Your Goals Do Not Define You

Cloudy sky over rocky mountains lit by rising sun

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, intentions, commitments, vision boards, or goals, a gentle reminder:

Your goals do not define you or your worth.

The other day, I was thinking about my “origin story.” It’s the story of why I started a business in the first place. I’ve told that story at least a hundred times over the last decade but that day it hit differently.

Once upon a time, I was 9 months pregnant and had recently finished interviewing for a promotion that I’d been training for over the previous year. Everything had gone really well and I’d been assured that I was a shoo-in for the position.

I got a phone call from a coworker a couple of weeks later. She said, “Tara, I’m so sorry. They gave the job to someone else.”

I was furious.

I believed then and believe to this day that I didn’t get promoted because I was just about to go on maternity leave.

I gave myself a few days to be furious—to grieve what I thought was going to be my next step up the ladder—and then I started to figure out how I could work from home.

That was more than 12 years ago. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve always told this story as a triumphant one: “Look at me! I experienced this great disappointment and turned it into something better than I ever could have imagined!”

But it occured to me that maybe this story isn’t so triumphant after all. Or, maybe it is but it is also pointing to a serious burden that I’ve only started to let go of in the last few years.

That burden is rooting my sense of self in my goals, my ability to achieve those goals, and my consistent climb up the proverbial ladder. I define myself by my goals to prove myself worthy and validate my existence to others.

When I got that phone call 12 years ago, I felt the ladder being ripped away from underneath me. I lost my sense (what little I had at the time) of who I was and how I existed in the world.

My experience went beyond the disappointment of not getting the promotion. 

I felt adrift, undefined, unworthy.

I was 26 and I saw my life as irretrievably off-track—all because I didn’t get promoted at my retail management job.

I had let that goal define me and my worth because I didn’t have any other way to define myself. I hadn’t ever paused to consider the inherent worthiness of my being. 

I had given my power over to the goal itself—as well as the people who could decide my fate and the system we were all operating in—instead of finding power in my being.

Now, I’m working on letting being be enough.

I recently heard meditation teacher Sebene Selassie on the Hurry Slowly podcast say, “We don’t have to make ourselves a problem in order to aspire to transformation.”

That line stopped me in my tracks. 

One of the reasons I’ve set big goals in the past is because I believed myself (or my business) to be a problem. I wanted to fix myself through my goals in order to transform from the faulty, probably-not-good-enough sack of flesh I was scared I was into a worthy person who had proven her value to society.

I wanted my goals to tell me I was not the person I feared myself to be.

I wanted my business goals to tell me that my business was a “real” business and that it was allowed to exist.

But goals could never prove these things to me. Even when I achieved a goal, all I would feel is the anxious energy of trying to name the next goal—and the one after that, and the one after that. There was always another rung on the ladder and I was never high enough to rest.

What I’ve discovered is that detaching my sense of self from my goals is a practice. 

It’s something I have to sit with over and over again. I must consciously affirm that I am not defined by how fast I run or by my P&L report or by how many words I write every day.

Am I good at it? Ha! Not yet—maybe not ever. That’s okay, I’ll continue to practice.

Today, and for the next 6 weeks, you’ll be bombarded with messaging about goals: how to set bigger ones, why you should set smaller ones, how to follow through on them. 

You’ll hear about how to start and maintain new habits. Other folks will announce their words of the year or their resolutions.

You may start to get the feeling that you’re a problem-to-be-fixed, that you’re not enough, that you have to keep up with others, that you have to accomplish some predetermined milestone in order to deem yourself (or your business) worthy.

None of that is true.

Nor is it true that you have to have met last year’s goals to set new goals for this year or that “people like me don’t set goals like that.” 

You can aspire to transformation while finding profound satisfaction with your being, as you are right now. And the same goes for your business: you can aspire to transformation while feeling wholehearted gratitude for what you’ve already created. 

Let satisfaction and gratitude by your practice as it’s become mine.

Set goals, do your thing, work your plans—catalyze transformation knowing that everything you’re made of is already enough and worthy.

And, remember that your goals do not define you. There is no ladder you need to climb to prove yourself. You are not a problem to be fixed.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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I've explored goal-setting and planning with small business owners, creatives, and independent workers for over 12 years now. That means I've observed many different types of goal-setters. Some confidently choose a new goal and get to work. Others rebel against...

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