What does success look like for you?: Setting the right goals for the right reasons
How asking this question helps me come up with goals and resolutions that stick, and why I’m measuring business success in beach trips.
A few weeks ago, we were dreamers: making resolutions, setting goals, planning in brand new notebooks, glowing with ambition and hope for how we could be better, do more, have more. But now it’s late January. The notebook’s curled at the corners. Hope and ambition’s soured. The dream’s dead. At least that’s how it always was for me. This year, I wanted it to be different.
Last year was a year of big changes; I quit my job and went freelance in an effort to get more fulfilment from work. As I did so, I realised something about the way I’ve always approached setting my resolutions and goal.
Starting my business, I thought my aim should be to grow to a certain level of revenue, work with big prestigious clients, win awards, praise and accolades. It sounded right, but something about it didn’t feel right.
There’s a question I always ask clients at the start of a project: ‘What does success look like for you?’ I ask them to imagine they’re at the end of the work and they feel great about how it went. Then I ask them to tell me what they’re picturing: what happened/didn’t happen, what do they see and feel?
I realised that I’d never done that myself. So I did.
I realised that revenue, big clients, awards, weren’t part of the picture. That was bullshit and vanity. It was how I wanted things to look from the outside, not what I care about and how things feel on the inside. I saw those goals weren’t hopes or ambitions; they were sticks to beat myself with. They were born from negativity: I’m not enough; I don’t do enough; I don’t have enough.
To me, success look like this: this:
- Work hard, but not to a level where I’m burning out.
- Do things that absorb me and make time fly.
- Work with organisations/on projects where the values match my own
- Spend a significant part of my time taking photos.
So instead of resolutions and a business plan, I’ve set myself some alternative OKRs (objectives and key results). They are:
- Objective: Be proud of the work I do.
- Key Result: How many projects was I happy to put my name on?
- Key Result: How many projects did some kind of good for someone? (Good ≠ making a rich person richer.)
- Key Results: How many times did I turn down work that wasn’t a good fit?
2. Objective: Be creative and deepen my skills.
- Key Result: How many photos/blog posts/whatevers did I take/write/make?
- Key Result: How many times did I get into flow?
- Key Result: How often was I challenged to learn something new?
3. I will have time for things that aren’t work.
- Key Result: How many times did I watch the starlings/swim in the sea/go for a hike/see a loved one/cook/do yoga?
- Key Result: How many books did I read? (Books ≠ business books.)
- Key Result: How many days off did I take?
I’m taking them seriously: keeping track of them through daily/weekly records in my diary and in my end of project reviews.
There’s a sacrifice to this too, and it’s financial. If I work less and turn down projects, I’m not going to earn as much. Thanks to the economic privilege I, I can make this work provided I cut my spending. Not everyone has this opportunity, so I want to acknowledge it.
Changing how I think about success is a process. I have moments (daily!) where I think I’m on the wrong course, because I’m not earning enough money, power or respect. I see a peer get a promotion, a pay rise, praise, buy a house, and I think ‘That’s amazing. You should be doing that, why aren’t you doing that?!’. When that happens, I go back to the question: ‘What does success look like for me?’. And I remember how good it feels to leave my desk at 3pm on a Monday and spend an hour on the beach watching starlings dance over the pier.