On what to do when you get there

“No horizon perceived by human eyes is ever the shore, because beyond that horizon is another.” —Flaubert

If you’re like me, you’re accustomed to setting goals and achieving them, and you know all the rules, that your goals have to be Specific, and Measurable, and Achievable, and Relevant, and Timed, or some iteration of that, and you call them SMART goals.

And so you earn the degree and you get a job and you travel to Belize, or whatever it is, and you feel satisfied, but you also know that there’s more. Life’s not over yet! So you start over with another goal and you make sure it’s specific and measurable and yadda yadda, and at some point in your life that just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Goals like that work for tasks, like saving the money to go to Belize and planning what you’ll do when you get there. They even work—to a degree—for certain creative endeavors, like writing a book. If you write a page a day, you’ll have written something book-length by the end of the year. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good. That’s because SMART goals don’t work when you’re trying to master something—when you’re trying to do good work.

Here’s why. Say I want to become a better writer. The minute I start parsing that down into action steps, I lose the point of what I’m trying to accomplish. If I try to make that specific then I have to decide what being a better writer means, so I might say “using fewer adjectives” because I’ve heard that it’s better to use fewer adjectives. And I might measure that by saying I will use 50% fewer adjectives in my next ten thousand words. And I can meet that goal, I know I can! But at the end of the day I am not a better writer, I am just a writer who uses fewer adjectives. And also, how motivating is “use fewer adjectives” as a goal?


If I’m going to be a better writer then I need to have goals that protect my writing time and space but that don’t circumscribe the writing itself. I can tell myself I have to write a thousand words of a day but I risk churning out crap. Or I can just give myself two hours to write every morning, and sometimes I’ll spend that time taking out five hundred words of crap instead of producing them, or I’ll read something wonderful by someone else and be inspired by it, or I will try something totally new, like writing haiku. And that’s good! That’s great! That is what makes me a better writer.

No more stupid goals that don’t matter to you or motivate you. Do the work, do the work, do the work.


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