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When was the last time you thought really carefully about your goals?

Are they clear? Are they ambitious enough? Do you find them at all useful in creating a day to day plan? Do you even have goals? 

After my previous article on the ‘fear of failure’, it makes sense to explore the goals I’m scared of failing to achieve.

One of my main problems at the moment is the inability to stick rigidly to a plan. I want to persist with a certain idea (whether it’s a YouTube series, or releasing a song every month, or posting regular articles, etc) but keep challenging those ideas, sometimes meaning I pull the plug early on in a project. 

I feel that the ability to persist is closely dependent on having the right goals – but I haven’t quite got them right.

But I had a recent revelation that has set me on the right path. Explaining it needs a bit of context…

A Tale Of Two Series

I have currently got two YouTube series concurrently.

The first is called ‘Can I Get Signed By The End Of The Year?’

Every week I post a new video showing how I try to achieve a step or overcome a challenge towards getting a record deal this side of Christmas. It’s a mix of creative (writing and recording songs) and more business/marketing stuff (writing to record labels, radio play, etc).

I launched it because I wanted an overarching goal, something that could provide a clearer narrative or purpose to my weekly videos. Securing a record deal seemed like a good aim for my solo project, something that was concrete enough – a sort of binary goal I would either succeed or fail at.

The second series is purely creative – exploring the process behind writing songs by setting myself a songwriting task each week. 

For example, one week I’ll have to write a song for my sister’s wedding, the next I’ll have to write a song about cricket. Each week I show the writing process in complete openness and share the results.

I feel differently about the two series. I like that the first has that clear objective, but it somehow feels a bit contrived – getting a record deal isn’t actually that important to me. What I really want, within the next 3-5 years, is to become an authority on songwriting and creativity. But that seems too vague for a YouTube series so I went for the ‘Getting Signed’ goal. 

What I’ve realised is that, had I understood what a ‘goal’ should actually be, I could have found the perfect balance.

I should have started with the dream – becoming an expert on songwriting – and used it to identify my goal(s).

But what is a goal?

My goal was to get 5 seconds alone on this rock to take a photo…

The difference between ‘goals’ and ‘dreams’

Almost every single article about goal setting will define a goal as a ‘dream with a deadline’. I find this, if not wrong then at least highly over-simplified.

A dream is how you want your world to look in the future. It should encapsulate your deepest desires into a scenario which can theoretically be brought about. It involves a lot of things out of your control – especially the growing interest of other people and a lot of luck.

A goal is a specific action you have decided to take to try to bring about that dream. Crucially, it should be something that is 100% within your control.

Consider these two alternatives:

My goal is to get 1,000 YouTube subscribers by the end of the year


My goal is to post 2 videos a week until the end of the year 

The first involves a whole load of factors that are out of my control – what the public is interested in at the moment, how I’m favoured by the YouTube algorithm, whether people share the videos with their friends, how many viewers who like the video actually click ‘subscribe’, etc. It’s therefore a mini-dream as opposed to a concrete goal.  

The second is something that no one can stop me from achieving – it’s me versus myself. It’s a strategy I’m using to bring about the first one.

So, what I should be doing is:

1) Identifying my ‘dream’ (i.e. becoming an authority on songwriting),

2) Breaking it into smaller dreams (e.g. getting over a million plays on a song, getting 1,000 subscribers, writing something my mum actually likes listening to)

3) Using those dreams to decide specific goals I can achieve, as long as I show the discipline (e.g. writing a new song every week, finding 2 ways to improve on the previous week’s song, sending each video to five of my friends for their feedback, etc)  

You might say this is all a question of semantics – but keeping this distinction between the two can have real practical and emotional effects.

I had barely finished climbing the mountain before I was dreaming of getting back down again…

The practical benefits of a dream / goal distinction 

Dreams (instead of goals) encourage greater ambition 

By thinking about the dream first and then using it to identify achievable goals (or targets), I will likely set myself more ambitious goals overall.  

Case in point, the YouTube series itself – because I was trying to come up with something tangible (with a yes-no outcome, like getting signed), I ended up shying away from the bigger ‘dream’ (becoming an authority on songwriting).

Dreaming allows us to think of our deepest desires, unconstrained by any practical factors like time limits and realistic-ness, then work back to create tangible goals.

Your goals will be more useful in giving you a practical ‘to do list’

If I start with a vaguer ‘dream’ outside of your control and then consider the goals, you’ll force yourself to break down what steps you could take in order to work out which you should take.

This will then form a useful to do list, allowing you to prioritise those tasks which are most likely to achieve your desired outcome.

For example, I’d start by thinking what it actually means to be an ‘authority on songwriting’ – what that situation looks like day-to-day, and then trace back through the events that lead up to it.

I would be getting thousands of listens a day on YouTube and/or Spotify etc. I would be giving masterclasses on how to write emotionally impactful lyrics. I might be coaching less experienced songwriters, or writing articles for culture magazines, etc. Each of these can be broken down into specific steps I could take to bring them about.

The emotional benefits of a clear dream / goal distinction 

One of the examples of the ‘fear of failure’ I explored last week was the potential impact that failure could have on your sense of self-belief.

You might think that not achieving the outcome you had desired (and had set yourself as a target) somehow shows a flaw in your ability, a challenge to your very identity.

But if your dreams are the things out of your control, which you try to bring about through goals that are 100% within your control, there are two types of ‘failure’

  1. You did do the goals you set yourself, but still didn’t get the dream outcome
  2. You don’t get your dream outcome, because you didn’t do the goals you set yourself

In the 1st scenario, there’s clearly an issue with your goals – either they weren’t big enough (in which case you can increase them, e.g. ramping up the numbers) or your overall strategy is wrong – either way, it’s only a failure of planning, and you did at the very least succeed in your goals, which is far more valuable as it’ll put you in a great place longer term.     

In the 2nd scenario, you can diagnose the problem as either (a) your goals were too ambitious for you and you need to make them more achievable (at least in the short term), or (b) you’re lacking some discipline or motivation to do the tasks you’ve set yourself.

Either way, you have something to work with that has nothing to do with your identity or the achievability of your overall dream. You’re basically narrowing your understanding of what the problem is, so you can focus on solving it rather than judging yourself in a broad way.

What all this does is help me combine my desires, the things I feel in my heart, with the more practical needs of my head, and to create a strategy that can, in turn, be broken into short-term to do lists.

I hope you enjoyed my ‘open journal’ – please leave a comment below!

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