What’s Makes a Good Goal? A New Model for Consciously Choosing Goals

It’s mid-January, and we’re just beyond the new year when poorly-set resolutions start to crumble. And so, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of goals and, as is often the case, looking beyond myself for wisdom on the topic.

In searching out the answer to “what makes a good goal,” I keep on running into the SMART model. Taught in business schools and applied widely in companies, the SMART model uses an acronym to propose that goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

Every time I read through this list, it makes me cringe. These criteria feel far from the way I want my goals to look and feel. I don’t want a goal that feels narrow, limiting, or boring. Instead, I want a goal that articulates the desires of my heart. I want a goal that I am fiercely devoted to achieving even though the road may be long and hard. I want a goal that inspires me to do better. Whether goal-setting in my personal or professional life, I want a goal that acts as a compelling North Star, not something beaten into flat corporate-speak.

This isn’t to say that the SMART model isn’t useful; indeed, it seems perfectly helpful in directing what the line items of my plan to achieve my goal should look like. But, at the goal level, it leaves something to be desired.

And so, I propose a new model for goals, one which connects far more to meaning and motivation. In the Callahan “C-Star” model for consciously choosing goals, I propose five aspects that matter:

c star model trimmed

First and most importantly, is your goal CONGRUENT with who you are as a person? Any exercise in goal-setting needs to start with a period of introspection. What is important to you? What are your values? And, above all, what do you want? Your goal cannot be something given to you by another or dictated by your circumstances. Instead, your goal must begin with congruence to who you truly are.

Second, is your goal CONSISTENT with what you actually want? To be most effective, a goal needs to be set at the level at which you fundamentally hold it. For example, if your desire is to spread your organization’s message far and wide, you should not set your goal as talking about your organization on Oprah. Even if you failed to get on Oprah, you could achieve your real goal in many ways – by going on a road show to related organizations, by writing a book on the topic, or by being featured on a morning show. Resist migrating away from what you truly want because an alternative feels more specific, more attainable, more socially acceptable, or more aligned with your current reality. Shifting the focus from what you really want always misdirects your efforts and often limits what you can achieve. When it comes to goal setting, articulate what you actually want – even if you don’t quite know what that will look like yet. To be fair, this is a hard concept to get right and the dimension on which I most frequently see experienced professionals stumble.

Third, is your goal CHALLENGING? Your goals should not be limited by what you currently believe to be possible – for yourself or in the world. As Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, writes in his book Principles, “Once you start your pursuit you will learn a lot, especially if you triangulate with others; paths you never saw before will emerge.” By setting ambitious goals, you are pushing yourself to the edge of growth and accelerating your evolution as a person.

Next, is your goal CLEAR? In the previous three dimensions you have dug deep to specify a goal which is appropriately-sized and particular to you. That said, when you dug deep, did you bring up a bunch of muck along with your insights? If so, work through this – the fears, beliefs, patterns, feelings, and whatever else – to get clear about what you want. This clarity will allow you to navigate more effectively in the direction of your goal when life gets muddy and unclear again. To do this best, write your goals down. Iterate the wording to get to precisely what you mean.

Finally, ask yourself: to what extent are you COMMITTED to your goal? Your commitment is the source of your motivation. Why is your goal important to you? What’s at stake if you don’t achieve it? And, what is it worth to you to achieve it? Your goals should have a sense if you don’t achieve them, you fail yourself.

And that, collectively, is a good goal: one that is congruent to who you are, consistent with what you actually want, challenging to achieve, clear in articulation, and to which you are committed with the full force of your being. This January, that is the type of goal I want to sign up for – along with a SMART plan to achieve it.

I would love to hear what you think. Test my model out and send me your feedback.

  • What is your goal for 2020?
  • How does it stack up against the C-Star model?  Versus the SMART model?
  • What does each model help you see more clearly? What does each leave out?
  • What else would you want to consider in setting goals?

Wishing you a year full of achieving your goals,
Meredith

A Love Note To San Francisco

photo for sf

I remember my first trip to the Bay Area for my Stanford business school admissions weekend. I had not spent much time in California, yet I felt drawn to moving West. That said, when I arrived, I was a bit confused. I remember sharing with my soon-to-be-classmates: “I don’t know what people see in it.” I was committed to moving West, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the place. The whole start-up scene appeared unhinged from reality. People seemed to do whatever they liked on nearly every dimension, defying convention and practicality. Did they really kite-surf every morning, wear hoodies to work, and drink wine in Sonoma all weekend? Even the arid landscape seemed alien compared to the traditional deciduous forests of my life to date.

And yet, everyone seemed to love this place. Not just the hippies and surfers, but trusted friends (practical, business-type people!) who had already taken their manifest destiny.

So, I packed my bags and caught the train from my hometown of Port Huron. I rode Amtrak’s Blue Water Line to the California Zephyr straight out to the Bay. After sixty-seven hours on the train, I disembarked in my new home, excited for school but still skeptical about this place.

After a month or so, I noticed that I smiled more. I smiled to myself as I walked to class. I smiled to others. I became one of those people who hug everyone. I dyed my hair from brown to blondish-red, an act that somehow lightened my view on the world. I left behind my wardrobe of drab neutrals and bought a bright pink coat. While the palm trees and weather were lovely, there was something even more important about this place: California’s freedom, looseness, and joie de vivre started to seep into me.

I studied entrepreneurship and interpersonal dynamics. I came to differentiate between real Mexican food and other Mexican food. I tried out ecstatic dance, hiked in the redwoods, and held bonfires on the beach. I went to naked hot springs, dabbled in yoga and meditation, and discovered my favorite spiritual retreat centers. I came to have opinions about not only Napa versus Sonoma, but specific ideas about which Sonoma wineries were the best. My love for kale, kombucha, and avocados grew. I had one wardrobe, appropriate year-round, and filled with color.

Beyond what I gained, I also lost things. I lost my concern for appearances. When I left the house, my goal was to look like I wasn’t homeless. And if I was mistaken for homeless (which did happen), it was no stress.

I am sure that freedom also played a role in supporting my ability to come out (previous entries here) and subsequently fall in love with Liz. San Francisco was not just the backdrop to but a character in our love story. On our first date, we lingered over breakfast sandwiches at Slow Club and drinks at Triptych. She proposed in our Potrero Hill apartment, and I ‘counter-proposed’ at a vineyard in Napa. After a week of escorting our guests around to all our favorite Bay Area sites, we were married in the Presidio against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. We didn’t think twice about how we’d be accepted as a couple — or later, how our little lady would be accepted and loved.

This April, we left the Bay for Connecticut. We were lured away by the promise of new things: a job that offers unparalleled learning and significant impact, less commuting and travel time, more balance and flexibility. It is the right choice for our family, but it is not without heartbreak. Because, beyond everything I’ve described about California, the biggest thing we will miss is the people. The ineffable magic of the Bay Area doesn’t come from the temperate weather and the bay views, but from the people and the culture. We will miss our community above all.

It will take a while to grieve California and adjust to this new place. As I wind my way along the parkways of woodsy, suburban Connecticut, I feel the familiar questions creep in: What is this place? What do people see in it? Like my reaction ten years ago, I honestly don’t understand what is so great about this place. Driving by the green-leafed trees now feels foreign. And yet, just as impossibly as California did, I hope that this place too will grow close to our hearts.

But, for now, I have left my heart in San Francisco. This is my love note to you. Thank you for everything. We’ll be back.

Meredith

My Six Travel Hacks

Between work and play, I end up travelling a lot.  This month, for example, I’m spending the equivalent of two-and-a-half weeks on the road, bumping between Singapore, Thailand, China, and Indonesia.  I’m jokingly calling it #aprilasia.

While San Francisco is the center of my life, good work and important relationships aren’t concentrated there alone.  Instead, life happens both in the Bay Area and also at a bunch of other complementary locations around the world.  For better or worse (and often, for both), travel has become a significant part of my life.

As I’ve hit the road more and more, here’s my list of realizations – from the pragmatic to the philosophical – of what has kept me sane:

Adjust my eating schedule first:  I’ve learned to focus on adjusting my eating schedule instead of worrying about my sleeping schedule.  If I start eating on my destination time zone before getting on the plane, I’m better able to avoid jet lag when I get there.  This means sacrificing the perceived value of plane food (which I tend to eat out of obligation and frugality rather than hunger), planning ahead to bring my own snacks on the road, and often forcing myself to eat when I don’t have any interest (i.e., it’s lunchtime here, but the middle of the night my time).  If I can fix my eating cycle, however, my sleep cycle follows.  I can’t make a watertight case for the science behind it (though I did do a bunch of jet lag research at some point), but it works.

Take advantage of gyms:  The challenge and time involving in getting up, getting dressed, relocating to the gym, battling for a machine, showering in a foreign place, and pre-packing the day’s outfit often provides a convenient and reasonable excuse why I don’t exercise on any given day at home.  When there’s a gym in the hotel, however, I lose that excuse.  I try (though the operative word is try) to work out more on the road because the facilities are far more accessible.

Set boundaries:  As travel has become more frequent I’ve realized that, at some point, I can’t just string obligations together.  After a few ‘mega-trips’ last year, I now aspire to schedule trips no longer than ten days.  Even if it means flying back-and-forth to break the trip up, it’s worth it for me.

Do just one local thing:  When I started travelling, the best piece of advice I got from a seasoned road warrior was this:  “Wherever you go, make sure you do one local thing.”  It could be anything:  going to drinks with a friend, taking two hours to wander around a museum, or walking through town on your way to work.  Sometimes it’s hard to convince myself that I have ‘permission’ to do this, especially if I’m travelling for work.  But the two hours that I spent at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center last week (a scale model of Shanghai!  a golden statue of the skyline!  ambition incarnate in display after lighted display!) made me better able to connect to understand Chinese development and also gave me some karmic comfort when I later found myself flying on Friday night. The trip became worthwhile in a bigger, more personal way.

shanghai
Acknowledge all parts of the truth
:  Friends often ask the question:  “Do you like to travel so much, or not?”  While it’s easy to fall into their proposed binary framing and either assert that “I love it!” or “I hate it!”, there’s often a more subtle truth.  For me, it’s important to acknowledge that travel is exciting, challenging, and exotic and also overwhelming, exhausting, and annoying – all at the same time.  I love the opportunities that come with travel, and I hate being dislocated from friends and family.  Acknowledging the full range of emotions that comes with travel – instead of glamorizing or demonizing it – helps to keep everything real.

Hold tight to gratitude:  Finally, it’s easy to fall into a world-weary mindset when I’m always on the road.  Travel can lose it’s charm and challenge.  And even the loveliest of destinations can go from being shiny, new, and delightful to being curiously familiar and even bothersome.  Whenever I stop seeing the amazing side of these experiences, I ground myself in gratitude. It is incredible that I get to develop such a broad perspective on life. It is incredible that I am able to feel at home in the world and connect to so many diverse people. Whatever the sacrifice, I can’t believe I’m deserving of all the places I go; I’m humbled by it.

Written while gearing up for a beach walk in Phuket,
Meredith

phuket

Work and Fulfillment

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role the work plays in our fulfillment as human beings.  What are we pursuing in life?  What are we pursuing in work?  Where are those objectives are aligned or out of sync?  And further, what do we do with all that?

Since I’m quite happy in both work and life these days, I’m lucky to approach this topic from a positive perspective.  I sat back to think:  How does work contribute to my fulfillment?

There are two ways that work helps me follow my broader purpose in life:

First, my work is aligned with my mission and sense of purpose.  I believe that my work – in and of itself – allows me to accomplish part of what I would like to do in my short human life.  Because of this, I deeply care that it’s successful.  I see myself in the process and the outcomes.  Further, I learn things that matter to me, and I improve skills that are important to me.  Work itself is meaningful and purposeful.  That fundamental passion for my work contributes strongly to my sense of fulfillment.

Second, not only am I fulfilled by work, but work leaves room for me to find fulfillment in other ways.  True, I work hard.  Sometimes I devote entire days to work and work alone, starting conference calls early and finishing slides late.  But I find that over the long run, there’s time and space for all parts of me to be fulfilled.  In addition to work, there’s room for family, friends, community, exercise, hobbies, life administration, fun, travel, sleep, recovery, and beingness.  Perhaps every day does not have every element, but the balance works out over a not-insignificant period of time.  The impact is that not only is work fulfilling when I’m doing it, but work allows me to find fulfillment outside of the office as well.  This ability to lead a full life is the second connection between my work and my fulfillment.

And so I leave you with another nerdy framework to ponder all this.  Does work contribute to your fulfillment?  Where do you find yourself in the view below?

Meredith

work fulfillment