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Moving the Goalposts

Luke Smith

EARLY IN MY CAREER, I pursued a rigorous financial industry certification. Among the hoops I had to jump through: passing a seven-hour exam.

For 18 months, I woke up every day before work and studied for an hour. I found that consistency far more helpful than eight-hour weekend study sessions. Thanks to my daily commitment through the workweek, I only had to study for one to three hours each Saturday and Sunday.

Still, I didn’t want to get up most mornings. I’d lament to my wife, “When this is over, I’ll start working out so much more. I’ll start cooking breakfast every day. I’ll do yoga on the porch. I’ll be so much happier.”

Then came the exam. I was nervous. I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could move on with my life without any more formal education tests.

I completed the exam in half the time allotted. I passed. I was so prepared it even felt easy. My wife had champagne waiting for me in the parking lot, and we popped it right there.

Then, on the three-hour car ride home, it hit me: It’s over. No more studying. No more early morning grind. I was pumped. But then something I didn’t expect occurred. The next day, my mind began to race. What now? I had jumped out of bed every morning to study, to compete, to win. But now, what’s my next aim? What’s my next purpose?

Anyone who has achieved something of great rigor understands this feeling. Lost. Aimless. Bored. A lot of the time, achieving our goals is the wrong goal.

We often hear, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” We’re told, “Always striving, never arriving.” We hear platitudes about smelling the flowers along the way. Sometimes, clichés exist for a reason. They’re true in the highest form of the word.

We humans are insatiable. We aren’t content for long with completion. We need a new aim, a new target, a new goal, no matter what our realm of pursuit. Ran a 5k in 20 minutes? Now, we want 19:30. Got a promotion? Great. Now, we want another. Have a $500,000 net worth? Next up is $1 million. On and on it goes. We hit the next pinnacle and find ourselves wanting more.

What can we do about it? Here are three options I believe to be effective, depending on your personality.

1. Don’t have goals. This is a new-age philosophy circulating on the internet right now. I think it has some merit. By having a direction, but not necessarily a destination, we leave the door open to a never-ending moving forward, not necessarily “arriving.” If we don’t have an end goal, then the journey gets to last forever.

This also frees us up to accomplish more than our measly goals. Often, we set goals that we know we can achieve—because we’re afraid of coming up short. This sets a cap on our achievements. Once we accomplish the goal, we step back and ease up.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set goals in my professional, financial and fitness journeys, only to adjust them higher because gains happened faster than anticipated. It’s human nature to set easy goals. We don’t want to fail.

The next pursuit you have, don’t put the destination in your motivational GPS. Simply choose your direction and go forward. Act. Do. Move. When you come to a crossroads in your journey, choose the path that excites you the most, rather than the path that stops at a dead end.

2. If we must set goals, make them audacious. Some people can’t help themselves. Without a well-defined target, they’re completely lost. Direction is not enough for these folks. They want to know, “Where am I going and how do I get there as fast as possible?” I have a solution for this one as well: B-I-G goals.

I’m talking as big as we can imagine—goals that feel impossible. If we want to get the next promotion, set the goal to become CEO. If we want to complete a 5k, set a goal to run a marathon.

This again gives us the air cover to focus on the journey, the adventure, the pursuit. Small goals will always leave us wondering what’s next. It’s in our nature. That’s why we might set goals so big we think we might not be able to achieve them. That way, we stretch out the pursuit so far into the distance that the joy and excitement get stretched out as well.

3. Only pursue those things in life that excite us and can’t be finished. If we feel that having no goals is too ephemeral and having big audacious goals is a recipe for disappointment, consider this third alternative.

Take golf. I don’t care how much you practice, or how good you get, you can’t win. One day, you’ll shoot your best round ever, and the next day you can’t remember how to hit the ball. One day, you hit every chip to one foot of the hole, and the next day you can’t stay on the putting green. Even professional players go through slumps and have bad days. The best players in the world often place well below 100th in tournaments.

For each of us, our life’s pursuits will be different. They might be art, work, relationships, gardening, fitness, writing, anything. But whatever we’re looking to accomplish, we must pursue those things without end.

Don’t just set the goal of running a 5k. Instead, set the goal of running a 5k on your path to “becoming a runner.” Don’t just set the goal of having date night once a week. Instead, set a goal of “being a better spouse.” Don’t just set a goal of amassing $1 million. Instead, set a goal of “being financially free.”

Good luck with your pursuits. I hope you won’t achieve them too fast.

Luke Smith is a CFP® professional and practicing financial planner. He creates customized financial plans for each family he works with around the country. Luke pursued financial planning to combine his two favorite passions: finance and people. He spends his free time with his wife Heather and their family in Maryland. Outside of work, Luke enjoys the outdoors, golf, reading and writing. You can reach him at Luke.Smith@Wealthspire.com.

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