“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” “If you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re late.” “Do not despise the bottom rungs in the ascent to greatness.” “Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” “Success is a journey, not a destination.” “Pitter-patter, let’s get at ‘er.” “If you aren’t making any mistakes, it’s a sure sign your playing it too safe.”
There are hundreds (probably literally) of aphorisms about personal growth, pressing forward, or becoming all that we were meant to and could be. Choose your favorite. “Success is a journey, not a destination” conveys powerful ideas of determination, responsibility, and potential.
What goals are you currently working toward? What was the last goal you achieved? Why those goals? Have you ever stopped to examine the goals you choose for yourself and wondered why you chose those goals? Most of the time, we set goals because some shortcoming makes itself glaringly obvious, or a need forces itself to the center of our vision and refuses to be pushed aside. This doesn’t always mean that something has gone wrong, just that we’ve identified something that isn’t quite the way we would like it to be.
But, like many things, not all goals are created equal. This is a two-sided consideration: some goals may be better, more worthy of pursuit than others; on the other side, some motivations to pursue even the best and most admirable of goals can be chased for less than laudable reasons.
How do we know? How do we determine which goals to chase and whether our pursuit is healthy and God-honoring? Below are three questions that may be useful in setting good goals. Whether the goal is personal or professional, these questions can help you decide how good this goal is for you.
What Happens if I Don’t Achieve this Goal?
It’s easy to envision a future with our desired goal achieved and see (probably in that best of all possible worlds way) the glorious outcome(s) of reaching our goal. We gaze into the days ahead and see all the fantastic and beneficial new relationships, responsibilities, acknowledgements, skills, positions, influence, and basic satisfaction that comes with our realized goal. And all those things may in fact be true, and some of them even good. But we need to stand back and be realistic about the outcomes of this particular goal.
This requires that we look at ourselves and our situation with complete honesty. No embellishment and no downplay.
Does anything or anyone suffer if this goal is not achieved? This isn’t a “Well things would be better” kind of evaluation. But a serious question of the health, safety, and well-being of those impacted. In one sense, this is an evaluation of our starting situation. Does something need to change because there is a detrimental lack? This isn’t to say that improving something or someone isn’t a good reason to set and pursue a goal; it is just trying to honestly evaluate the situation.
What Happens if I Do Achieve this Goal?
On the converse of the non-accomplished goal question is the benefit question: What new thing(s) are realized if this goal is reached? What changes? Is this a goal with a “hard” return? Will there be measurable dollars or time saved? Significant quality improvements? Or perhaps this goal carries more “soft” returns: better relational skills because character qualities have developed (patience, gentleness, self-control). Again, it is important to stay as specific and realistic as possible with these evaluations.
What Will this Goal Cost?
The quotes at the beginning of this piece all have one thing in common. They all acknowledge that movement takes effort. Any progress, any addition of skills, or development of character quality takes sacrifice.
It would be great if our new goals brought with them more time in the day, but that’s not the case. If we are working toward something new, something else will have to give way, particularly when it comes to our time.
It may be that we have “extra” time in our day that is not already spent doing something important and significant, leisure time that is spent pursuing things that may be less important than the new goal. If so, this is an easy(ier) question to answer. But most of us don’t have spare time throughout the day; something has to give.
Time to learn a new skill, keep up with a new area, lose weight, read more, spending more time with family or friends, or add your own goal to the list—this means that we cannot spend that time doing something else. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reality that needs to be acknowledged. If you are like me, you may think that you can manufacture new time by getting up a little earlier or staying up later, adding a few unclaimed minutes to your schedule. Maybe, but taking a que from question one, we need to be realistic about this.
The cost will fall into 3 general categories, but each of these has implications that need to be assessed: time, money, energy. Any effort to pursue a new goal will cost in one or more, or all, of these areas and each cost will have ripple effects into other areas.
Is this Goal Selfish?
Maybe this is the first question that should get asked, especially for the follower of Christ. A good argument could be made that the answer to this question cuts the train off at the pass. After all, so much of Scripture steers us in a direction away from selfish ambition and toward the good of others, considering them ahead of ourselves.
Answering the previous questions about setting goals can be done with the help of other people. Others can help us see and evaluate fairly and clearly. This question is a solo endeavor. Only you know where your true motivation lies. Is this goal something that you want because it moves you up the career ladder (not necessarily a bad thing), is this motivated by finances, or fame?
Only brutal honesty will suffice here. Goals pursued (and achieved) for less than honorable reasons have a way of coming back to haunt us. The cost and the benefit turn out to be hollow promises and a cliff far too steep when we are doing more for our own selfish gain and less for the good of others or God’s kingdom.
Perhaps 1 Corinthians 10:31 is helpful for this whole discussion. Writing about how the actions of some may impact the belief and faith of others (the issue was eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols), Paul shares this encouragement: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
If our goal is God’s glory, answering these questions and setting the right goals will become an easier, and far more satisfying, process.