It’s important to set audacious goals for the future. If we don’t say our dreams out loud, they will never come true.

That said, sometimes we can have an unhealthy relationship with goals -- choosing goals that make us feel smaller instead of empowered, setting goals that we feel we “should” achieve instead of goals we want to achieve, or holding onto goals that are no longer right for us.

How do we choose the right goals for us?

SMART goal setting is an excellent framework for short-term goals and project management.

But for long-term goal setting (“I want to be in ________ job by 2020” or “By the end of this year I will be ________”), here are the three guiding principles I suggest keeping in mind:

1. Values and vision alignment

You want to choose goals that are aligned with your values and vision for the future. As long as a goal steers you towards that direction, it’s worthy and will likely lead to your fulfillment.

So clarify your values; what’s most important to you at this phase of your life? What are you optimizing for? What aspects of life / work would you sacrifice for others (e.g. money, impact, growth, balance, stimulation, location, etc.)?

Reflect on your vision of what you want your day-to-day life to look like 5 years from now. If there are multiple visions you’re considering, close your eyes and ask yourself which feelings arise when you think of each possible path? Which vision would you feel most sad to lose?

2. There is no perfect goal

Recognize that there are probably a variety of goals that align with your vision and values -- and a variety of goals that don’t.

Your job is to discern between those that do and don’t align, and then choose the goal(s) that best seem to fit your vision and values for today.

I say for today, because change is the only constant. Your preferences and life situation will shift because of expected and unexpected circumstances. The needs of your company, industry, and the world will continue to evolve. Possibilities will present themselves and disappear.

Give up the search for a “perfect goal for always,” in exchange for a “good enough goal for today.”

Trust that you can and will adapt or scrap goals as you learn, and that this is the skill you most want to develop because it will help you build resilience, resourcefulness, and sustained happiness.

3. Being your best self is more important than achieving any goal

If a goal no longer serves your values and vision, it’s time to let it go.

If it feels like failing to let go of a goal you haven’t yet achieved, revisit your relationship to failure. What are you gaining by staying attached to this goal -- and what are you giving up? Are you holding on because of habit, inertia, what you think you “should” do, or your values?  

We can feel tempted to give up on a goal because of fear, insecurity, or overwhelm. We can also hold on to the wrong goals for the same reasons.

But sometimes you’ve got to chase and then abandon a goal in order to find your best next step. That’s not failure. It’s actively pursuing your best, most authentic life.

Authentic goal setting takes courage

Authenticity can be misidentified as softness. Yet authentic goal setting is simultaneously more challenging and more fulfilling than sticking to the goals you set for yourself however many years ago, or following the path that was laid out for you.

It takes courage to look inside yourself and assess where you are and where you want to go. It takes courage to say “no” to the wrong goals, reject the “shoulds,” and chart your own path forward. It takes courage to befriend uncertainty and imperfection, and choose to abandon goals that you’ve shared publicly and other people now associate with your success.

But once you do, you’ll notice that everything gets a little easier.

You’ll feel more energized by the new goals you’ve set out for yourself and the journey of going after them.

You’ll know that you’re not on the way to your most authentic life -- you’re already living it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts - what do you do to make sure you set the right goals for you?