Business Goals? You Don’t Need Them.
Instead, go where your clients take you.
If you have an agenda for your career or your business, you may find your clientele and projects are not cooperating with that agenda. Guess what. That’s a good thing. Ditch your goals. Go with your clients.
Life has much greater things in store for you than your goals can possibly articulate. Who knows where your clients will take you next? If you simply respond, they will continue to boost you into the next stage of accomplishments.
Do you imagine yourself doing things you are not doing right now, going places you have never been? Cherish these imaginations. You don’t need goals to make them come true. If you let them, they will materialize all on their own. Chances are, your clients will take you there.
Because my clients will propel me to places I could not have imagined, my business will move as my clients move.
A goal is something you work towards, something you try to achieve. It is how you can gain control of your life, your circumstances, or the marketplace. Or so it seems. The fact is that goals are self-imposed demands on a future upon which you have little control.
A goal is also limited by your imagination. You cannot set a goal without knowing the value, or extent, of your own capabilities. My clients saw my value in ways I could not see.
So much for planning ahead
My agenda, when I finished my first degree, was to be a professor. So I enrolled in a graduate program.
Four years later, halfway through my PhD program, I discovered I did not want to be a professor. I wanted to write articles for magazines. So I dropped out of university and set out to achieve that goal. Nothing came of it. One year later I was hired as a plain language consultant for a legal information company. I was handed my dream job.
To my deep disappointment, the company closed down a mere eleven months later. Now my goal was to be a plain language consultant for software firms. Where did I come up with that idea? I don’t know, but off I went to achieve that goal. No luck. Instead, a non-profit organization hired me to write guides and reports for them. That gig lasted three years.
Then I began to pursue a new goal that promised a higher income. I wanted to write for advertising firms. Instead, I found a company that provided document design services for big banks and mutual fund companies, where many of their projects involved simplifying complicated forms. My career took off.
Five years later, my goal was to nab my own large projects on Bay Street, managing my own team and focusing on financial services. Out of the blue, a software company approached me to help out with sales proposals. This innocent request sent my business off in another trajectory altogether, where I proceeded to build a distinct niche in high-tech B2B sales.
That’s a far cry from a Professor in English Literature and Language.
Your business goals may seem useful in the short term. They are based on your current view of your potential for accomplishing something. They are what we call “realistic,” or “feasible.” But goals are not the key to your success.
The key is responding to people who need your expertise and your talents, and going where they take you.
This is why goals are no longer a driver for my consulting business.
But how do you find direction?
The other day I had breakfast with a colleague who wanted to learn the secrets of my success. One of her first questions was, “So, what are your goals?”
“Hmm. Well, I’d like to get a bunch of family photographs enlarged and framed for my front hall. And maybe next summer take my kids on the train through the Rockies. Plus I want to buy a new espresso machine.”
She laughed, but I was serious. For an entrepreneur like me, goals get in the way. “I want to be making $500,000 per year within five years.” Why? I don’t need more money. How about, “I want three new clients within the next 12 months.” What for? My current clients are wonderful.
“I want to be consulting with CEOs by the time my kids finish high school.” A little more dignified, but what’s the rationale? I love my current clients. And what kind of control do I have over my income, or my clients? History tells me I have none.
My colleague was perplexed. “So if you don’t drive yourself to achieve goals, what drives you, how do you find direction?”
Planless people, we are taught, are irresponsible. Without direction, you look like you are going nowhere. And yet, once you set a plan, you are drafting a channel, making a choice that eliminates others. You are choosing to take control of your business instead of letting it evolve organically, at its own pace, at your own pace. You are pretending your clients will not be the ones directing your business. You may well achieve your goals, but at the expense of everything else.
Visions: the alternative to goals
Instead of goals, prepare your mind for the fulfillment that is going to come to you. Let me rephrase that. Allow your mind to prepare you for success through visions or dreams.
Unlike goals, you don’t create those visions. They come to you. Often they flitter in front of you just before you fall sleep and just before you wake up.
The whole time I was chasing my goals, visions were glimmering under my radar. They were sneak peeks of me sitting at a table talking energetically with executives, explaining things, teaching them things. I saw myself at the front of a big room, showing people how to think differently, communicate differently.
Back then I was not even conscious of these fuzzy previews. That’s because they were subconscious. Too busy chasing my goals, I largely ignored them. Had I allowed them to surface or be articulated, they would have embarrassed me. They were so far from what I set out doing, so far from what I understood as my expertise and service. But now I understand those imaginations were right on. They were reflecting a self, an innate talent, an ability with people, that I was not yet aware of.
And they came true. As a consultant, I have worked with many executives, and trained many professionals in big rooms.
Unknown to me, those glimpses were preparing me for my success. Thanks to them, I was not shaken when new clients came knocking on my door, asking me to work on huge projects for which I had no experience. If I had had no inkling of where I was going, I might have declined a few handsome offers with a polite, “Oh, I don’t think I could do that.”
My premonitions reflected the way my clients and colleagues now see me: as a sort of guru, someone who introduces new ways of thinking, talking, discussing and communicating, new strategies to do business.
Unlike goals, visions are not something you work towards, because they are reflections of your unique self.
If you have foretastes of yourself, whatever they are, no matter how ridiculous or unrelated to your current circumstances, cherish them. There is no need to articulate them, record them, or share them with anyone. They are extremely personal. But hold on to them. And watch them come true.
The timing, though, is largely out of your control. That’s why goals can get in the way of your true potential or your true destiny. You cannot push a garden of vegetables to grow faster than it does. You can only make sure it is planted where the sun shines, and you can only make sure you water it regularly and dig out the weeds.
The chasm between that unspoken vision and your current role can cause inner tension, self-doubt and frustration. Be patient and watch what happens.
If you push your business to grow according to goals, and push yourself to compete with time, you will run into perennial problems that so many business owners have to deal with that they consider it normal and healthy. Stress, financial complexities, frustration, and tense relationships with clients, colleagues and spouses — these are all considered normal when you are building a business.
You do not need that stress.
Go back in time. Ten years ago, did you imagine you would be doing what you are doing right now? Did you set goals to get here, and achieve them? Did things work out as you planned?
Try going back 20 years. What kind of path did you follow in your education, apprenticeship, career, to get where you are today? Did you get here primarily because you set goals and achieved them?
I doubt it. If you are like most people, the path was twisted at best, and you could never have imagined where you would be today. You dropped out of high school, ran away from home, got stoned for two years, and somehow emerged with your own company now managing 28 people and revenues of $10 million. You graduated with a civil engineering degree and found yourself working until midnight as a Gourmet Chef. You started out teaching history in high school and ended up as a bush pilot, transporting executives anywhere from the Caribbean to the Arctic. You got your diploma in Early Childhood Education and became a standup comic.
Are these all failures? Or are they a testament to human potential?
In my mind, they suggest that goals play a much different role than we might think.
Goals are what you work on. You make them come true.
Visions are what you see. You watch them come true.
Instead of planning, respond.
When you chase goals, you can get frustrated when you face apparent obstacles or delays. But what you see as walls are actually doors. Those obstacles, detours and delays as part of your path. What if you welcome them like everything else? What if you respond to them and run with them?
That’s what I do. Instead of chasing business goals, I respond to my clients. I recommend this Bohemian approach. It has furnished me with a fulfilling career and a rich portfolio of clients, many of whom are now friends.