Vision + Mastery for No-Goals Creatives this New Year

Gist: Vision and mastery can make goal-setting palatable 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.


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, trying 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 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 2013?
  • What is calling you to act well in the world in 2013?
  • What images do you see and hear? How does your best self feel?

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 or SMART (Specific * Measurable * Attainable * Relevant * Time-bound) goals that leaves some  creatives feeling flat.

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 thatintelligence 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 2013.


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 2013? What is calling you to act well in the world in 2013? 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 learnWhat 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 authenticityC’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,

This version adapted from version published originally on January 30, 2012 by Jeffrey Davis, M.A. in Tracking Wonder
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  1. I have a very different response to goals. My personality is goal-driven, whether I figure out goals for myself or not (enneagram #3). The key to authenticity for me is to set the RIGHT goals. Goals that resonate, goals that lead me deeper into who I am and what I’m about (rather than external goals established by “shoulds”).

    I’m adding a link to my 2013 goals so you can see what I mean.

    My goals have to be honest, flexible, clear and easy to remember. 🙂

    1. AK~
      I completely get what you’re saying and find your approach complementary. For me and others with whom I work, effective goal-setting has to do with right intention that infuses the “how” of the “what” (SMART goal).

      When I ask the question of questions on some mornings – What am I writing for? – the response is often a feeling.

      Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your goals to light up 2013!

      Let’s track them.