Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Bother? (Some Thoughts on Goal-Setting)

When people find out I’ve written a number of books, the first response is often, “Gee, I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

My first question is always the same, “Why?”

People are often puzzled at the question, but it’s the most important question of all in setting and achieving your goals. You aren’t chasing this goal for the fun of it, but because you believe achieving the goal will satisfy some need, solve some problem, or provide some benefit. If you can’t clearly explain why you want to achieve the goal, there’s a good chance you may head off in the wrong direction.

Let’s apply the question to this particular goal: Why would someone want to write a book? Well, there are many possible reasons. Here are some of the more common.

a) You want to make as much money as J. K. (Harry Potter) Rowling
b) You want to appear on Oprah and be famous
c) You want to impress people with your talent
d) You have something really important you want to share with the world
e) It’s your art
f) It’s your therapy

If your real goal is money, there are lots more reliable ways of getting it than by writing books. Yes, a few writers make an awful lot of money, but the vast majority of published authors make little or nothing. One writer I know devoted several years to writing a novel he knew would make a lot of money. He did well: the Book of the Month Club, foreign translations, and even sold the movie rights. But he wasn’t satisfied. He expected to make millions. So he gave up. If you want to succeed at a goal, you need to understand why you want it. This is critical.

You have to do this process for any goal you set for yourself. Why do you want it? How does this goal relate to your other goals? What will be different for you when you succeed? Are there better ways to get there? What elements of the goal are most valuable and most important to you?

What you have to supply is the quality of your self-understanding. If you understand “why,” maybe you’ll pursue the same goal, or maybe you’ll change to a goal that actually relates more closely to what you hope to gain.

Knowing “why” gives you strength and power. If your goals are challenging (and they should be), achieving them takes hard work and risk. If the goal isn’t really important to you, or if you’ve picked a goal that won’t really satisfy the “why,” it’s awfully difficult to maintain the self-discipline to get the job done.

A case in point: My best friend in college used to publish an amateur mimeographed magazine. One of his (unpaid) columnists was this Pennsylvania schoolteacher who later sold a novel, quit his job, and let his wife support him. He was a good example of what not to do, or so I thought. For years, every time my friend and I got together and talked about old times, sooner or later one of us would ask, “What do you suppose ever happened to Dean Koontz?”

You probably already know how this story turns out. Dean Koontz has managed the rare feat of having ten New York Times #1 bestsellers, and is still going strong. (His wife, I’ve read, still works: she manages their business.) He knew what he wanted and why he wanted it, and so he was able to persist in the face of skepticism and rejection.

My friend Humayun Mirza is probably the most successful author I know, though it's unlikely you've heard of him. He wrote From Plassey to Pakistan. It's a history of his fatherIskander Mirza, first president of Pakistan, and his ancestors, the Mughal rulers of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. He didn't make a lot of money from his book, but through impeccable research managed to set the historical record straight on several important points. He was successful because he succeeded in doing what he set out to do. Different goals = different success metrics.

Always ask “Why?” The more reasons you have to pursue a goal, the better you’ll likely do in terms of achieving it. I write because I have a perspective on people and organizations I want to share. But writing’s not the only way to do that; I also teach seminars. I like the act of writing; I like seeing my books in bookstores.

Why do you want to achieve your goals? The answer to that question has power. It’s what motivates you. It’s what shows you the right path to take. And it’s what opens the doors that lead to your success.

Adapted from Goal Setting: How to Create an Action Plan and Achieve Your Goals (WorkSmart series, second edition), by Susan B. Wilson and Michael S. Dobson. Copyright © 2008 AMACOM. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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