A reader recently included a line in an email that I wanted to share with all of you.
“Failing at a big financial goal isn’t so bad. It’s kind of an uphill failure, because you’ve still got fewer debts and some money in the bank even if you don’t succeed at everything.”
This matches up wonderfully with what I’ve learned about failing at well-designed big goals: even in failure, you wind up in a better spot than where you started.
If you fail at a big financial goal, you likely have fewer debts and more money in the bank than you would otherwise.
If you fail at a big professional goal, you likely have a better resume and more professional contacts than you would otherwise.
If you fail at a big health goal, you’re likely in a better place health wise than when you started.
The key, of course, is to design your goals well from the start so that, even if you fall short, you receive some benefit from your attempt at that goal.
So, how do you design a goal from the start so that failure doesn’t mean a bunch of invested time and energy without any sort of fruition?
First of all, you focus on the process. The biggest question you should always ask yourself about a big goal is “What can I be doing each day to move myself a little closer to that destination?”
So, for example, with a financial goal, you can move yourself a little closer each day by making a smart spending decision. You can choose to not eat an expensive lunch, for example, or you can choose to make dinner at home and pack up some leftovers for the next day.
Whenever you make that kind of a choice, you’re directly saving money, which can directly be used to build up an emergency fund or pay down a debt. That money persists, even if you choose to give up on your goal tomorrow.
The same thing is true with a professional goal – if your goal is to earn a promotion, then your “every day” step is likely putting aside some time for professional development and/or professional networking. Even if you reach a point a year from now where you didn’t get that promotion, you still have a bunch of strong professional relationships and a stronger resume than you ever had before, both of which will put you in a better place than you were before.
If it’s a health goal, every day you chose to exercise and eat a healthier diet is a step in the right direction. When you decide to stop, you are healthier than when you started, even if you didn’t achieve your overall goal.
Second, you set up some milestones along the way. For example, if your goal is complete debt freedom, you may have set up some milestones that involve paying off a specific debt. Milestone #1 is paying off your highest interest credit card, then milestone #2 is paying off your second credit card, then milestone #3 is paying off your smallest student loan… you get the idea.
If you set up some milestones along the way and achieve them, then you’ve achieved some tangible goals even if you didn’t hit the full target. While you may have been aiming for debt freedom, simply paying off your two credit cards made a significant difference in your life.
With a health-related goal, you may have a milestone of five pounds lost. Milestone #1 is a total of five pounds lost; milestone #2 is a total of 10 pounds lost; and so on. If you achieve the first few milestones on that measure, then you’ve found some level of success even if you didn’t happen to reach the biggest goal.
With a professional goal, you might set up milestones around the number of professional relationships established. Your first milestone might be ten relationships, while your second might be 25 relationships. Whatever you set up, those relationships will still exist and won’t go away even if you decide that the overall goal isn’t the right move for you.
Third, a failed goal can usually teach you a lot of valuable lessons moving forward that you can apply to revised goals or to entirely new goals. A failure is often a fertile breeding ground for greater success because you can draw on what went wrong to help you figure out better plans for the future.
For example, you might come to realize that you set a completely unrealistic goal the first time around, one that you can’t possibly achieve over a long period of time. If you had a great first month of spending less than you earn and based all of your future milestones off of that, you probably are setting yourself up for failure because you don’t yet see a lot of bumps in the road that will inevitably come. Hitting those bumps, learning about them, figuring out how to succeed even in spite of them – those are all incredibly valuable, but they can often mean complete destruction of your goal.
The same thing is true of a weight loss goal. You might lose five pounds in the first week or ten pounds in the first two weeks, but quickly come to realize that such a pace is completely and totally unsustainable, but if you’ve already set an audacious weight loss goal according to that pace, you may simply fail at your big goal. Along the way, you probably learned a great deal about what works for you for weight loss, but you were held back by the audacious numbers.
Finally, failing at your big goals usually helps you to set better goals going forward. A failed personal finance goal, for example, might inform you that certain financial and frugal tactics simply don’t work in your life and that your proposed pace is overly optimistic.
A failed professional goal might show you that basing too much of your goal’s success on the hands of others is a bad idea and will help you formulate a goal over which you have more control the next time.
A failed health goal might show you that you’re still learning regarding the impact of your day to day choices on your overall health, but it’s very likely that you’re now in a better spot than ever before to identify sensible goals.
The core message here is simple: don’t view yourself as a failure because you took on an audacious goal and didn’t quite make it. Instead, look at what you gained from the attempt. You gained a healthy fraction of the success that you actually wanted to achieve. You gained a better understanding of yourself and what kinds of goals work best for you. You identified healthy milestones that you can use for your next attempt. Most of all, you probably have a vision of how to create a goal that’s similarly powerful but much more approachable and likely to succeed than before.