Gain Clarity and Control Over Your Goals when You Define the Difference between Achievement and Fulfillment
by Susan McCarthy
I recently saw the question from indie author Amanda Linehan, “what would you do if you knew you couldn’t succeed?” I had to read it a couple of times so the intent of the question could push its way through my thoughts and make space for itself in my head.
What would I do if I knew I couldn’t succeed?
This is a very different question from the one we see all the time – one I’ve frequently asked as a goal-setting prompt – what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
At their core, the questions ask you to examine your definition of success. What’s the difference between achievement and fulfillment?
When you’re working toward Finish Line Goals (those with sequential steps connected to a deadline) the answer can be clear – if you want to lose 10 pounds, then success involves seeing a lower number on the scale. If you want to make $x a year, then you can look at your income statement.
But even crossing a finish line might not signify that you’re done but instead that you’ll be focusing on new goals that branch off from that finish line. You’ve opened your Etsy shop and now you need to fill it with products and mail out orders and reply to emails from customers. Every day you take the next step.
Grab some paper and a pen and answer the questions you’ll encounter in this article. If you can do that before you read what I’ve written, great. If you want to read what I have to say before writing anything, great. If you want to talk out loud and wonder what type of productivity article this is that’s talking about not succeeding, great.
We’re going to play a bit with our expectations.
What’s Your Definition of Achievement?
I’m asking you for your definition of success in relationship to your goals, by that I mean the type of goals you can list and say, “I’ve done this.” (As opposed to habit-based goals like pushing back the time you get up in the morning.)
These don’t have to be limited to professional goals. You could have a goal to learn to knit socks or read all the works of an author or learn a language or bake a loaf of ciabatta bread. Or your goals could be bigger – start a business, visit every National Park, publish a book, run a marathon.
These goals are more specific than say, “be a good, caring, kind person.”
List 5-10 goals that you currently have.
Next, how would you define success for your goals? What do you hope to get out of the process of doing these things? Are you baking a loaf of ciabatta bread to serve with dinner and then check it off your list of things to try? Or do you want to learn how to make a really good ciabatta bread, the type all your friends ask you to bring with you any time they invite you to their house? Do you want to knit one pair of socks to shuffle around the house in or do you want to knit a pair for everyone you know?
And, of course, what would success look like for those larger goals? Do you want to write a book to become a bestselling author and get interviewed on morning talk shows? Would you want to win an award? Or connect with a small but enthusiastic audience?
What Would You Do If You Knew You Couldn’t Fail?
That question, eliminating failure as an option, encourages you to think big – anything is possible, you’re not going to fail. If you’re feeling frisky, you can start off with some silly options – enter the Miss America Pageant at age 60, become a NASCAR driver, sail around the world.
But then true desires poke up their head – write a novel, travel to Australia, start a business, go back to school. What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail is about imagining possibilities. But it’s also about going deep – what desires have you squashed because they weren’t practical or were expensive or would inconvenience someone in your life? The question has us look at what we will presumably regret on our death bed.
Look at those goals you listed earlier and consider what you’d do with them if you knew you couldn’t fail. Does that change your definition of success for the goal? Does it become bigger or stay the same?
Deep breath – time to shift our thoughts. Back to the question.
What Would You Do If You Knew You Couldn’t Succeed?
At first, that seems like the scarier question leading us down the path of failure. Can you feel an angry growl quietly resonating in your throat just thinking about certain failure?
We don’t want to think of failure – and certainly not assured failure.
Isn’t that why the weight loss industry was valued at $72 billion in 2018…or why there’s a new self-help book on the bestseller list always…or why we keep buying gadgets that promise to improve our lives – we might fail, but maybe this will be the thing that helps us to succeed.
Pushing back against the idea of failure can encourage us to spend our time, money, and attention on things that will make us better, make us more than who and what we are. Look into the darkest corners of your closets or the basement or think about things you’ve decluttered from these spaces – how many items entered your space promising success?
Deep breath. What would you do if you knew you couldn’t succeed? Is not succeeding really the same thing as failure?
If you knew that diet program would fail, would you buy foods that you don’t like just because they’re good for you (and then gobble down chocolate when the inevitable backlash against the diet’s rules get to you?) or would you find foods that you like to eat even if they don’t align with the popular diet in the press?
If you knew your home would never be Instagram-worthy would you declutter just enough and finally invite over the friend you’ve known for years but who’s never seen the inside of your house?
If you knew you’d never be a paragon of productivity, would you cut yourself some slack when tasks go undone and it takes longer to attain goals than you thought it would?
If you knew you couldn’t succeed would you take more risks, be willing to make more mistakes because what the heck, why not?
Would you allow yourself to take the longer path because, why not, what’s the rush? Would you enjoy the process instead of pushing yourself to do more and do it faster?
Would you be willing to explore more interests because your goal was simply to enjoy the exploration instead of trying to make them worth your while?
The question, what would you do if you couldn’t succeed? may make you angry. Maybe the thought has you envisioning a life on the couch binge-watching documentaries, because why try?
But after a while, you may realize that the idea is freeing because nothing you do will be a mistake. You’ll never have a setback because everything will simply be an exploration. You’ll do things that you enjoy because there’s no reward for doing things that leave you feeling miserable, but you feel obligated to do because of some promised idea of success.
Living a Life of Fulfillment
An obvious point in all this talk of success and failure is that you don’t know if you’ll succeed at something you set out to do. No matter how much you plan or do the work, there’s no guarantee as to what you’ll accomplish. All the socks you knit may either come out too small or too large for the intended wearer. Your Etsy shop may never see a customer. You may trip and injure your knee in the first mile of a 5K.
So, really, the question, what would you do if you couldn’t succeed is a reminder that we don’t know. We can do the work and hope for the desired results, but there’s no guarantee.
When we think of success, we’re often focused on our goals. When we start thinking that we can’t meet our definition of success for our goals, we turn our attention to our life.
This article is about fulfillment instead of just focusing on accomplishment. Considering what you would do if you knew you couldn’t succeed welcomes in options and an attitude of exploration. Because we don’t know if we’ll succeed.
The question, what would you do if you knew you couldn’t succeed, is a reminder to lighten up (something that I so need to work on). It’s about stepping back from trying to do more or do it faster. It’s about welcoming in mistakes and circuitous paths because if you knew you couldn’t succeed, you’d do what would bring happiness to the moment.
Get the free guide, Overcome Everything All at Once Syndrome, and receive weekly emails about working with intention so to create the life you want.