When Setting Goals Backfires

All my life, I have worked in a goal-oriented manner: get A’s in school, get to college, find a job. If the task did not start off good and go in a straight path towards getting better, then I abandoned it. I needed to make money! I needed to support myself! I needed to protect myself (via money)!

I did not have the patience for things that did not result in perfection. Each thing I did had to show results, goals, achievements. I had to do so. I was driven to prove myself to everyone about everything I did. I was jumpy, angry, and constantly worried about what others thought of me and what I did.

What I wanted to be, deep in my heart since I was a child, was an artist. I wanted to draw like my sister Madeline and like my second grade classmate Kevin W. I wanted to make arts and crafts like my mother’s best friend Rose F. I wanted to paint and make a living painting like my fellow BU student Heather Morgan and like my first painting teacher, Peter.

I had wanted to act. I wanted to sing. I wanted to dance. I wanted, wanted, wanted, but did nothing that lasted. Each time I tried, fear sizzled in my veins. After several times, the sizzle would steam and choke my lungs with panic. I would retreat into boredom, wasting time with time wasters. This start-try-stop cycle went on for years, often with month- and yearlong gaps in between attempts. Meanwhile, I needed to work and found jobs that I rationalized I could do.

Two-and-a-half years into my college studies of Business Administration, I took painting and drawing classes for non-art majors. I loved painting. The first few sessions, my still life objects were floating all over the canvas. I noticed other students were sketching first with some brown paint and linseed oil before they started. I decided to try it.

My teacher Peter F. saw me sketching and said: “Who taught you how to do that?”

I stopped and said: “No one. I just looked around and saw other people doing it. It looked like a good idea so I thought I would try it.”

My teacher just nodded and said nothing more. Later in the semester, I asked him for his opinion as to whether I should switch majors from business to painting. Did he think my paintings were good enough to apply? Ultimately, he said, it was up to me. What did I want to do?

What did I want to do? That question has plagued me my entire life. Whatever I did want, I told myself it had make sense, to be practical, and I had to be good at it as quickly as possible. The fear was hard enough to take when I went to work for something that I did not really care about.

What if I gave my heart to something that mattered to me, and there was something wrong with it? What if I was criticized? What if I was not good? What would I do then? The only thing I could think of was that I would be forced to give up what I loved to do. What was the point of life then? Given my low self-esteem, I could not adjust.

Instead, I put myself in positions where my work was not a reflection of the true me and so, even if the criticism hurt, I had the core pain of me protected against future pain. The trouble was that I also kept the internal pain from being released.

So how does this all relate to goal-setting? Because I was hyper-focused on goals, I wanted to rush through what I was doing. I could not stand the messy process of writing for pay, for work, for anything other than perfection. My 2008 NaNoWriMo novel Butterfly Wings is so, so far from perfect. If I wait for perfect, then I will never do anything.

This came up today in this Huffington Post article about success and motivation by James Clear.  The only thing that will help you achieve goals, if that’s what you need, is to do something – anything! But achieving a goal is and must be a by-product of doing what you love. And you must do what you love often. Get it wrong, get messy, learn from your mistakes, and do it again.

For me, it is writing about things that matter to me and sharing my thoughts with others. I also love fantasy novels and would love to write a fantasy story. That will have to wait. After Butterfly Wings (or whatever it is that it will end up being called), I think I have a sequel to that story in me. I am finally excited to say that I am looking forward to that process.



  1. Pingback: I’d like to thank the Academy…! | You'll Soon Be Flying

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