I'll admit it. I'm a goals person. And I don't just set goals as a New Year's Day exercise-- I set them monthly, weekly and even daily. I set goals in all areas of my life, and I track their progress. I take classes, read books and listen to podcasts on the topic.
Last week I attended the NOVUS Summit at the United Nations and heard Professor Jennifer Aaker speak on the topic. Professor Aaker, who studies on topics like happiness has found that having more meaningful personal and professional goals has a direct impact on our level of happiness.
Meaning versus happiness.
One of Aaker's main points from her talk was that how we define happiness changes as we age. In particular, the older we get, the more meaning we give our goals and have in our lives in general, and the happier we seem to be. To organize your goals around meaning, Aaker suggests figuring out three things.
Step one: Identify your unique strengths.
What are those gifts, powers, potencies and contributions that you feel you are singularly exceptional at? It might be a talent you naturally possess (or one you have worked hard to cultivate). It could be an attitude or point of view you bring that transforms the people and situations around you. It might even be a particular skill that you have honed into an art.
Helpful hint: If nothing immediately comes to mind, try making a list of the most common strengths your friends, family, clients and co-workers comment on.
Step two: Identify what the world needs.
Matching your unique gifts with what the world needs not only allows you to make an impact, it puts you squarely on the path to meaning and work that brings significance, value and contribution -- all harbingers of happiness.
Helpful hint: If you are not sure what the demand is for your particular skill now and in the next decade, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. The recently updated book reflects projected job growth from 2014 to 2024.
Step three: Identify what you are passionate about.
As anyone who has ever taken on a big goal (personal or professional) knows, all ambitions by their nature include tough times, failure, despair, obstacles, challenges and not infrequently heartbreak.
So why do we persist with these crazy ideas and gigantic goals? Because we are passionate about them. Something about this objective has gotten under our skin and given us the gumption to drive through tough times.
Helpful hint: If you are not sure what you are really passionate about, make a list of how you spent your time over the past week. Then rate each area on a scale of one to 10 for overall satisfaction. The areas where you score eight or better are usually an indication of passion.
Big versus small.
Another point Aaker made was that meaningful goals are not necessarily the bigger, more challenging ones. Rather, it's whatever you would define as a big jump for you.
For example: One of my clients has as his professional objective to earn a place on the Forbes 100 list. Another client, however, has a goal to finish the first draft of her self-published book.
Both are a legitimate "goals," they are simply different in scale. And when it comes to your big idea, it's the passion and commitment you have for it, not the size, that matters.
In the end I think the most important thing I took away from Dr. Aaker's talk would be this: One of the biggest regrets expressed by people on their deathbeds is wishing they had had the courage to pursue their dreams.
So risk the failure, and potential heartbreak, and go for your goals. Even if you don't achieve a giant leap forward for the world, you might just make one meaningful small step for yourself.