Every now and then you hear something that makes you think, “Wow, why didn’t I see that before?” As if it was right in front of you the whole time but you just never realized it.
I had one of those moments a few months ago while listening to Jaime Tardy’s interview with Seth Godin about his newest book, The Icarus Deception.
In it, Seth makes plain what should be so obvious to us all: the purpose of setting goals is to overcome fear.
That is why the idea of setting goals and making new year’s resolutions sounds so interesting to us.
Goals and Fear
What is fear? I heard this acronym recently on another podcast: FEAR is “False Evidence Appearing Real.”
We fear the unknown. We fear a future that we can’t be sure of. Sometimes that fear can be paralyzing. Sometimes we are so afraid that we don’t take action.
The reason goal-setting works is–as Seth explains he learned from the late Zig Ziglar–when we set a goal we trick ourselves into being more afraid of missing the goal than the thing we really fear (success or failure).
We are more afraid of letting ourselves down now than the future we fear might happen later.
Realizing the Purpose of Setting Goals
There are just so many types of motivational techniques to choose from and so many gurus with different options. I know because I constantly jump from one technique and tactic to another. Every year a new round of motivational speakers pops up with the newest and best way to get motivated.
But when you understand what they all do so well, you are freed to pick and choose whatever works for you at this moment in time. They all help us eliminate the fear in our lives.
It all starts with a simple question: What are you afraid of?
What are we afraid of?
If I had to summarize the deepest fears that all human beings share, I would probably break them down into the following categories:
- Fear of Failure (and Fear of Success)
- Fear of Rejection (and Fear of Intimacy)
- Fear of Oppression (and Fear of Freedom)
[Sidebar: My thoughts on motivation were influenced early on by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who put forth what is known as Self-determination Theory. Dan Pink’s book Drive summarizes their research well.]
Try this out for a few moments. Ask yourself:
Fear of Failure/Success
- Failure: In what areas of your life are you afraid you might fail? Work? Marriage? Parenting? Define that failure.
- Success: What dreams do you have of success that you feel unworthy to live? At work? In your hobbies? In a relationship? In parenting? Define that (seemingly) unrealistic success. (Better yet, what dreams do you have of positively changing the lives of others and the world around you?)
Fear of Rejection/Intimacy
- Rejection: Who are you afraid to talk to? Who do you have a hard time emailing? With whom is it hard to make eye contact?
- Intimacy: To whom are you afraid to show your vulnerability? Who are you afraid to trust? Who are you afraid to forgive? Who are you afraid to love?
Fear of Oppression/Freedom
- Oppression: In what areas of your life do you feel trapped? Are you stuck in a job you hate? Are you forced to do things you don’t want to do? Who is holding you back from doing what you love? What financial burdens are forcing you to take jobs you don’t like or work longer hours?
- Freedom: Where do you place a false sense of security? Your job? Your habits? Your health? Your spiritual life? What are some of the greatest risks that you could take in the days ahead?
From Fear to Goals
One way people overcome these fears and get motivated to take action is to set goals. For example,
- Are you afraid of losing your job? Set goals to improve your job performance and become irreplaceable.
- Are you afraid of rejection by people you don’t know? Set a goal to talk to one complete stranger each week. (Next month try doing this every day!)
- Are you afraid of being stuck in a job you hate for the rest of your life? Set a goal to make some money on the side developing new skills in an area you enjoy. (Warning: Often it’s not the job that’s the problem, but our approach to doing the work.)
Here is the caveat: goals only work when we see progress. (Read about the Progress Principle.)
Goals work best when we set small, achievable goals that teach us to manage our fears. Take Dave Ramsey, for instance. Dave Ramsey’s baby steps (The Total Money Makeover) work because once you move on from baby step #1 to baby step #2, you start to believe in yourself and your ability to succeed financially.
Or, let’s look at running a marathon. When you are starting to work out more or run, you set goals for what you can achieve. Once you reach a goal, say running a mile, you can start to run for two miles, three miles, four, and before you know it you are able to run a marathon. But this only happens if you are able to build up the confidence, competence, and abilities to grow and achieve higher success.
From Goals to Dreams
But what is beyond the goals?
You can set an infinite number of goals, right? And in many ways a goal is completely arbitrary. And if you don’t watch out, you’ll find yourself setting pretty insignificant and unimportant goals.
So, we need a compass. We need a purpose.
Let’s stick with running for a moment. Why do you want to set a goal for running a marathon in the first place? Is it to get in shape because you are afraid of becoming overweight and unhealthy? Is it because you have a health problem and you are afraid of it getting worse? Are your friends getting you excited about the possibility of a race together? Are you afraid of letting them down? Are you just interested in proving it to yourself that you can do it?
With every fear of an unknown or made-up future, there is a corresponding dream and vision for the future that can motivate us in a positive way.
That’s why we need dreams. We need vision. We need to believe in a future that is different from the one we fear. We need to ignore that Resistance in us that says it isn’t possible.
Dreams aren’t easy to achieve. We call people “dreamers” when they envision futures that are highly unlikely–even crazy. “Keep dreaming,” we tell people.
But dreams are essential to motivation. They give us a reason to set goals in the first place. They give us the emotional drive to determine the steps we need to take, the obstacles that stand in the way, and the goals we need to achieve to get to where we need to go.
What do we dream of?
- We dream of success.
- We dream of intimacy and love.
- We dream of freedom.
God, Goals, Dreams, and Fears
Hold on, what about God?
God motivates us with a calling. Sometimes it is hard to see at first, but also hard to ignore.
One of the best ways to find your God-given calling (a.k.a. dream, vision) is to focus on your fears. Where do you feel you should be taking a big risk? Specifically, consider your fears of success, intimacy, and freedom. Why? Because you will never, ever find any of these things without God’s help.
He wants to be invited in so he can fill in the gaps.
That’s why we’re afraid. We can’t do it alone.
We need God’s help. This is called grace.
And, by the way, graces lines up very well with our three categories of fear. In fact, the promises of Christ present an opposite vision compared to our fears. By the grace of Christ we gain
- the glory of the Resurrection (success/failure)
- the union with God and others (intimacy/rejection)
- freedom from sin and death (freedom/oppression)
So, What Next? Try Taking These Goal-Setting Steps
- FEAR: What am I afraid of?
- DREAM: What is the opposite of that fear? (This is your dream, vision, and calling.)
- VISION: What does that dream look like? (Ask yourself: What does success look like? With whom will I need to develop strong bonds of intimacy and trust? What will I need to let go of in my life?)
- PRAY: Where do you need God’s help? (Don’t feel like you need help? Then you’re not dreaming big enough.)
- GOALS: How can I get there? (What are some goals that I need to reach in order to make that dream a reality?)
- ACTION: Take action and ask yourself: What have I learned? (Where have I made progress? Where do I need additional growth?)
(image credit: Andreas Levers)