Here's a story about gardening and hope.
The first day I was sure it wasn't going to frost again until fall, I planted green pepper plants. The two of them can cross-pollinate for maximum productivity. There are plenty of pollinators to do that. I put the plants in good dirt, with good sunlight, and I water them every day it doesn't rain. I fertilized once before anything blossomed (too much fertilizer once vegetables set on is one reason store-bought veg can taste bitter.) They are pest- and blight-free so far as I can tell.
You might predict I'd get a lot, or a least a steady, supply of green peppers. Nope. I thought so too. They grew well, and soon a couple of blossoms appeared on each plant. One on each plant set on, and then I got exactly one green pepper from each plant. Then they just stopped blooming, growing taller, or adding any leaves. Why? Still not sure. I imagined the plants snickering and thinking, “Ha-ha! You shoulda read the label. It says 'green pepper', not 'green PEPPERS” plant. You only get one per plant.”
After two months, I was tempted to give up on them. To uproot them and plant something else in my limited space. My care and patience were being met with total indifference. But...
Awhile ago, a bunch of blossoms appeared. Then six little peppers set on. I picked the biggest two green (the plants are still pretty small and were leaning over from the weight of the peppers). The next two I picked somewhat red. Turns out, red peppers are just green peppers that have been on the plant longer. And the last two are ripening to that bright red, still on the plants. I've enjoyed lots of salads and fajitas with peppers.
The whole time I believed I was caring for these plants without any sign or return that it made any difference... but it made a difference to them. When the plants were able, they responded. I still don't understand why they had such a tough time in what seemed like such great conditions. But if I'd given up hope and uprooted them, they never would have grown to their potential and been so fruitful.
At some point, you can decide to stop nurturing the situations in your life that aren't bearing any fruit. Just maybe... not yet.
Failing is the way to succeed. There's no success without a willingness to try, and sometimes trying new things means... failing at them. At first, maybe many times. We usually only see other people's successes and triumphs. We tend to take our own fails personally, and we tend to feel like the whole world is watching. That combo can make it feel like you're the only person getting it wrong. You're not.
In fact, just trying, especially after the fail, is doing more than most people are willing to. You're going to make it. You're going to succeed (and bonus round, you get to define success)! Results matter, and setting achievable goals makes people much happier and healthier as they keep trying. And most importantly, you're going to live while you try, learn, grow, reach goals, and set new ones.
Why am I writing about failing? I've been trying to do some stuff for months and months now. I failed at it. A lot. Repeatedly. (No measurable results on a reasonable goal.) I've tried, and tried, and tried. My self-talk, the chatter in my head, was sometimes full of anger, doubt, and worry. But I've learned, and lived, and grown while facing exciting challenges with my best efforts. Along the way, I've studied productivity and effectiveness. It's been tough, too, so I studied motivation and spirituality. All of this learning has been at about 10 times the rate I was before trying new things. (The best way I can measure how much I've been studying is to count the books read, and it's about 10x for the same duration.)
If I failed a lot, why am I so confident you will succeed? Because I haven't quit. Oh, I'm changing my approach a lot to meet some of my goals. But I'm stubborn, and I'm a better person for all those things I learned. I've learned some more self-compassion too. An amazingly cool bonus is now I have more compassion for other people because of the kindness to myself.
Success, though, matters. Since I'm not giving up, and since I'm better equipped to face new challenges, I'm going to make it. Same for you. Keep learning and growing, and you will make it. You may occasionally change your mind about what you need to succeed at. That's OK. You may make a lot of attempts that do not work. That's OK. You may hear some negative self-talk. You can choose not to listen, but it can be...loud. That's OK. You may feel like the only person on the planet who isn't succeeding at his or her chosen goal at the moment. You're not, and it's OK.
Just keep growing.
The best way to make good progress is to set bite-sized goals. The best goals are have a due date, are specific enough to know when you've reached them, and are a bit challenging but doable. People who set these kinds of goals tend to feel an immediate increase to self-esteem. People can track daily goals in a to-do list, and maybe weekly goals in a list as well. There has to be accountability, which just means an honest check for progress. Sometimes I'm too harsh or too lenient on myself, so that can be easier in a small group.
To start with, goals should be dated, specific, and achievable. Let's look at each part. Dated means that there is a due date attached, a time to check completion or measure progress. I keep doing a lot of new things, and I'm really only guessing how long it will take to do them. Life happens, too, and I try to see that as challenges to overcome instead of difficulties. Sometimes goals take a lot longer than I originally guessed. Sometimes that's frustrating because everything is taking too long. I need to remind myself (often) that I haven't failed if it takes longer than I thought. As long as it's not just making excuses, it's OK. The due date has to be there, though, to keep me focused and help me check.
The next guideline for goal setting is to make goals specific. “Get in better shape” is way too vague. What does it look like? Feel like? How will I know if I've done it? A much more specific goal is something like “I will exercise 3 times this week for 15 minutes each time.” Now there is a specific goal that we can measure. Or, “I will jog around the block in under 10 minutes on Tuesday.” To get specific, think of an action to take and how you will measure the results. When you can act and it's easy to measure, it's specific. Susan Ward does a great job explaining more in depth in “How to Set Specific Goals to Improve Business Success.” Also, it's empowering and self-esteem building to set the goal as a specific, measurable thing. Dr. Fox explains more in her article in Psychology Today.
Another guideline for a good goal is that it's achievable. Good goals challenge us a little, getting us to reach a little farther or work a bit harder than we otherwise would. Lots of people don't really know what they can do, especially when trying to challenge themselves a little. People lacking confidence about a task might set a really easily obtainable goal. That's OK. They'll make progress. Then that day or week when they measure progress, they'll realize it was too easy. That should build confidence to set a slightly more ambitious goal for the next time. People feeling highly confident might set too difficult a goal. That's OK. They'll make progress too. When they check progress, they'll realize that they need to tackle a smaller, easier part. How do I know? I've see-sawed through both extremes. Sometimes friends will help me by suggesting larger or smaller goals to tackle. Sometimes I blunder around on my own, which is more...chaotic. I did something right early on, though, which was give myself permission to fail. To mess up. To make mistakes. I've written more about it in my book Celebrate Your Wins. Briefly though, treat yourself like you would a real friend. You wouldn't expect your friend to get everything right all the time, would you? You wouldn't call them horrible names or question their basic worth if they made a harmless mistake, would you?
A wonderful bonus to setting goals and committing to checking progress is a boost to self-esteem. Setting a goal is a promise to yourself, and trying your best to keep it makes you feel good about yourself. Taking action that you need to is a relief. You're someone who goes after what's important to you, you're committed enough to check your progress, and honest enough to admit when you've fallen short of the goal. That's empowering right there. And that's for something that didn't get done yet. When you set dated, specific, and achievable goals and then accomplish them, the boost is even bigger. It feels good. We all need purpose, and deciding what's important to you and getting it done creates a sense of progress towards fulfilling that purpose.
What does this look like in action for you? I set a to-do list (daily goals) and a weekly set of goals. I don't accomplish all my goals. I fall short of at least one weekly goal fairly often. I was reaching for enough progress to be a little challenging. It isn't always 100% success. But I get so much more done than when I don't set goals. Since I've focused on the most important things to do when I set goals and hold myself accountable, the tasks I finish are the ones that matter the most.
That one part, accountability, can be a little tricky on my own. Sometimes I'm too hard on myself, feeling down over a temporary, minor thing. (Did I mention some perfectionist tendencies?) Other times, I let myself slide with excuses. It can help to form a group where everyone sets goals and reports progress on a regular basis. I really like the Mastermind format, and meet weekly with my group. We use Discord voice chat and a shared Google document. Want to know more about how that works? Check out my mentoring program (start by joining the mailing list to learn more).
Another good checklist for goals is the SMART acronym. I've seen the letters explained a bit differently in different places. One place that uses SMART is the University of Virginia, which explains SMART goals for their own employees. That is, the University uses these to help their own faculty set professional goals. Each goal should be specific and measurable (to me that's really similar). Each goal should be actionable (or achievable), relevant (to the bigger picture for yourself), and time-bound (there's a due date). What other ways to develop goals do you know of?
In conclusion, set goals for success. Goals should have a due date or a time to measure. They should be specific actions you can take. Goals should be achievable and a bit challenging. Two ways to think of them are dated—specific—achievable or SMART. Give yourself permission to fail. Even beginning to think of a single small step to take to make progress can boost self-esteem and self-confidence. If you get into the habit of taking action to achieve what you decide is important, then your self-esteem can really soar. And oh yeah, you might complete coursework, pass classes, earn a degree, continue your career, and other stuff like that. Cheers!
Fox, Marci. “Go for Your Goals and Gain Confidence.” Psychology Today. 29 June 2011.
goals-and-gain-confidence. 3 Dec 2018.
“Managing Performance for Success.” Employee Resources. University of Virginia Human
performance/employee-resources. 3 Dec. 2018.
Ward, Susan. “How to Set Specific Goals to Improve Business Success.” The Balance Small
success-2947282. 3 Dec. 2018.
When we set goals, there's an immediate boost to self-esteem as long as we're patient with ourselves. That's before we even reach the goals; just setting a realistic goal makes me feel better. Actually making progress benefits spouses, family, and friends too. Continuing to learn and grow is exciting, and we all have a higher purpose to fulfill. Challenging ourselves to improve helps us feel better right away and to grow towards the best people we can become.
One of the best things about setting some goals and working towards them is a boost to self-esteem. People feel good standing on their own two feet. It feels good knowing that I make my own way in the world, providing for myself as best I can. People cooperate a lot. We don't need to be independent frontiersmen in most cases, but just to pull our weight in the groups that we're part of. People need to divide the labor fairly in their relationships or families. It doesn't have to be same as some mythical “normal”, but it does need to be fair and work for that family.
As soon as you start working towards a goal, you feel better about yourself. One therapist puts it really well when she writes, “It’s the keeping of that promise, more than the attainment of this or any goal, that will enhance your self-esteem (Gilberston).” Everyone wants to feel like a mover and a shaker, in control, and empowered. Knowing that you keep your promises to yourself is a good start.
One difficulty with goal setting is that people can get impatient with themselves because they haven't arrived at their destinations yet. Be patient with yourself. If I do anything at all today to make progress towards the things that I want to achieve, I can know, not just guess, but really know that I'm a worthy human being. The people I admire the most are people who reach goals that help other people, and here I am, trying in my own way. I'm doing something. That can be so encouraging that after taking one small step, I can continue with another. It isn't the only source of self-worth at all, but it's a powerful one. It's also really reachable because it starts the moment I start honestly trying to take one tiny step. It's sustainable because I can keep taking more steps, and setting new goals.
Of course when you start setting goals and moving towards them, it can alarm the same partner and family members that you're trying to benefit. Sometimes people can get anxious that if you grow, then you might not need them anymore. You may want to reassure them of your love and their worth, that even when your skills and abilities change somewhat it doesn't mean the relationship will. Or if it does, it can be to everyone's benefit. It's human to feel some anxiety, but most healthy relationships can survive people continuing to grow into better people. Growing into better people does not usually include abandoning responsibilities. As long as you're focused, for example, on how to take care of your family and make progress in your career, it should be possible to reassure your spouse and kids.
Another benefit of setting goals is that we grow as people trying to reach the goals. Good goals challenge us a little (sometimes a lot). We learn and grow the most facing challenges. Most people think of stress as only bad, but psychologists for a long time have described eustress, a positive, exciting kind of stress that helps us face and overcome challenges. Jennifer Sin covers the science in a easy to understand way on The Glass Half Full. Setting positive goals and working towards them presents us with the good kind of stress. When's the last time you were excited about meeting a new challenge?
In addition to feeling exciting, facing those challenges also helps us think new thoughts, learn new things, and grow as people. According to Abraham Maslow, the height of this lifelong growth is self-actualization. That is, people grow into their potential, into their best possible selves. People can work on more than one level of needs at a time. Goals help us focus our efforts on what's important to us. This isn't about perfection or some final test. Instead, it's about reaching our full potential.
Finally, growing towards our potential helps fulfill our higher purposes. I'm trying to respect everyone's faith and spirituality here, and I can't do them all justice. So I'll just say that 1) I believe we all have a higher purpose, things we're meant to do things beyond ourselves. Also, 2) I believe that eventually, the most motivation can come from knowing that we're acting towards that higher purpose. It may not be clear right away, or even for a long time (it's a lifelong thing, after all.)
In conclusion, setting goals and taking even a single step towards them boosts self-esteem. A lot. It helps people grow as people. Setting goals creates eustress, the positive kind of stress that encourages learning and creates excitement trying to meet the challenges. Goals help us move towards self-actualization, which is reaching our full potentials. Finally, setting goals helps reveal and work towards our higher purposes. What differences do you notice when you set goals? What gets in the way of achieving them? How do you tell good goals when you set them?
Gilbertson, Tina. “Setting Goals for Self Esteem.” GoodTherapy. 19 Jan. 2011. https://www.
Sin, Jennifer. “Enhancing Eustress while Coping with Distress.” The Glass Half Full. 9 Dec. 2013.
“Understanding Maslow's Theory of Self-Actualization.” ThoughtCo. 21 Sept. 2018.
Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
Copyright 2019 G. Hunter Hanks Media L.L.C.