I Failed My Goals, So Why Even Bother to Set New Ones?

I Failed My Goals, So Why Even Bother to Set New Ones? By Pastor Brian Stanley
The year end is a logical place where many of us take time to evaluate our previous year's goals and establish new goals for the new year.  Yet, I hear more and more often that when it comes to goals (let alone resolutions) people just don't feel a need to bother. Typically, it's because they failed at hitting their previous goals. So, they think, 'why bother?'. To be completely honest, I have felt like that many times over the years. But I think if we give into that despairing feeling of 'it's pointless' we are in fact, missing the point.

Goal-setting is a critical component of almost any endeavour leading to success in life. Establishing goals gives us motivation, a starting point, and a benchmark for achieving both short-term and long-term success. But here is the crazy thing: according to research conducted a few years ago, 92 percent of people don't achieve their goals. So, why bother indeed? Because failing a goal does not mean you have failed altogether along the way. In fact, that's where we find the value in setting goals. Sure, hitting the mark with perfection would be nice, but goals are about growth, progress, consistency, and stamina - not perfection. The only way we truly fail a goal is to not have made a single ounce of commitment or effort towards that goal.

The question really becomes how do we deal with failure along the way?

First and foremost. Don't give-up. Don't quit. 

Author Charles Franklin says, "If you're not failing at something, you're not doing anything." How true that is. I think about how many times the enemy has come against my family or my church. The constant flood of adversity, road blocks, and set-backs can easily lead one to believe we must be doing something wrong. And sure, we aren't always right and make some mistakes along the way. However, opposition does not come to those who offer no threat to growth and health. It's precisely because you are making the effort that the pressure and discomfort comes. Making the soil ready is real hard work. Planting is also challenging work. If the rains fail and the land is dry, it can certainly feel pointless. But the farmer does not reap a harvest by giving up. He may not control that final yield and he might miss his mark, but there is at least a crop to be received. I am encouraged in all things when the Apostle Paul writes the Galatian church:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9 NIV)

Secondly, understand that failure is a learning opportunity. 

In my day job I work with teams of brilliant software analysts, designers, and engineers. I coach all the time about the need for continuous improvement through experimentation. Silicon Valley has taught us the great value of "failing fast, and failing often". Time is expensive. Failure can be expensive - especially if we don't learn from it. However, the goal in saying 'fail fast' isn't to fail obviously, it's to iteratively get better. It's to recognize that in every failure (big and small) there is an opportunity for learning. A chance to say, 'this doesn't work, let's try something different next time'. And while we may have missed the mark, we have learned something. In my spiritual life, I learned long ago through experimentation that it's difficult for me to really absorb the scripture in the morning. I just don't wake up easily, nor do I have a clear head for memory or introspection. So, I could simply quit trying to read the Word each day, or I can try something different . This past year, I experimented more with 'listening' to the Word on my commutes. I turned off the other programming and music and used that focused quiet time to hear and reflect on the word. Did I achieve all my goals regarding scripture this year? Nope. Did I learn something new about how I best can soak up and reflect on God's Word? Yep. Now, I can get into my New Year's goals with a better understanding about how to approach them.

Thirdly, failure might open new and unexpected doors.

Have you ever stopped to consider that perhaps God puts us in some situations to prepare us for other ones? Indeed he does. I've told the story many times, but in my twenties I experienced what I felt like until recently was my greatest failure. For two solid years I poured myself tirelessly into restarting a 'young adult' church out of a congregation of 13 unhappy widows. Even as you read that, you see the challenge right?  My goal was inspired at the direction of our denominational leaders who encouraged me to 'go in like a bull in a china closet' and do whatever was needed to see a new church spring forth from an old one. It sounds nice but it was anything but a good experience. What I can say is that the experience abounded with learning opportunities. It's content for a much longer article, but suffice it to say, I failed completely. To the point that what church did exist was permanently closed at the end of those two years. What I never expected however is how it would springboard me into our current church and pastorate (again, a longer story for another day). But I can promise you this, we would have never found our way to our present, if that failure had not been in our past. If we had never had the gumption and commitment to try as we did, though the outcome was less than what we envisioned. It opened the door for what came next.

Fourthly, failure has a beautiful way of highlighting our potential.

I remember as a young man I hated hearing someone say to me, "you have lots of potential". My ears could only hear, 'you have not arrived and you have much to learn'. That always would kick my ego down an appropriate several notches. But, what I have understood more clearly down the road, is that we are all brimming with potential - no matter the age or experience in life. Potential just speaks to the unrealized possibilities that exist between ourselves, our maker, and the world around us. When we miss the mark, or fail at our goals - yet having given our best, we learn a great deal about what is possible for ourselves. We can examine our goals and consider questions like, 'what parts of our goal did we achieve?', 'what new strengths have I uncovered?', 'what can I take away from this experience?', or 'what would it take for me to be successful next time?'. These questions not only reveal the learning along the way, but speak to growth of potential. If you had a goal of reading 50 books this past year, but only read 43; you have learned something about your potential. Perhaps you accomplished that goal by cramming hours of reading into the last quarter of the year. If you applied yourself the other nine months of the year, perhaps 75 books are your greater potential. Who knows?

Finally, when you are contemplating your goals and failure, remember to keep the big picture in mind.

We rarely engage goals for the sake of goals. There is some larger vision of growth and progress we have in mind. My goal of sticking to say, some calorie limit each day isn't about the calories, it's about a healthier me. My goal of praying 30 minutes right after work every day isn't about racking up prayer time in minutes, it's about taking time to be grateful and interceding for those I love. My goal about being in church every weekend I can be isn't about winning a pin for perfect attendance, it's about keeping God first in my life and experiencing the joys and benefits of regular Christian fellowship. My goal of paying off a credit card, isn't just taking care of my obligations, it's about doing everything I can to settle my debts so that I won't be a slave to any lender (Proverbs 22:7). I think you get the idea.  So, when it comes to taking on the healthy practice of setting goals in general, I would encourage each of us to remember that goals aren't about falling into the ritual of creating New Year's Resolutions or to alleviate our post-holiday gluttony guilt. It's about growing and changing as a person. It's about running hard after the mission and plans God has for us. It's about taking steps to ensure that we live lives of intentionality, It's about living proactively by grace as opposed to living reactively by mercy.

My final encouragement is to remember that even when you are not sure how to take your next step - God does. Solomon reminds us to:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.  (Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV)

He would also share this wonderful principal:

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans. (Proverbs 16:3 NIV)

My prayer for all of us heading into the new year is that we would not shy away from dreaming up and setting big (even audacious) goals. Because even if we fail to achieve them, greater fruit will be realized than if we had sat on our hands having not challenged ourselves at all.

*I borrowed a few insights and ideas from a blog post on failure and success by author Charles Franklin. Check out this Inc.article on the science of goal-setting.

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