What to Glean From the Goals You Didn’t Achieve

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

II recently came across an old list of goals I’d written years ago. While it felt good to see that I’d accomplished several of the milestones I’d listed — I co-wrote a book! And it got published! — I was deflated to see all the things that I’d let fall by the wayside.

Sure, some goals had simply been outgrown. I don’t actually want to live in New York City anymore, so it’s okay that I don’t. And truly, I no longer desire “the Rachel” haircut the way 20-year-old me did. Goals, like hairdos, should change and evolve with us.

But a couple of those unfulfilled goals still stung.

For example: Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a singer. A crowning achievement of my teen years was singing the national anthem at prestigious (to a 15-year-old) events like high school basketball games. When college rolled around, I enrolled in my local state university and optimistically dove into a classical/opera-focused vocal music performance major. My logic: I sing. This is singing. I was going to be a professional singer! Great!

Fast forward to today: I am decidedly not a professional singer. And seeing a reminder of my failure right there on the page bothered me enough that I decided to retrace my steps. I’d figure out exactly where I’d gone wrong, the point in my life that had led me away from that longtime dream.

As I dug deeper, though, I discovered that I wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I’d been setting goals all wrong.

Studying music wasn’t like I’d thought it’d be. The deeper I got into my major, the deeper I sank into the quicksand of bit parts and stinging Music Theory 101 failure. For the first time in my life, no matter how hard I tried, I was not succeeding, and I had no idea why. I was miserable.

We all fail occasionally (okay, except Beyoncé). According to research from the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 92% of people who set New Year’s goals don’t achieve them. All the self-help books I consulted seemed to parrot similar just-do-it advice: “If you want something bad enough, you can achieve it!” But I could sing well enough and I loved to sing. If anything, passion was the one thing I wasn’t short on. So why did I fail?

One possible reason, according to the executive coach Chanel Dokun, is that I put my “what” (succeeding in that specific major) before my “why” (examining what I wanted overall from my association with music). “The number one thing that keeps high-achieving individuals from achieving [their] goals,” she says, “is setting what I call ‘should-goals,’ which are rooted in what is culturally acceptable, influenced by family expectations, or based in a false conceptualization of self. Goals inevitably fail when they dishonor the individual’s core purpose and identity.”

When I thought back on my own experience, it made sense. I’d decided to study singing because I loved music and the sense of community. But this particular program focused on a genre I didn’t love or know well, restricted me to tiny class pods with one building and few people, and concentrated on correcting faults rather than celebrating wins. In sticking with it, I lost everything about singing that aligned with my purpose and passion. No wonder my drive sputtered. Because as it turns out, I didn’t want to be a professional opera singer. I only thought that I should want to be a professional opera singer.

Dokun recalls coaching a successful investment banker frustrated with a stalling career. Coaching revealed a dissonance between her core purpose (the client is a phenomenal creative writer) and her familial expectations to choose a financially stable career. She consistently self-sabotaged and struggled in her professional goals because they weren’t really hers.

Rather than doubling down on ill-fitting goals, begin with some self-reflection.

First, focus on your “why”

Rather than focus on a specific job or milestone like “I want to get a promotion,” think about your purpose and identity. What do you really want? I realized that what I wanted was a creative career and a life that included singing and community.

Take time to reflect

Write out and/or review all the goals you’ve been working toward. Which ones don’t align with your “why?” How could you adapt? What’s no longer serving you? How should your dreams evolve based on your current life chapter? Make thoughtful edits as needed.

Get help

Whether you work with a professional career or life coach, sign up for a class, or just ask trusted friends for some honest advice, outside insights can help you notice blind spots, build skills, and create healthy habits.

Heal, then run

Once you address what’s holding you back, you can run full-force toward your goals. There will still be hard spots — a tough class, a difficult co-worker, a pile of rejection letters. But if your “why” is aligned with your “what,” you’ll feel peace in knowing you’re right where you’re supposed to be.

My idea of what it means to make a living in a creative field has expanded and evolved as I started a family and learned more about the world. Now I focus on comedy and writing, and I collaborate with my creative community by editing a humor publication. I’m happy not to be an opera singer. I do get rave reviews when I sing my daughter lullabies, but… she also might be a teensy bit biased.

Comedy writer/satirist. Co-founder of The Belladonna Comedy. Bylines in @thesecondcity, @reductress, @mcsweeneys, @romper and so on and so forth.

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