I’ve been redefining and planning goals all month. I’ve created some targets and put them on my calendar. I’ve designed a structure to help move me towards my goals. I’ve got little steps scheduled in my daily and weekly calendars just waiting for me to do them. I’ve broken up big tasks into small, manageable, actionable steps like sending an email to a new contact or doing some initial research about a business idea. The bar for action is so low that even I should be able to accomplish all of the small steps.
However, even after doing all this planning, sometimes I just don’t want to do anything. Nope, nothing. Zilch. Zero. I can feel myself resisting when I look at my daily to-do lists. After all, who would know if I didn’t send an email or do some research? I’m accountable only to myself. My goals are only my own. Nobody but me knows or cares if I get through my to-do list or not.
When trying to reach some serious goals and get some sh*t done, accountability is key. Accountability, in turn, relies on community support.
One thing I’ve learned in my life about reaching any kind of goal is this: no one ever reaches their goals alone. The idea that reaching goals requires help and community disrupts one of our most cherished and insane cultural myths: the “self-made” person. Just like the protagonists in Horatio Alger’s novels, we often picture ourselves reaching the summit of our dreams on a solo expedition. We read stories all the time about people who have achieved fame or wealth through their own initiative. These are the ultimate “self made” people. We are often secretly envious of their success.
Although these are great stories meant to inspire us to achieve our own greatness, they often have the opposite effect. When even after our best solo efforts, we find that we cannot reach our goals, we feel like we’ve failed and wonder what’s wrong with us. There’s nothing wrong with any of us that’s preventing us from achieving our goals. What’s really happening is that we’re trying to do it all by ourselves. Even the most “self made” people aren’t. They’re benefiting from some things that maybe a lot of us don’t have (powerful family connections, piles of money), but they take great care to make sure that we can’t see that.
The truth about great independent achievements is that they are the work of many hands and minds. It is true that a few people have made the ascent of Everest solo, but most succeed in teams in which people help each other get to the top. In community and with the help and support of our networks, many things become possible that would previously have been unthinkable on our own.
When I went to write the acknowledgments section of my dissertation, for example, I was shocked to realize how many people had contributed to its success. As I wrote much of it in solitude and isolation, I’d somehow talked myself into thinking that I was solely responsible for its creation. Wrong.
A lot of people (self included) feel vulnerable and powerless when they have to ask for help from others. Despite knowing better, we still somehow think that if we can’t do something alone, its probably not worth doing. A lot of us are very enthusiastic givers, yet struggle to ask for help and receive it. It’s hard say to a whole network of people, “Um, hey, so I don’t know how to do X, but maybe you could show me or put me in contact with someone who does?”
But here’s the thing: people very much want to help and to be a part of our successes. When people ask me for help to pursue their goals, in the form of introductions, ideas, or resources, I’m always thrilled to help. I share knowledge and connections with people out of a desire to have a small part in helping others achieve their dreams. As an example, when anyone emails me and asks me for advice about doing archival research in Guatemala, I provide names and phone numbers of friends, places to stay, introductions, and general advice. I’m thrilled, happy, and honored to do so because I want people to succeed.
I’m working on keeping myself accountable to my goals by getting my network involved and (here’s the important part) letting other people help me. This starts with sharing my goals and dreams with friends and family, which can sometimes be hard. Some of the things I want to accomplish sound so unreasonable or impossible that I’m afraid to share those dreams with others because I don’t want to get shot down or told all the reasons that I can’t do it. However, this has never actually happened to me. When I share deep and personal goals with people, friends are thrilled and want to know how to help.
Asking for and receiving help to achieve your goals helps keep you accountable to other people. If the next step of your plan involves talking to person X who friend Y connected you to in order to help you achieve goal Z, you’d better damn well do it. You can keep yourself accountable when you make a note to check in with friend Y after you’ve talked to person X to say thanks and let them know what you’ve learned and how valuable you’ve found their help and how much you appreciate them. So imagine repeating the above about twenty times to take tiny steps through the part of your plan that you don’t know how to accomplish. That’s a lot of people to check in with.
What about announcing to a group what your goals are and how you’re getting there? Or you can also use a buddy who is also working on carrying out some big goals to check in and compare notes. What if you don’t have a buddy? In the age of the internet, get on Twitter and make some friends. People use hashtags to declare their intentions to carry out all kinds of goals. #writingpact, for example, helps people get things written when people publicly declare their writing goals for the day to the entire internet. Or try having a writing group. Use it to talk about your goals, not your writing. Check in regularly and support each other. It’s magic.
Without community, nothing is possible.