Define your purpose, then create your roadmap to a meaningful life
An updated edition of my best-selling book Focus of Failure was recently released. The following excerpts are from the second chapter. I hope you find it helpful as you seek to live and lead well.
Life appeals to us from innumerable directions. We tend to litter our lives with the indiscriminate, letting first-come, first-served — forgetting that the finest things in life do not crow. Like cue balls on a bumper pool table, we move from crisis to crisis, never really in control, leading not bad lives but lives frittered away on the inconsequential.
The first sign of maturity in young people is when they begin to move in a determined manner toward a preset goal. In fact, ultimately, all leadership begins and ends with goal setting. Personal power is a product of its application. And, while setting goals does not guarantee success in life, not setting goals will almost assuredly result in failure. The point is, if you are not now making the progress you want to make, it may be because your goals are not clearly defined. It is here where we choose to remain in mediocrity or rise above the average and move ahead of our time.
Who shall you become?
You and I must set goals in every area of our life. Spiritually, mentally and physically, like the legs on a three-legged stool, each area is of extreme importance. Consequently, because we are limited in time, energy and resources, our values and priorities become the most crucial problem we face. Any business person worth his or her salt will take a yearly inventory of assets. A continual sifting of values and priorities is like that. This enables us to determine what our purposes in life should be. From our purposes spring our goals. There is a difference between a purpose and a goal. A purpose might be to become a better father or mother. A goal supporting that purpose may be to spend time with our children or to offer them more guidance and counsel about the books they read and the friends with whom they associate. A purpose might be to become a better person. A goal supporting that purpose might be to devote more time to relationship building through compassion, forgiveness and understanding.
When I was little, my father used to sing to me with his great tenor voice. The words of one of the songs he sang taught me that “life was like a mountain railroad” with hills and tunnels along the way, with your hand upon the throttle and your foot upon the brake…Life is like that. Our life’s purpose might be described as that train with one determined destiny that stops for friends, family, possessions, love…or the many goals that are significant enough to catch our attention along our chosen track. Whether they stop us or spur us on, they are still goals. Remember, it is our hand on the throttle and our foot on the brake.
Purposes are much broader in nature than goals, possibly requiring a lifetime to achieve. Goals, on the other hand, are more short-term and quantifiable. Thus, as we think through our values and priorities as well as our basic attitude toward ourselves, we can determine, first, the direction we take and later the foundation upon which we rest our hopes, dreams and goals. One of the things we must learn is that the great is often achieved at the sacrifice of the lesser — that every decision we make is made at the sacrifice of something else in our lives. That a first rate dedication to second rate causes or majoring in minors is not the answer. That the way we are facing has a great deal to do with our destination. Life has no value unless something of value is its objective.
To attain goals, you must turn away from the trivial
If you are seventeen years old, in the next ten years you will reach some statistical milestones. You will complete your education. You will probably leave home and get married. You will start your first job and more than likely switch jobs at least once. What are your goals as they relate to these events? If you are thirty-seven years old, in the next ten years you will statistically reach the occupational peak in your life. Your income will reach its maximum level and your children will be reaching college age and leaving home. Your body will be aging more rapidly and you will probably have less energy and endurance. You will be well on your way to middle age.
What are your goals as they relate to these events? For many, preoccupation becomes the most common form of failure. There is a plethora of books and tapes that can instruct you about how to set short-term, intermediate and long-term goals. There are many programs, seminars, techniques and systems available for effective goal setting. It is not my intention here to duplicate these efforts. However, the systems, techniques and sets of instructions are irrelevant if you are so preoccupied with the inconsequential that you have no goals to set. No plan of life would be complete without a vision of the shore, a look at the destination. The artist must see the finished painting in order to create. The architect must see the finished building. Where we look determines where we will end up. If we run to and fro, taking pictures with a camera that is out of focus, we will get nothing but blurry pictures in return.
People and nations are rudderless if they don’t focus on goals
This is precisely where we are in America today. Our camera is out of focus and everything we produce seems to be ill-defined and imperfect. Not setting goals will also result in returns in life that are out of focus and not in line with what we might have received for our efforts. This is often more a matter of elimination than inclusion. What I mean by this is, if I decide I want to be well-read it is not a function of going to the local library and starting at the first stack and reading my way through the entire library. First of all, this would preclude setting goals in any of the other important areas of my life. In order to accomplish this task, I would probably have to devote my entire life to its conclusion. Moreover, the result I would achieve would not be becoming well-read, but only reading a lot. Deciding what to read that would enable me to become well-read at the exclusion of the superfluous is a better plan.
The simple act of establishing goals is empowering. Setting goals, mentally, physically and spiritually, brings a magical and mystical element to life. I hope my fundamentalist friends are not put off by the words magical or mystical. I am simply referring to the energizing, vibrant, challenging, faith-giving attitudes of effective goal setting. Goal setting enables us to build a life instead of just make a living. If you and I do not take charge of our situation, our situation takes charge of us. Goal setting enables us to focus.
Some years ago, when the great swimmer, Florence Chadwick, was attempting to swim the 26 miles between Catalina Island and the California coastline, she found herself in very bad weather where it was difficult to see her trace boat. Ms. Chadwick struggled against a goal that she would one day master. In this instance, however, enshrouded in fog and rain and high seas, just a few hundred meters from the shore, she quit. Suppose that she had been able to see her objective. Even though her lungs were bursting and her heart was pounding and fear was manifesting itself, if she had only been able to see the shore, to focus on her objective, in all probability she could have completed her journey. Obstacles are those things we see in life when we lose sight of our goals.
These obstacles become larger or smaller depending on how large or small we have become. In 1920, the Mallory Expedition was once more defeated on the slopes of the Himalayas. That great peak “Everest” stood as a monumental reminder to that failure. Sir Edmund Hillary was invited to speak at the Explorer’s Club in London. When he was being introduced, a curtain was drawn back to reveal a huge and panoramic view of Mt. Everest stretching from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Sir Edmund Hillary stood before the lectern viewing his nemesis that had taken the lives of members of his team and, shaking with emotion, he raised his fist in defiance and proclaimed, “You can’t get any bigger, but I can!” With that a great roar went up from the audience as they leapt to their feet in approval. The human heart soars in the quest of great goals.
To be effective, goals must be personal. That means that we must focus on what we want, not what someone else wants for us. Gravitate toward what you like and are good at. Real goals and desires are God-given and inspired. When goals are right for us, they never take us down a path for which we have no aptitude. Well-meaning friends and relatives might suggest what they think is right for us. But if we don’t have the aptitude to become a brain surgeon, all of the positive thinking and effort in the world will only result in lost time and frustration.
Goals must be stated positively and be realistic. This means that we should set goals that recognize the point at which we are beginning and then build from there. Wanting to be a millionaire tomorrow or a great musician or a painter or a lawyer, or whatever it is you are dreaming of, has no basis in reality if we do not recognize the place from which we are starting. Because of this, goals should be written and specific. This does not mean that they are etched in granite. It does mean that they are pencil or ink and paper and can be evaluated, modified and reset if need be. But they must be written. Through the years, I have observed many people who return to seminar after seminar asking the same questions as before. I often ask them to show me their written goals and receive a litany of excuses. Many times, it is not new knowledge that we need but simply applying what we already know that makes the difference.
The benefits of goal setting are obvious. Setting goals improves our self image. The very act of mentally considering new vistas, dreams and desires opens up greater hope for the future. Each step we take along this developmental path adds a new dimension to our life. Each small goal we achieve helps us to become more aware of our potential and builds confidence. If our values are good, our goals will be worthwhile. We begin to realize that it is not necessarily the things we achieve by goal setting that is important, but rather what we become in the process.
Goal setting helps us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses and provides us with a track upon which to run. The process of pursuing goals enables us to sift through their importance, and, like the business person we discussed earlier taking inventory at the end of each year, we may decide that continuing to commit time, energy and money to a particular strategy is no longer worthwhile.
While this may seem to fly in the face of Winston Churchill and the “never quit” syndrome and irritate some of the positive thinkers, I would remind them of Proverbs 13:19, “It is pleasant to see plans develop. That is why fools refuse to give them up even when they are wrong.” Goal setting enables us to separate reality from wishful thinking. Finally, if these benefits were not enough, goal setting can extend our lives. It has long been recognized that people who retire to something, that is, are able to divert their energies to new goals in life live nine times longer than their counterparts who rock their lives away on the front porch of old folks’ Florida.
Why is it then, if goal setting is so obviously useful, that more people do not participate in a positive manner? I do not believe that lack of knowledge is the answer. Most people today have at least a rudimentary understanding of how to set goals. The more important question is, why don’t they? Implicit in goal setting is change. Change often involves a period of chaos. Many people, even those whose lives are in pain and discomfort, prefer the predictability of unhappiness rather than the unpredictability of change. Their self talk betrays this attitude. They often will say things like, it’s really not important that I lose this weight or get that promotion or write that book. They try to convince themselves and others that the results really don’t make any difference to them.
Do you remember in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, when Alice met the Cheshire Cat at the crossroads what happened? “Cheshire-Puss,” said Alice, “would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go” said the Cat. “So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
And so it is for us. And so it is for America. So, here we are living at a time when people no longer agree on the rules that govern behavior. With no eternal values and no goals, it appears, except to satisfy pleasures, traditional restraints on behavior collapses. Without goals victimism reigns and parasitism is born. Sucking off the public teat becomes a right instead of a privilege and institutionalized corruption begets a government that runs up a 14 trillion dollar debt. With lack of focus and lack of quality goals, the drug of the Great Society becomes food stamps and welfare. As the Dodo said after the race in Alice in Wonderland, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
Once a very old man, barely able to walk, brought a painting to the great master painter of his time. With gnarled hands he lovingly presented the master with his offering. The master, taken aback with the beauty and depth of the work, became very excited. “Who painted this,” he cried, his plaintive voice more of a demand than a request. The old man, weary with age, looked into the face of the great master and replied, “A twelve year old boy.” “No!” the master retorted. “Bring him to me and I will make him a great artist, famous and world renowned.” The old man, shaking with emotion and tears in his eyes, looking into the face of the master, replied, “Alas, I cannot, for I was that youth.”
A young boy is a theory. An old man is a fact. We must return to goals in which democracy can flourish. Hard work, responsibility, goals that cause our young people to reach outside themselves in inspiration and concern for community and country.
With or without goals, you and I will spend twenty years of our lives sleeping, three years waiting on others, one year on the telephone, four months tying our shoes and six years watching television. Like Alice, most of us have a desire to go somewhere. Interestingly enough, we are always on the way. This is the quest and the journey. It is a process of becoming. Since all of our life is controlled by our goals, whether we chose to consciously set them or not, deciding what kind of goals we will set is the first step toward living life with value and purpose. And, while there are great chunks of life which can be both routine and monotonous, if we do nothing that is important to us we will ultimately conclude that we are unimportant as well. I wonder if these were not the people that Thoreau was reflecting upon when he said most of us live lives of quiet desperation.
If the statistics are true that only three percent of all people effectively set goals and that those three percent do far more with their lives than the 97 percent who do not, then that quiet desperation must be the frustration that comes from being at sea, goalless, out of control and without hope.
I will leave the art of goal setting to the multitude of books, seminars and cassettes available for you to embrace. But I do exhort you to look out and up in hope to seek a basic purpose and a new dream. I ask you to ponder the end of the track. And later, I will ask you to ponder the fervor, untested idealism, rejection, pain, failure and loneliness with which we often approach life. Our life’s purpose is paramount, our goals empowering and significant.
This process of becoming then is not one of endings but of beginnings. Success is the progressive realization of a worthwhile dream, and planning and goal setting are the best kind of dreaming because they enable us to imagine what the future could be like. We need to dream great dreams. This is the stuff of which life is made. We need to imagine what could be and say, why not? Don’t wait for that moment of truth to force you into evaluating your priorities and goals. The accident, the death, the tragedy, the wife or husband who walks out, the crisis that causes us to begin the journey inward. Paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur, people do not grow old by years, they grow old by deserting their ideals and dreams. Tears may wrinkle the skin but giving up on our dreams and goals wrinkle the soul. Dream the great dreams. Set goals that stretch. Believe. Become a master goal setter. Focus on the goal.