Why Specific Goals Matter Less than You Think

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PortraitsApril1301Today’s guest contributor is writer, coach, violinist, filmmaker, law school graduate, and web designer, Emilie Wapnick. Emilie works with multipotentialites to help them build lives and businesses around ALL of their interests and she’s the troublemaker behind Puttylike.com.


“I moved to Portland to find community, a home… To settle down,” I spoke softly.

She looked at me with big eyes.

“Now I have to choose between Portland, and the thing that Portland represented, which is what I actually wanted.”

Like many 20-somethings of my generation, I have consciously designed most facets of my life. I chose self-employment to provide me with freedom and a sense of contribution, I chose a broad theme for my business over a niche in order to express my multipotentiality, I gave real thought to the friends in my life, to how I wanted my day to look, to how I wanted to feel, and to where I wanted to live.

How lucky we are to live in a time and place where this is possible, and to be privileged enough to enjoy this freedom.

I’ve been very deliberate about designing my life ever since realizing that I could. But what happens when the universe that you trust, that has been so good to you, decides to impose some of its own conditions? Do you stick with your original plan or do you shift, maybe giving up some of that autonomy you hold so dear? (In this case, moving to a new city with the person you love.)

There is one thing that makes decisions like these easier; it’s knowing what it is that you are truly seeking, behind the specific city or the specific career or goal. What do these things that you are striving for represent?

Do you really want to be a film director, or is it that you love working with big teams and seeing a creative vision come to life? If so, you could probably get the same feelings from being the leader of a nonprofit organization or the conductor of an orchestra. I’m not saying that you should pursue these avenues instead, but it’s worth knowing.

Is programming really what you love to do? Or is it the problem solving, the attention to detail, the service, the feeling of solitary work, of a deep flow state that you get when you are coding? Maybe these feelings could also be achieved in other ways too.

I see it everywhere. We confuse the specific form that our goals take for the goals themselves. We become wrapped up in one medium, and think that because we use paint to express our ideas we are a painter or that because we use legal doctrines to help people navigate the system, we are a lawyer. We become tied to, and thus defined by one role. We don’t see that it is empowering others that we seek, or inspiring a particular feeling or connecting with another human being. We don’t see the Why behind what we do.

There is danger in becoming attached to the specific and not knowing what your goals represent or why you love what you love. The danger is that your industry might die or you might become bored with a particular medium/job, and then lose your whole sense of identity.

When you dream about the sort of life you want to create, do just that: dream about the SORT of life, and know that the specifics are just potential forms that this dream may take. For example, instead of saying “I want to spend my mornings writing,” say “I want to spend my mornings doing something creative that allows me to connect with my core,” (if that’s what writing does for you). This might mean writing, but it could also take the form of gardening or yoga or countless other activities. Defining things more broadly allows you to grow and stay open to new opportunities.

When you find yourself being drawn to a particular field or project, ask yourself why. What about this area is exciting to you? How is it like past endeavors you’ve been involved with? What sort of feelings and experiences do you get from engaging with it?

Understanding the currents that run through your passions is the secret to making the right decisions when life changes suddenly. If you know what you are looking for behind the specific medium or job or location, you’ll have a basis for assessing opportunities and knowing if they are right for you.

How has understanding what draws you to your interests helped you make better decisions?


Emilie Wapnick works with multipotentialites to help them build lives and businesses around ALL of their interests. She is the troublemaker behind Puttylike.com. Her work has been featured in The Financial Times and Lifehacker.

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36 responses

36 responses to “Why Specific Goals Matter Less than You Think”

  1. Vincent says:

    It’s interesting how it seems like a lot of people are recently gravitating towards this idea. In fact, I just talked about this too! I do find specific goal to be limiting and I definitely agree with you, the specifics can be very limiting!

    • Emilie says:

      Awesome Vincent. I think for too long we’ve been conditioned to focus on the specific form that our ideas take, and not on the ideas themselves. It feels very liberating when you let go of that notion and allow yourself to be flexible.

  2. Hi Emilie. I really loved this post. I’ve worked with many clients who get so stuck because they’ve been so specific with what they want that it’s been hard for them to see more than one route to get there. It’s a huge trap that we can fall into. By looking at the essence of what we want it just opens up a whole world of possibility for us.

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks Karen. Yeah, I believe it! A lot of what I do is help people step back and look at the currents that run through their passions. It’s so powerful when you can help someone change their perspective. Suddenly so much opportunity opens up.

  3. Lori Stalter says:

    Congrats, Emilie!

    The great thing about the kind of life you created, you can live it just about anywhere. You are your lifestyle, not the place you live.

    • Emilie says:

      I know. 🙂

      I’m pretty stoked about moving to Chicago actually. It just took some getting used to.

      Thanks Lori! Nice to see you here.

  4. Cheryl Dolan says:

    Emilie, so great to see you here! Loved this post and your message. Miss you!

    • Emilie says:

      Aw hi Cheryl! Thank you.

      I actually made a note yesterday to send you an email. I’ve got some big speaking related news and could use some of your wisdom. Except an email from me soon. 🙂


  5. Ray Williams says:

    I agree with your perspective. I wrote an article on how goal setting is a waste of time in Psychology Today, you might be interested in.:http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201104/why-goal-setting-doesnt-work


  6. Melody says:

    Well now! This email arrived just when I was having a conversation with a friend about this very thing! I know I want to sing but I also want to exercise my creative energies in other areas too. Areas like photography, painting, writing, songwriting, designing, knitting and sewing. Last night I sat down and asked myself what I wanted my days to look like. After breakfast, I didn’t know. The scary thing for me is that I have been looking for work for a year and a half without success and need to generate some kind of income to keep a roof over my head. Maybe I need to give myself permission to simply be creative and not only musical. If I shift my energy in this direction maybe a job will come from it.

    I welcome any feedback or advice on this matter. Has anyone else experienced this and come out the other side?

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Melody,

      Yup. What you’ve described is very familiar to me, and it’s what a lot of multipotentialites go through. (You definitely sound like a multipotentialite by the way. Might want to swing by puttylike.com when you have a chance.)

      I definitely think you should give yourself the freedom to be creative, outside of the bounds of music! At the very least, dabbling in some other art forms might really enhance your music in unexpected ways. But it also might pull you in a different direction altogether, that ends up being really amazing.

    • Cami says:

      Hi Melody, Emilie, Jonathan and everyone around!
      About your specific commentary Melody, Ihave done the same since I was fifteen (now I am almost 24:)). I have this notebook with three different parts: Writing, Song compositions and Fashion and Jewlrey design. I have done a lot of things in each part through all this years but specially when I was finishing my school classes and all I wanted to have was free time for doing whatever I wanted to do, specially create stories that is one of my favorite activities to do.
      I have written near to ten songs, some of what I am still editing, as well as four stories that are taking body with the pass of the time, and I have different sort of dress and jewel design that I hope some day I would be able to create for real.
      Great to know a lot of these kind of amazing stories about creativity, work passion and multipotentialites! I hope to you all guys and girls the best!

  7. It’s all about family for me and lately I’ve begun playing between writing, coaching and Irish genealogy. I love getting out of the box/labels!

  8. Loved this post–I just went through something very similar with music over the past few years. Music was ONE way I could relate to the world, not THE way, and it took my self identity some time to adjust to that.

    On the other hand, I think the specifics are what give us a handle to work with those larger facets of our personality. Didn’t somebody say, “enlightenment is just taking one thing t through to the very end?”

    • Emilie says:

      I agree, David. The specific are necessary, it’s just that there can be more than one of them and they shouldn’t be mistaken for the end goal. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Joanna Moore says:

    I’m definitely getting SO much better at identifying the whys behind the things I like doing, so much so that, earlier today I was working through The Declaration of You (which I have thanks to you, Emilie!) and, instead of writing down what I love (e.g. working on and researching new projects), I wrote down my favourite elements of the things I love (e.g. planning and dreaming). I accidentally skipped step one and went straight to step two.

    (Appologies for that whopper of a sentence. Lesson still not learnt from my post on Puttylike!)

    I agree with Vincent that this kind of idea is getting more and more popular. I’ve listened to a bit of Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map, and it makes so much more sense to me to work out how I want to feel rather than what I want to do. I definitely think this approach is the way forward. It makes so much more sense.

    • Emilie says:

      Ou awesome! So glad you’re enjoying the Declaration of You. It’s getting published in print in a few months, and Michelle showed me an advance copy on Skype last week. Looks so beautiful.

      But yes, such a good approach!

  10. Leah Hynes says:

    Wow Emilie! This is just what I needed to hear at this juncture in my life. I seem to create attachments to things, places, people, job descriptions etc all in pursuit of happiness. But forgetting to ask what is the essence behind these attachments. What ‘sort of’ life do I want. Thank you for opening my mind to a new perspective and for inviting me to cast away the containers we try to make ourselves fit in to.

    Thank you,
    Leah xo

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I so needed to read this and it felt like you were speaking TO ME…for I am a ‘painter’ wondering what in the heck I should be doing NOW? Now I’m thinking more broadly, not sure where it will take me but I know I need to spend my days creating art.Not just ‘art on people’s walls’.

  12. Emilie, I loved this. As a 20-something I struggle all the time with “What do I want to do” “What am I passionate about.” Your new perspective on focusing on the destination vs the exact path is refreshing and something I’ll start thinking a lot more about! Thanks 🙂

  13. Great insights from the post. Thanks!

    This is one of the key ideas to creating a new life-work relationship.

    Happiness is related to discovering our talents and using them to live, work and help others.

  14. Saul says:

    Great piece! This is one of the best posts of yours that I’ve read. It really gets at the deeper emotional implications of lifestyle design, and as someone who’s moved from city to city to find my place, I can very much relate.

  15. I dated for years unable to meet the right girl. Then I met CJ. But was she the one? We dated several months when I came across a piece of paper I had written during a course years before. It was the “ideal woman” for me. There were ten line items: smart, pretty, fun, creative, kind… even blonde. CJ nailed 9 out of 10. That’s pretty darned good in my book! (I think #10 was “let’s me do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want.” Hey, it was a stretch goal!)

    If I had been focussed on exactly what the person would look like or what they studied in school or what family they came from , etc., I would never have found her. By “abstracting” that list to the representative characteristics I was looking for – only then could I have known. So, yes, it works. Now, to sell her on that #10…!

  16. cotey says:

    Hey Emile. Great stuff.
    For the longest time I would struggle with the way my creativity would flow from one medium to the next. I would go on a drawing tangent and I wouldn’t want to do anything else for months and months and then suddenly it would be gone. Then writing would come in and fill its place as my creative outlet. It used to freak me out, the transition; I’d lament about how my life must be over now since I can no longer do the thing to which I’d become so accustomed. It took me years to realize that they were all facets of the same creativity, all equally as valid and as valuable. Just different ways of communicating my journey through the universe.

  17. Caleb says:

    Good point. We so often say goals have to be, “specific and measurable.” Sure that is sometimes the case, but it’s hard to quantify certain goals, such as having more flexibility and freedom, that comes from freelancing or owning your own business.

    I really liked the example you gave about seeking to be creative rather than setting a goal to write. Lately I think have been getting to hung up on specific goals. This was definitely a refreshing read!

  18. Steve Hayes says:

    Really interesting point of view! I liked your examples – the painter and the lawyer. However, I don’t know for sure if it is better to have a really specific goal or if it is better just to have a vague idea about what you want… but you made your point – I am reconsidering mine.
    Really cool article.

  19. Carthage says:

    I find that the purpose is far more important than the method. Throughout my family there is a love of education but we have tended to choose different ways to fulfil that purpose. While I am a coach, one brother is a teacher, one is a football coach and my father is responsible for the education of new referees in his sport. While we all see our purpose as education I don’t think any of us would swap our roles.

  20. I love this. It’s most definitely true. I’ve always found that I don’t do my best unless I really know why I’m doing it. For me, this has manifested more in terms of knowing that I’m consciously making a decision to do this.

    I’ve always had a very strong personality and found myself rebelling quickly against doing things that I “should be doing”. Once I started connecting with why I am doing something I understood it as my choice, rather than an imposed task. It also allowed me to consciously focus on what I wanted to get out of that particular event/task/experience. That way, not only was I choosing to do whatever it was I was doing, but I also understood the underlying Why and connected with it to get exactly what I needed out of it.

    Thanks for a great article!

  21. Emilie,

    I’m not sure how you pulled off highlighting the essence of being a multipotentialite and the benefits that go along with it in one post. But you did.

    I’ll keep everything here in mind as I determine how to pivot in my business and what my value to the world should look like. Because it’s turning out my original vision of my business and the practical direction it needs to go aren’t aligning right now. As you mention, it’s a good thing I know *why* I wake up and do the work I do. Because the how and what can change… but the why rarely does.

  22. […] post on goal setting – it might make you see the concept very […]

  23. Elexio says:

    Love this information..recently found out that I am a scanner personality.
    Do any of you have ideas regarding having a focus or plan for a year..or how one can use their multipotentiality to get alot of things done..
    Also how it impacts day planning ..and sticking to certain activities like fitness over the long term?
    …lol..I could really use some help 🙂

  24. Great point! I came to this same conclusion some time ago and replaced goals with priorities. It’s like going in a direction without being too hooked up on the final destination, which you don’t know anyway as you’ve never been there before. Not worrying too much about little detours and being open to changing course if needed make the journey even more enjoyable!

  25. carolina says:

    My question what is difference between goals and dreams?
    I often think how i can convert my dream into goal. Is there any way?