The Big Picture

One of the magazine cutouts on my visual goal "board." My goals are more specifically detailed in my goals document, but this keeps them in eyesight at all times.

One of the magazine cutouts on my visual goal "board." My goals are more specifically detailed in my goals document, but this keeps them in eyesight at all times.

A few years back, a couple entrepreneur friends and I got together to share our goals. The idea was that, if we each knew what the others were trying to accomplish over the next year or so, we could hold each other accountable. Also, meeting to discuss our goals would force us to write them down. And it would ensure that we could rationally explain them to other people (no half-baked, nonsensical ideas) and that other people we knew and trusted thought they were good goals (e.g., not too hard to achieve, detailed enough, relevant to our larger life objectives, and so forth).

I was all-in for this meeting. Confession: I had goals—and have always had goals—but I’d never written them down before. And only in rare cases had anyone held me accountable to them. (A fitness challenge at the gym, for example.) Everything I've ever read about success says you need to write down goals and make them specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based (SMART). I just hadn't done it. Time to start!

We came to the meeting with our goals typed and printed in multiple. When it came my turn to share?

I got shot down. Nicely, of course.

I went through my entire list before anyone said anything. I walked through all the things I was going to achieve in business growth, client mix, employee development, efficiency and productivity, corporate culture.... And so on. Each goal for the year was incredibly SMART.

Not smart enough, though.

My friends praised me on my hard work in developing business goals—praise first, then constructively criticize, right?—and then asked me where my other goals were. The stuff not directly related to work.

Stuff not related to work?

Yeah, they said. Stuff around my mental health, physical health, family, friends, even personal financial well being. Stuff like that.

So much for thinking I was a well-rounded person. Suddenly, I realized that I had a one-track mind.

Back to the drawing board. It wasn't easy. The section of my goals document directly related to work was fantastic. The other areas were blank or anemic. I was stuck. And stunned. I was one-dimensional? Really?

I won't lie: I had a bit of an existential crisis.

Drawing a complete blank on other facets of my life, I took it to the studs. I asked myself this: When I reach the end of my life—and I hope that’s a long, long time from now—what will make me feel that it was a good life? No one existence can contain everything. And every choice takes you away from other options. So, realistically, what would matter to me at the end of my life, given that I can't have it all?

Everyone's answer to this question will be different. We value different things. Our lives are our works of art, and no original work of art will ever truly be the same--even if it attempts to mimic someone else’s.

Answering this question was one of the most important exercises I've ever put myself through. I surprised myself with my answers. And I began to understand myself and my previously unexamined inclinations better than before. Once I knew what would make my life a good life, I knew how to develop long-term goals and knew how to develop goals for each year that will get me closer to them.

Will my specific goals evolve over the years? Yes. But I'm certain that the framework under which they fall will always be the same. I may decide that some other specific thing will better contribute to making mine a "good" life but the tenets I developed around what matter to me aren't likely to change.

You're probably wondering what I came up with. I'll share, in time—probably in a series of articles around different life goals I've set and the specific pieces I've put in place to get me there. But I don't want to influence your answers, because I've truly come to believe the exercise is something everyone should go through and develop her own conclusions.

So I challenge you:

Think about what will matter to you in the grand scheme. When you look back on the art you've created—your life—what will convince you that it's good? Don't forget that your life is multifaceted—your work and your family and your friends and your finances (yes, even them) all contribute to the bigger picture and influence each other. And then once you know what truly matters to you, what goals should you develop to begin creating that masterpiece?