The real reason we don’t achieve big goals

Maybe COVID changes have you reflecting — on what you’re up to in life and what you’re working toward. Maybe you’re asking big questions:

  1. What do I really want in life? What’s my vision?
  2. How can I live with a greater sense of purpose?
  3. What are my biggest values and strengths and how can I translate these professionally?
  4. What’s missing that would make me feel most fulfilled and authentic?
  5. What do I want to be my impact and legacy?

These questions require insight well beyond what “SMART goals,” productivity hacks, and common career advice can provide. Over the course of our lifetimes, our purest motivations become entangled with lots of external motivations and we can become drained, confused or disillusioned.

There are three main motivations for our goals: Shoulds, Outcomes, and Inspiration.

You’re motivated based on Shoulds if your goals are based on your internalized ideas of what is normal, necessary, or worthy. These ideas typically come from the cultures we were raised in as well as our family. If you’re lucky, the shoulds you were raised with will align with your natural inclinations. If you’re not, you’ll feel a sense of misalignment and burden. Goals that are purely should-based work up to a point, but unless you can heavily balance them with activities that are genuinely energizing and restorative, you’re at high risk of burnout.

You can also pursue your goals mostly for (self-serving) outcomes. Purely outcomes-oriented people work on things regardless of whether they enjoy or value them. Again, if you’re lucky, the work/activity will have some interest and inherent value for you — beyond your compensation. If you’re not, you’ll work hard to achieve a good outcome or avoid a bad one — which hopefully feels like enough. The classic example is the Golden Handcuffs type. If your values are very aligned with the outcome — for example maybe you mainly value providing for your family — this can work well enough. In general, striving for positive outcomes is much healthier than trying to avoid bad ones, especially over the long haul.

Finally, your goals can be based on inspiration. These are people whose goals are driven by intuition, purpose, and genuine enthusiasm. Their efforts are a natural outgrowth of their talents and interests. They may occur as passionate, single minded, and/or dedicated to a cause. Regardless of their education and experience, their commitment makes them creative and connected to something greater. They are not always wealthy or famous. They do have depth or breadth of impact far beyond themselves. Examples include Oprah, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Elon Musk.

Of course, most people experience a mixture of all three kinds of motivation. No one falls into purely one camp. But if you’re finding yourself asking the “big questions” I mentioned, what you’re seeking is inspiration, the driver of leaders, movements, and real innovation. The good news is that there are answers to these questions, if you’re willing to do the work to discover them (hint that it probably won’t happen sitting on your couch).

Behavioral scientists will give you all kinds of reasons why you’re not #killingit on your goals. In controlled settings — labs, classrooms, and to some extent organizations — they’re reason enough. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a part of the puzzle. But they miss the whole.

The real reason we don’t achieve our goals is this: We’ve lost our inspiration. I say “lost” because inspiration is truly our birthright. The average person has it at some point then misplaces it, not quite knowing who they are or what it was. As an expert on motivation, I can tell you that SMART goals, accountability structures and various other forms of behavioral management are important and effective to a point, but secondary when it comes to life’s big questions as well as exceptional performance. The most beautiful and impactful goals are laid on rock solid, intuitively aligned, inspirational foundation. Ask Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King Jr., or Elon Musk.

Got tough questions? Feeling lost? Schedule a Quick Connect to get some clarity and a compassionate inspirational nudge (or kick).

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