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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Why I don't have fixed goals and the alternative


“I’m so glad you’re not getting me to do that goal-setting stuff.” I hear this in exploratory coaching conversations with professionals who want to rediscover meaning and joy in their work. It makes sense. If you’re a doer or high achiever by societal standards (even if you don't recognise yourself as such, perhaps because of imposter syndrome...) the thought of more goals is sometimes just tiring. Besides: “Goals are a place to come from rather than a place to get to” Rich Litvin.​

Whether it’s revising for exams, delivering a project or living my life, I’ve tended to follow a more intuitive approach than a rational one. It may be a personality thing or even a weakness in my approach but having seen what’s recommended in the coaching and performance literature, it’s clear that responding creatively in the moment is more effective than having a perfectly laid out plan.

Photo from Huckletree I’ve never spoken in front of or coached a group where 50% of the audience is one year old, but I have to say that the energy & spontaneous engagement was joyfully high at last week’s PLUSbaby Seminar at Huckletree. A creative response was needed in the moment when I tuned into the event vibe. Instead of the structured material presented from the stage, I chose to go with the flow and have a more intimate format that I believe worked better and was more fun. Thanks for the opportunity PLUSbaby Seminars.

In fact, the toughest military training in the world relies less on a precise plan and more on emotional intelligence – just like parenting, I guess. Navy SEALS describe key principles for mission success once you have an overarching intention as:

Developing mental toughness; 2) Setting (and achieving) microgoals; 3) Visualising success and overcoming failure; 4) Convincing yourself you can do it; 5) Controlling your arousal (emotions).

Reverse engineering what I’ve done along these lines to go from one career rung to another and create my own job as a professional coach, is not that dissimilar, I would say. What I’ve tended to do to “achieve goals” is allow myself to:

  • entertain inspired ideas that come out of nowhere and evaluate them in the light of my values (never dismiss them outright)

  • choose one that feels right

  • work out what the smallest and most useful units or themes of action are i.e. that if repeated over time will allow the idea to materialise and flourish

  • Automate the implementation of these actions (automation has a big role because it reduces the decision-making load and creates headspace)

  • Adjust as required.

For example, when I was writing academic papers, I figured that:

  • to publish, I need to write,

  • to write I need results to talk about,

  • for results, I need to analyse data

So the task I needed to focus on was analysing data until I had results. Once I had results to talk about, I focused on writing.

Of course, many things happen along the way with intermediate-decisions needing to be made. But the focus was simple i.e. to become a published scientific author = analyse, interpret, write, [send to journal]. Lather, rinse, repeat. Those were essentially the big headlines or building blocks that determined everything else and that enabled me to finish my PhD in under 3 years, publish 5 papers from it and then go on to do global health work translating complex science into intergovernmental policy using analytic and writing skills.

But the real work was what the Navy SEALS talk about – cultivating resilience.

I read somewhere last week, that doing graduate level work can exacerbate imposter syndrome. From personal experience and what I observed among the vast majority of PhD candidates around me at the time, I can say that doing solo-research as a job for 3+ years with an uncertain outcome and the chance of massive failure is going to mess with your head.

The real job is the inside-job (not finding the perfect plan or formula) – the one that requires you to understand your fears, your self-sabotaging habits and how to outgrow them.

When people ask me if I can help them with interviews or finding specific jobs, I say that I can but that’s not what we’ll spend most of our time doing. 80% of coaching is mindset. Planning and goal-setting is not where the biggest return on an investment in coaching comes from. It comes from goal-motivation i.e. the inner-work which can’t be done easily alone but that helps you deal with all the forms of resistance that come up as you allow yourself to go for what your soul really wants.

In fact, in a coaching session last week, a client who’s a consultant, academic and family man with an overwhelming schedule managed to unlock what he called: “pure creative freedom”. It wasn’t a result of good goal-setting but of deep exploration in the session, a reconnection with deeper values after which he gave himself permission to have space in his life for his creativity.

So if you’re feeling an impulse for change within you and are stuck because you think you don’t know what to do next, trust that it’s not what’s really holding you back. Go deeper. You’ll find true freedom.

Here’s a past Wise Wednesdays video on an alternative to rational goal-setting.

Have a great week,


Join in:

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