 8 team members and a business plan?)

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.

You might know this about yourself yet somehow you may have never accepted or fully understood why you’re so driven every day even though no carrots of money or fame light your fire the way that the joy of creating, connecting, making meaning, and building something (whether a nimble wood sculpture or a book or a business) do.

But maybe there’s a way for us creatives, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to look toward the future horizon and innovate without compromising the present.


First, vision. These questions are ones worth living in every day to prepare for the new year:

  • How do you imagine your best self acting and being in the new year?
  • What is calling you to act well in the world in the new year?
  • Whom are you relating to and how and in what context?
  • What are you creating and how do you feel when you’re creating it?
  • Who’s experiencing what you’re creating?
  • What images do you see and hear?

That calling of the best self is your wisdom duty, not necessarily your obligations to others. That sort of thing gets me out of bed before dawn. Call it “purpose.” We need it, and it shouldn’t feel embarrassing to define it or ask it of ourselves.

Second, goals. Here you can fall into old-school-type of goal-related questions:

By the end of the new year, 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 except reductive nature of numerical or SMART (Specific * Measurable * Attainable * Relevant * Time-bound) goals leaves some creatives feeling flat. Meaning must frame measurement. (Click to share this.)

Psychology professor Carol Dweck (author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) 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 A’s,’ ‘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 enjoy learning as a way to further enrich their world view and framework of knowledge. They are less concerned about looking intelligent and more concerned about tasks at hand. Consequently, they generally succeed more during difficult times than the other group of students.

Dweck and team have conducted longitudinal studies in which the team tracked these two groups of students after several years. Over the long term, the mastery-driven ones with what Dweck calls a growth mindset are also generally happier with their lives. Learning more than looking good leads to creatives’ contentment.

Learning/mastery goals! Those are goals you can live with.

Here’s a way to phrase goal questions for the new year now:

  • What does your best self hunger to learn this year?
  • 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 the new year.


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? What is calling you to act well in the world? What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel? Take walks with these questions. Move in them. Run 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 is 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 specified growth in revenue or social media presence? 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 the new year here – and share your strategies for effective vision-making and goal-setting.

Thanks for running with me,


Note: This article is adapted from a version published earlier here and at Psychology Today.
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  1. Thanks, Jeffrey. A great read heading into the end of the year.

    I think I suffered the same battles with the whole notion of goal setting for a long time, fueled mainly by a growing awareness that I could not stick with the goals for very long. Further, it seemed that the things I did accomplish happened more organically and without the aid of a stated goal.

    At some point I realized, though, that I was getting stuff done but not as much as I wanted and not as much as I could.

    A turning point for me was Henriette Anne Klauser’s book, “Write it Down, Make it Happen.” I took from her ideas that I didn’t have to feel defeated by my failure to satisfy all of my stated objectives, and that what was more important was that I honor my hopes and dreams by making them more concrete through the simple act of committing them to writing. It was a little magical for me.

    This is a good time for these thoughts. Thanks again!


    1. Scott:

      Thanks for relaying your experiences. It confirms there are many ways to work with or around goals. I like the simplicity of Klauser’s recommendation. I appreciate your sharing this resource.


  2. Hi Jeffrey~

    Thanks for this piece. I remember goal-setting for 2013 based on a Tracking Wonder email prompt and guide. I especially relate to your invitation here to begin with vision, and “take walks with, run in, and move with” what we envision for our best self in 2014. In terms of goal-setting tools, I’ve found your “Mind Rooms” super helpful. Something about re-framing the way we think about the steps we need to take to accomplish weekly, monthly or bigger “horizon” goals feels really re-inspiring and exciting to me. I also appreciate your acknowledgement in your “Mind Rooms” guide that goal setting and organizing our tasks isn’t always easy for us creatives, so thanks too for creating the space for us to cultivate a bit more patience and compassion with ourselves in the process.