winning at life

It is the beginning of a new year – which means a lot of people are setting goals, committing to resolutions, and thinking about how to make this year better than the last. Some people despise resolutions and refuse to set goals because they know by February they will have given up on most of them. No matter what camp you find yourself in, I think it is important to consider why we set goals in the first place.

When it comes to setting goals and sticking to them, some people are very disciplined and driven, and others might say they “just aren’t the ‘goal-setting’ type.” In the past few years I have become more interested in setting goals for myself and honing my ability to set goals I can actually accomplish.

However, I have recently been feeling frustrated – with my job, with my time, with my low level of energy. All of it just feels frustrating to me. There are things I want to do, but I feel I don’t have the time or energy to do them. I can visualize where I want to be, but I can’t figure out how to get there. This makes goal-setting kind of impossible, and is a great way to set myself up for failure. I have recently realized why I feel so frustrated, and it has to do with the way I was subconsciously defining success.

Most people like to win, right? We like to win when we play a sport or board game. It feels good to be the winner or the champion. Being an A student for most of my life also felt good. I wasn’t really competing against anyone but myself, but I knew that I was good at learning, and it felt good to perform well in school.

Enter problem #1: I’m not in school anymore.

I always loved math because there was usually one right answer. I knew if I was right or wrong. Period, black and white, no grey area. That is very satisfying to me. Unfortunately, most things in life do not work that way. I happened to chose a profession that is extremely grey. If I had a dollar for every time “it depends” was uttered in one of my counseling classes, I would be a millionaire. I could handle the grey areas for the most part, because I got feedback on my papers and projects that let me know if I was getting it “right” or not.

Now that I’m working full time, all I have is grey. I may have a degree and license on the wall, but does that mean I know what I’m doing? Most of the time, it very much does not (or at least it feels that way). It makes so much sense that I would feel frustrated – the only feedback I receive is from my clients, and while that is helpful and beneficial, it is still very subjective and very grey. The goal of my job is to help clients heal and take back control over their own lives. That is not something you can easily measure. So even if my clients are objectively “doing well” it is still hard for me to know – Am I doing enough? Is this the right thing for this person? How do I know if I’m really helping them?

Of course, my job is only part of my life (albeit a pretty large part), and I can find ways to feel “successful” in other things I do, right?

Problem #2: My free time looks a lot different now.

I would love to say that I have many other ways to measure “success” in my life and feel like I’m being productive, but I’m still learning how to balance full-time work with the rest of my life. This is where we revisit setting goals…

I am part of a ministry at my church for single, young professionals called Thrive. Whenever our pastor meets with our leadership team, he always asks us “What is your win as a ministry or as a leader? How do you know if you’re ‘winning?'” I’m finally starting to understand why he constantly asks us this question. It is really important to feel like you are winning. If you have no way to measure success, you won’t have much motivation to stay in the game. Football would get pretty boring if no one ever scored a touchdown. While there’s no way for me to get an “A+” in life, I need to figure out how to know if I am winning or not.

A lot of times I set goals that are somewhat lofty and not very achievable. They are honestly more like dreams for the future, not practical, intentional goals for my present season of life. Now that I work full-time, I am having to learn how to be incredibly intentional with my free time. I can easily just come home from work, eat a quick dinner, and watch Netflix until I go to bed, but that doesn’t accomplish anything. When I was in grad school, doing that was absolutely necessary sometimes. And even now, I truly do need to shut off my brain sometimes and “do nothing,” in order for me to have the capacity to do my job well the next day. However, this is the source of my frustration: I don’t really have ways to measure whether or not I am “winning” at life. 

So what I am going to do about this? First, make a list of things that make me feel alive. These things make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, or I’ve done something “right,” no question about it. It may be simple tasks like reading a book, knocking out a list of errands on a Saturday, budgeting and saving money, or deep cleaning my room. These are all things which allow me to measure my progress and help me to feel successful. Since I am such a list person, even keeping a to-do list of tasks to complete at work helps me to feel like I’m “winning.” (i.e. I vacuumed my office this morning and felt awesome about it. Seriously.)

Here’s the bottom line: I am learning that for me, it’s more important to figure out why I’m setting a goal, rather than what goals I am setting. If my intention is to feel successful, my goals will look a lot different. And in the long run, I’m much more likely to accomplish my goals because my perspective toward them is different. Feeling accomplished gives me energy and makes me feel alive – and I think we all have a need to feel this way, no matter what drives you. If you’re a highly relational person, you will feel successful if you have a lot of friendships and you get to spend quality time with those people. If you are driven by financial success, then maybe working toward promotions at work and saving money will be your priority. If you hate going to the gym, then don’t make that a goal – you won’t feel successful, you’ll feel miserable!

If you’ve never thought about goals this way, here are some steps (from the Lazy Genius) to get starting thinking about how to define your “win:”

  1. Pick your path
    (Who do you want to be? What makes you feel successful?)
  2. Find your edge
    (What needs to happen for you to “win?”)
  3. Plan to stumble
    (What is currently getting in you way? Who or what are you competing against?)
  4. Celebrate the right way
    (Each time you get it “right” – celebrate! Surround yourself with people who will cheer for you too!)

No one else can live your life for you – you are the only one who can run this thing. And I don’t know about you, but I’m running to WIN!


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