When I started working for myself I was laser-focused on making one million dollars a year. If I could just hit that target, my business would be a “success”. Yet somehow I ended up from a very specific goal to having absolutely no goals.
For some, this would be a great goal, but for me, I quickly realized that I wasn’t interested in doing what it would take to reach it.
With that goal in mind I worked in a way that didn’t work for me. I took on every project, and some weren’t a good fit or the right type of clients. I worked every second of every day, and hated it because life is more than sitting at a computer. So before the first year was up, I decided it was a shitty goal for me to have.
Once I abandoned my million-dollar goal, I realized I didn't have a replacement strategy to measure the success of my business up against. I never had a business plan either, in fact, I didn't even know what an actual business plan entailed. I still don't.
At first, I thought I could fix my sudden lack of direction by finding better goals. Try as I might, I couldn't think of anything that made sense. Did I want 100 employees? Definitely not. I've never wanted to manage people. Did I want investors and growth? No, because that would make me feel like I was working for someone else. Did I want to make a name for myself in the design industry? Nope, I'd rather just do my work and share it with anyone who’s interested, designers or not.
So, I decided not to have any goals. Not a single one. Not then, not now. I still avoid them as much as possible, almost as much as I resist owning a suit and tie.
This might seem like a total slacker mentality, a lack of goals isn’t the same as lack of passion or drive.
Where I lack in goals, I hold true to my values and let them guide my business. My focus isn’t on reaching a specific target - it’s on sticking to my values.
For me, goals are binding and limiting.
They lead you in a single direction with a single focus. You have to pick path A instead of path B, because path A leads you to the goal in a shorter distance. Once you're pointed at a goal, you don't have much choice about the path you take. That’s why I took on every project that came my way when I wanted to make a million dollars a year.
Now, I let my values guide me, because they provide more freedom of choice. If I value putting meaningful work out into the world and helping others, there are literally millions of ways to make that happen. I can pick the path I want and stay true to those values. They're vague enough not to impose limits, but clear enough to guide me in the right direction.
Letting values guide my work is freeing. It means that if given the opportunity, I can always choose freedom over money. Obviously this can’t always be the case, since we don’t live in a perfect world, with tiny little helper elves doing all the dirty work (and baking cookies). This is why work is called “work” and not “super happy fun time.”
Bills need paying, clients can be stressful and sometimes the small tasks seem meaningless if we lose track of the bigger picture. But as long as our values primarily take the lead, it’s okay.
Being guided by values also enables me to try and fail with impunity. If I try to reach a goal and don't achieve it, I've failed to reach that goal. If I stay true to my values and fail, I've still upheld my beliefs. I just need to try something else, try it in a different way, or try again, at a later time. Either way, I haven’t compromised my values. I just need to change things up and pick a different path, otherwise I'll get stuck in an endless loop, continually failing to reach a goal.
You may need goals as motivation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I know that goal-setting is a powerful and useful tool for a lot of people.
Just ensure that the reasoning behind the goal lines up with what you value most. Otherwise, it’ll surely and quickly join the pile of abandoned new years resolutions within a few weeks.
Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: