The power of negative goals

This is the season when a lot of people, including me, spend a fair amount of time thinking about our goals for the new year. Over the years, I’ve used various frameworks for thinking about what I want to do, what I want my business to do, and what I want my life to look like, including those parts of it that take place outside of the office.

I don’t think it really matters all that much how you go about setting goals – different types of frameworks are helpful for different types of goals. But taking a pause to think about what you want to accomplish or adjust or attend to in your life is always the first step towards making those things happen.

But it’s not always easy to identify what you want. I mean, sure, you want to make a certain amount of money and you want to have a good relationship with your spouse/children/dog. But what if you don’t know what job you want to do to make the money? What if you don’t have a spouse and don’t want to join a dating app to find one?

For a few years before I decided to make Club Ed the focus of my attention, I didn’t have a terribly clear idea of what I did want, I just knew a lot of things I didn’t want: I didn’t want clients who didn’t appreciate my work, I didn’t want to work with decision-makers who had no idea what they were doing, I didn’t want a staff job, I didn’t want to live in the Midwest anymore.

It’s always challenging to have negative goals like this because in life as in story, negative goals are not very interesting. I mean, what do you say? Everyone around you is celebrating their book deals and their promotions and you’re all, “I turned down the chance to be demeaned by a petty, vindictive jerk.” That’s great, but it’s also not an MFA, a raise, or a new puppy.

But negative goals can be very powerful. Sometimes you have to know what you don’t want in order to figure out what you do want. I was teaching developmental editing on the side for a long time – years – before I was convinced that it could be a viable business and that it was something I would want to commit to doing as my full-time work.

In the meantime, I kept exploring other directions to go – new careers or new ways of doing my career or different contexts for my career. None of these things turned into anything I wanted to pursue. They didn’t engage my attention, they didn’t pay enough money, they came equipped with silly restrictions on how I couldn’t just take Thursday off to go to the beach.

Over time it became more and more obvious that the best way to avoid all of the things I didn’t want was to center Club Ed in my work life. Once that became clear, it was much easier to choose Club Ed, and to set goals around it. What a relief! I could identify clear steps to take to achieve a desired outcome.

Yet sometimes these goals are still negative: “I don’t want Club Ed to attract a lot of tire-kickers.” But now I have a better understanding of what negative goals can teach us about what we do want and I take them just as seriously as I take positive goals.

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