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Success-oriented culture: 'Many people chase goals that are not theirs'

The problem of people being rich on paper and poor on life is an epidemic, writes Philip Kernan.

Philip Kernan Motivational speaker

HAVE YOU EVER written down a set of goals? If so, did you expect to achieve every goal on the list and reach instant happiness?

Have you been taught somewhere along the way about the magic of goal-setting? Well, join the club. Goal-setting has been an obsession with our success-oriented culture for a long time, and many of us have been sucked into its vortex.

I’m not against advancing in the direction of your choosing, or do I think it’s necessarily a bad practice to write out targets. But there’s a big caveat to goal-setting. The ugly truth is that many people chase goals that are not theirs.

As with the example of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland, the problem of people being rich on paper and poor on life is an epidemic. One of the reasons for this is the false appropriation of goals.

Emma’s story

During the early years of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, I met with an architect named Emma. At the time, she maintained a small but in-demand architectural firm, designing homes and add-ons for her clients.

Based in Dublin, she was taking on projects as she wanted yet was able to turn down projects she didn’t have the time or interest to pursue. Emma invited me to her home, where her office was based, for coffee and a discussion. As we chatted, it became clear that she wanted to focus only on the future.

When I insisted upon speaking about her current reality, she began to paint me a picture of her current life and business. I asked her what she liked about her current business, and she told me how her favourite part was listening to and interacting with her clients, taking their ideas and designing them into reality.

She lit up as she described a recently completed extension to a home. It was clear: creating something that created joy in others’ lives was at the core of her passion.

A typical day

As part of the discovery process, I also asked Emma to describe a typical day in her life. She explained how she’d wake up every morning, practice yoga and then enjoy a relaxing breakfast before making herself a cup of coffee.

She’d then walk down the corridor to a small studio she’d designed and built in her backyard. Her eyes twinkled when she told me her coffee was still hot when she arrived at her desk.

Upon “commuting” to her garden office, Emma spent her day creating, collaborating and designing. At lunchtime, she walked back down the corridor to the kitchen, ate a healthy meal, relaxed for a little while and then returned to her studio.

Emma told me that she was making good money. In terms of material wealth, she lived in the home she designed to meet all of her needs. She’d also saved up a nice little nest egg and had made a few solid investments.

Financially, this architect was well off. She was turning over more than $300,000 per year and retaining a healthy portion of that. Emma made a comfortable living, regularly indulged her hobbies, travelled and still had a significant amount of money left over to invest.

The next level

Her current reality at the time was quite wonderful, but she’d asked to meet because she wanted something to change. When speaking on the phone before that first meeting, Emma told me she wanted to go the “next level.”

After she described her current reality, I turned the conversation around and asked her what she meant by that. I soon learned she wanted to double her turnover. Her new benchmark for sales was $600,000, which she wanted to achieve the following year.

After making her desire for double turnover clear, Emma and I continued our conversation. I focused the conversation on what was needed to double her turnover.

Next-level syndrome

But something had changed. Talking about coffee helped Emma realise the changes she was talking about were not minor details.

She had worked hard to get herself in the position of living the dream life. She thought she wanted more, but she hadn’t really considered what it would cost her to double her receipts. With new information on the table, Emma’s plan was put in question.

Emma said she didn’t want to give up the face-to-face time with her clients or the days spent immersed in drawing and creation.

She also started to question whether she wanted to give up her 30-second stroll down the corridor to her garden studio. These were, after all, the very activities she loved most about her work.

This guided conversation helped Emma understand she already had something greater than what next-level offered. Her quest for more money now threatened her happiness, fulfillment, meaning and peace of mind.

Once Emma re-evaluated her ambition, she started to look at why she’d developed those goals. That’s when Emma realised money was the only why. Upon further reflection, she acknowledged she didn’t even have plans for what the extra money might buy.

Making changes

The authentic truth is that what the next level looks like can be very seductive. A fast car, beautiful spouse and a home on a beautiful island can look pretty good to those who know they want to make changes in their lives.

And don’t get me wrong. I am not against growth in your business, or money. My argument is against growth for growth’s sake and money for money’s sake. All I’m saying is that if you think your business needs to grow, consider the real facts of what that growth will foster.

First, do not trade in a lifestyle you love for a lifestyle that you would love a lot less. Emma already had a dream lifestyle. She travelled. She lived in a lovely home. She didn’t commute. She had time to practice yoga and eat healthy meals.

She had time to relax, every day. Growing her business would have resulted in some big changes to her lifestyle.

Another caveat is that you understand why you want to grow your business before trying to embark on a path of growth. Was there anything about turning over $600,000 that would’ve made Emma’s life any better than it was with $300,000?

If there was, she couldn’t name it when we spoke. She just wanted more for the sake of more.

It’s so simple to give back

Some people are convinced they need more money to do the things they want. For example, many people want to give back by helping, volunteering and taking care of others. It’s a beautiful dream I fully support. Giving back is fulfilling, and in many ways is the pinnacle of a life well-lived. But you don’t need $600,000 in sales to give back.

In reality, the people who nurture a massive vision for transforming the world often miss the boat by never going out and just helping one individual. It’s so simple to give back, but we complicate the hell out of it

A third caveat is that you should not budge an inch off of what you love about the work you do in order to get to the next level. If you’re an architect like Emma and you love the client interactions and the drawings, then why would you give those up for more money?

Peace of mind and meaning

It’s what we do on a daily basis that provides us with peace of mind and meaning. Next-level syndrome causes more suffering in the working world than we imagine.

There are millions of talented individuals who’ve given up what they love about their jobs or businesses for more money. Without exception, they all end up unhappy and unfulfilled. And here’s the saddest part about these misguided efforts at growth: businesses grow organically when the owner does more of what they love.

When you grow your business by outsourcing the parts you love, you risk finding yourself tied to work you dislike, perhaps even detest. No wonder so many people find it tough to get out of bed.

Emma was one of the lucky ones. By rethinking her approach, she grounded her business – and herself – in a strategy that was already working well.

Philip McKernan is a motivational speaker, writer and filmmaker. This article is an extract from his book, Rich On Paper Poor On Life published Braveheart Media.

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About the author:

Philip Kernan  / Motivational speaker

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