Last week I admonished you to actually sit down and write, and I’m happy to report that in the last seven days I’ve managed to follow my own advice, and though one project is running late, I’m well on track with where I had hoped to be now, largely by just flipping open the laptop and writing.
But there’s a bigger picture there. Just writing at random can be a fun exercise and can result in some terrific ideas, but if you’re a bit more project oriented, like me, you’re not thinking, Will I write 1000 words of anything today, but Will I write 1000 words of this novel today? And that novel has a beginning, a middle, and maybe an end roughed out somewhere, if only just in your own head. Those count as goals.
Are you content to spend the next ten years writing that novel?
Maybe. And if so, okay. But if you’re thinking, No, I want to write more than a couple books in my lifetime, and I have other ideas I’m excited about that I’d like to explore after this, and so on, you should consider setting some goals.
Here it is, still January—a great time to think about the year ahead and set some goals for yourself. I have, and have even gotten typically OCD about it. You don’t have to be as cripplingly organized as I am with this kind of stuff (and yeah, I admit it, to some degree all my spreadsheets and stuff like that are a form of work-avoidance) but everyone can benefit from a little intelligent and balanced goal-setting.
Basketball legend Michael Jordan discussed setting goals in his book I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence. He said he’s always approached things in a step-by-step fashion, setting a series of short-term goals. “As I look back, each one of the steps or successes led to the next one. When I got cut from the varsity team as a sophomore in high school, I learned something. I knew I never wanted to feel that bad again.” Jordan set a goal of playing for the varsity team. “That’s what I focused on all summer. When I worked on my game, that’s what I thought about. When it happened, I set another goal, a reasonable, manageable goal that I could realistically achieve if I worked hard enough.” He had a clear idea of exactly where he wanted to go, and focused on getting there. “As I reached those goals,” he wrote, “they built on one another. I gained a little confidence every time I came through.”
For writers, this can have a one-to-one correspondence. If you consider getting your novel published the same way a young Michael Jordan thought of playing for the varsity team, but your last manuscript has been rejected by everyone (and that’s happened to the best of us) spend “the summer” (or whatever length of time is reasonable) writing a new book with that goal in mind. Maybe the “varsity” team is a small press, and one of the major New York houses is the NBA.
But not all goals are created equal. You are perfectly free to set a goal for yourself like : I will be a billionaire by the end of this year, but if you only have $16.00 in the bank, are unemployed, and your Visa bill is two months overdue, that goal may not be entirely realistic. And if you have no idea how to get there—you don’t have the famous Facebook algorithm written in grease pencil on your dorm room window or a prototype fusion reactor in your garage running your refrigerator—a billion dollars might not be entirely reasonable.
Anyone who’s worked in corporate America has probably run across the idea of “SMART Goals.” SMART is an acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. The idea is that all of your goals should be measured against all five of these criteria. A goal like “I want a billion dollars” is not terribly specific, even if it’s a specific number. There’s nothing there about how or why you’re going to get a billion dollars. It is measurable, I guess. It’s December 31st, how much money do I have? $999,999,999? Oh well, fail!
Spoiler alert, I already told you that I don’t think this is attainable, which sort of by default makes it unrealistic. Timely? That can be taken to mean you have to achieve this goal by a specific date or that this is something that has to be done soon or you’re in big trouble—similar but not exactly the same thing.
In practice, SMART Goals tend to become an end unto themselves. I’ve spent more time—and I mean much more time—in meetings to determine what our SMART Goals should be than actually working to achieving anything like a SMART Goal. I spent some time in a pretty dysfunctional environment, but from what I’ve been able to gather, this is pretty much a universal experience of the modern office worker.
“When we set goals, we’re taught to make them specific and measurable and time-bound,” wrote Peter Bregman of the Harvard Business Review. “But it turns out that those characteristics are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?”
So, what, am I now trying to tell you not to set goals, that goals are bad?
In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman wrote: “In singling out one goal, or set of goals, and striving to meet it, you will invariably exert an effect on other, interlinked aspects of the thing you’re trying to change. In an automobile manufacturing company, that might mean starving your research division of funding in an effort to meet a predetermined market share. Applied to the personal realm, it might mean, for example, achieving the financial wealth you dreamed of at the expense of your personal relationships: attaining your goals at the expense of ruining your life.”
But none of that means you shouldn’t set goals, it just means you should be intelligent (rather than SMART) and balanced in what your goals are.
Start with this three-letter word:
Bringing this back to writing, let’s say you’ve been thinking, like me, that you want to write more short stories, and you’re looking for ways to keep from getting so caught up in everything else that you go another year not writing short stories. For me, at least, the “why” is that I can get more ideas on paper in shorter forms, which appeals to me, and I just like short stories and it’s something I want to get better at doing. From a “business” perspective, they don’t pay for crap, but they do help keep me “out there” with new work more than once in a blue moon. For something like this, “I just really want to, it will make me happy,” is a perfectly acceptable “why.”
It may help to define what you mean by the word “more.” I’ve given myself the lofty goal of writing a short story every month. This is not going to be easy, going from maybe one short story a year to twelve, but I’ll try. That’s measurable and timely, right? I think it’s attainable. Twelve is a specific number of a specific thing (short stories). Cool.
Now, this is where personal goals can and very much should be different from corporate goals. When Peter Bregman warned us that SMART Goals can lead to “cheating or myopia”—who am I cheating if I end up writing fewer than twelve stories in 2013? I’m not a slave to my own goals. I’m not going to plagiarize in order to get to number twelve. I’m certainly not going to kill myself or anything if I only write a couple. I can’t sue someone for getting in my way.
Also note that my goal is to write a short story every month this year, not to sell a short story every month this year. That gives me permission to just write. Some number of those twelve short stories might totally suck. I’ve admitted to writing bad short stories. I daresay that everyone who’s written more than one short story has written at least one bad one.
The writing is something that’s entirely in my control. I decide to sit down and write. The story idea is mine, the characters, setting, and genre are mine, and so on. Whether or not it’s published somewhere isn’t necessarily under my control.
If your goals are focused on what you are doing, what you want, what you can accomplish, and you are level-headed enough not to get so wrapped up in your own goals that you can’t still live a happy and fulfilled life at the same time, then your goals won’t lead you to cheat or trade your spouse for a Ferrari.
If you do set yourself the goal of getting published this year, like Michael Jordan making the varsity team, then approach that the way he did. He practiced all summer. He worked on his skills. He made himself good enough to be a varsity player. The goal tells you where you want to go, it’s getting there that requires work, talent, and flexibility.