What do you need to make your dreams come true? Three wishes? Think again. Martha Beck on a goal-setting strategy that will get you where you want to go.

"Life would be so great," said Ilsa, a fledgling entrepreneur, "if I could just start a business to pay all my bills." Another client, Sue, wanted to have a baby. "Being a mom would make me happier than anything in the world," she told me. Like any codependent life coach, I wanted everything for Ilsa and Sue that they wanted for themselves. I longed for a magic wand that would let me bippity-boppity-boo their dreams into reality, fairy godmother–style. Instead, I did the next best thing: I worked with them as they made to-do lists and financial plans and stocked up on computer software and folic acid.

Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, my boosterism had some significant blowback. You see, Ilsa's business did succeed, but its rapid growth required her to work like a pack mule. Sue eventually had a baby, who filled her heart with love—and her ears with colicky shrieking that nearly unhinged her. Both women were in more distress after achieving their goals than they'd ever been before.

I blame myself. In my fairy godmother role, I should've paid less attention to logistics and probed deeper into the reasons Ilsa and Sue had focused on those particular ambitions, because stated goals are quite magical. They dictate our attitudes and behavior and where we put our energy. But using magic inexpertly, as most fables (and almost every Harry Potter movie) can attest, is a bad idea. After years of helping clients like Sue and Ilsa, I learned how to help people set goals to get what they want without unintended consequences.

Words of Power

The difference between a dangerous spell—um, I mean goal—and a safe, effective one has everything to do with parts of speech. Most goal setters use mainly nouns and verbs ("I want my business to succeed," "I want to have a baby"). This frequently leads to either outright failure or the kind of success that doesn't make people nearly as happy as they expect. But there's another class of words that work much better—adjectives.

I've come to depend on adjectives because goals made of nouns and verbs are risky: They bring to mind "imagined situations," as opposed to "imagined experiences." The two are subtly but crucially different, and experiences, not situations, are always what we really want. Ilsa expected business success to produce feelings of contentment; Sue thought a baby would make her feel loved. Neither fully anticipated what would happen after they achieved their goals.

By using adjectives, you can avoid this trap by focusing all your efforts on the quality of the experience you want to create. This process is harder than "normal" goal setting—it requires some serious soul-searching and perhaps a good thesaurus—but it does pay off.

Next: Here's how to start

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