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Question Your Goals

I’ll be the first to admit it: When I first got hooked on the idea of startups, the goal in my mind was monetary.

I wanted to be “financially free” so that I could do all the things I wanted to do but was unable to do due to money.

So my first startup was a “big idea.” It could change the world (or at least I thought so), and I would be rewarded enormously for what I would do — given time.

After trying a few different ways in order to reach the success I had in mind, I realized that I was unhappy more than I was happy.

My second startup, Buffer, served a very different purpose for me.

I could have easily oriented the second idea just like the first, but I wasn’t letting myself go down that route again.

My goal had shifted — I was no longer purely after the money.

definition of success

My new goal and definition of success is to be able to do whatever I want with my time. This is what I spend my time working towards.

This change in what I define as success has affected my actions in a huge way. I want to limit spending time on things I don’t want to be doing.

Now I simply try to act each day towards reaching that goal. This results in very different actions than with my previous definition of success.

As time has gone on, I’ve discovered that the main goal I want to achieve has changed a lot. My definition of success and goals may change again in the short or long term, and they may well not be the goals other people are pursuing.

What is your current definition of success, and have you questioned it recently?

  • Leala

    Great article!! I think more people need to challenge the status quo. I challenge my view of success constantly. It’s easy to become complacent in daily routine and forget that one’s purpose is to evolve. Evolution is not capable without challenge. I believe success is living by my values and helping other people discover theirs. Adding value to other people is my purpose and my definition of success.

  • Great post Joel, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past 6 months.

    I find that my definition of success in life is something I question on a regular basis. It rarely changes though. Since I’ve come to realise that my true measure of success is in the moments I spend with the people I care about. The more time I can spend with those people, the more successful I feel.

  • Interesting post Joel. I spend a lot of my time interviewing entrepreneurs and have found that, contrary to popular belief, a lot of them aren’t motivated by profit. Great to see that you agree.

  • Suz Stanton

    I am thinking of it daily. What does success mean to me? Recently it’s retiring in 9 years, 2 months and 27 days, not that I am counting :) That is all I think about, although lately I am questioning what exactly that means to me. Does that mean I just don’t have an alarm going off at 5:20 am? does it mean I sit on the couch eating ice cream watching Golden Girls reruns? No, what is has come to be for me, is I can do what I want with my time. I want to still work, but I want to find passion in the work I do. I want to get up and find something in my day that I want to share with others. Money is great, but it rules my time and dampens my desires for something more. So happy that you have found an answer at your stage in life, it will serve you well!

  • Ioana

    Great post Joel! I just love the question, simple yet difficult for most people to answer with 100% confidence. I am constantly setting myself questions to discover more and more about myself, but one thing doesn’t change when I think about my definition of success and this is the same as yours, being able to do whatever I want with my time. But I am also wondering if this isn’t something hard to achieve for successful people?

  • Joel, I love this one! When I switched from the definition where money were involved and when I’ve chosen values like “happiness, satisfaction, growth” things have started to change in my life both personal and professional. I totally relate to your decision and your new goal. If we choose something higher than ourselves or materialistic values, the universe is here to offer us a great opportunity. What a great post for start of this week. Thanks a lot!

  • I’ve never really thought long and hard about the money- which is why I know that I love what I do. My time and my freedom is worth a whole lot more than money and it’s certainly not the driving force behind my passion and hard work! Thanks for the blog. Great article.

  • My goal for my new business is to wakeup every morning in joy and passion eager to serve and transform the lives of the women I KNOW I can help. 

    When you KNOW deep inside who you can help and be able to help them achieve their goals and overcome their troubles, the money flow just flows to you. 

    As people are willing to pay for the value and life transformation you provide for them.

    Also, I have concentrated on living and creating my business based on my own life values. 

When I do this, what I do and how I conduct my business is always a joy rather than a burden of a monetary goal doing something just for the money.

    In summary, create a business based on your life values and serving the people you know you can help, then clients, business and money just flows to you, as you have the desire and passion to wakeup everyday to make a difference, and when you do the universe gives you a helping hand.

    This is my definition of Success in life for me but also a feeling of satisfaction and peace inside.

  • Wasswa Samuel

    Very interesting Joel. I grew up wanting to become like Warren Buffet I studied investing then I got a job and got my first pay check. As time went on I became disillusioned with the Job no matter how much money I earned because it was sucking my time and my heart just wasn’t their anymore. My new goal changed to having control of my time. I guess I realized time is more valuable than money and you should spend every waking moment spending your time the way you want.

  • Bryan Milne

    Well put Joel and some superb thoughts in the comments, thanks all. I am sure that very few men on their death beds have longed for more money but I am sure plenty have longed for more time; time with loved ones, time to do things they wanted to do.

    It took a lot of soul searching but I recently turned down a job offer that came with a much needed salary increase as it also came with an additional 2 hr a day commute. Not only would that have been two hours a day family time lost but it would have put me to far away to be able to pop home at lunch to surprise my kid with a lift home from school. Yes I still need to find the increased income but I don’t regret the decision one bit.

  • Anastasia Alpaticova

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on success, Joel! Few people admit that when they start something initially, they do it for the money. From my experience though, I also learned that you first have to earn the money in order to understand that it’s not the measure of success. To me success is not one big thing, it’s the little steps I take every day that make me feel accomplished and satisfied every night when I go to bed, whether it’s learning something new, reading a great blog post or something in a book that helps me resolve some issue I’m struggling with, spending time with people I love, cooking something tasty, etc.

  • “My new goal and definition of success is to be able to do whatever I want with my time.”

    I’d have to agree with your definition of success. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I want to do in my current decade of my life. Time is so precious not to fill it with what matters to us, both professionally and personally. I’d build on your definition to include getting to spend time with the people I enjoy, learn from, and love.

  • Karinna Briseno

    Great post, Joel! Thank you for sharing :) I really appreciated how you highlighted that goals can shift over the years. A few years ago, I believed success went hand in hand with money. I genuinely believed that the more money I’d make, the happier I would be. But I soon realized how unhappy I was. Today, my definition of success involves having the freedom to do what I want, when I want, with the people I care about. Balancing being passionate about my work as well as spending time with the people I really care about.

  • Jan Jordyn

    Spot on post, Joel, and very timely for us at Orange and Blue as we’re currently exploring “What Success Looks Like”. Goal-setting is a vital component of success of course, but as you rightly say, goals can change over time. Keeping our goals aligned with our definition of success can be a bit of a juggling act. Ultimately we need to ask ourselves: does what I’m doing make me happy?

  • Great thought, although I would argue that by defining it as “do whatever I want with my time” is an even much harder and wider goal than just “a boatload of money”.

    If you think about it: what does it take if you want to go for a 3 month expedition to the Antarctica with your partner – right, lots of money for the trip and financial security to not work. In addition, you need to be healthy and have a good relationship with your partner to get her excited about the idea of freezing with you for 3 months as well.

    So your goal is now financial, physical and emotional. I like that, but let’s not fool ourselves – money is inherently part of it.

  • Sudheer Polavarapu

    Great article! I agree that success definition changes with time.
    For me ‘creating value from what you love or passionate, and making is accessible and affordable to others’ is the definition of success for now.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I can totally relate to that as I went down the same path. I guess you are a little further along the way, though. I’d like to add some ideas for inspiration:

    Watch Stoney Emshwiller interview himself at Old him to young him: “I don’t have to live up to YOUR dreams.” Nailed it. Goals change. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s incredibly hard to reach a goal you don’t really believe in.

    It’s a good idea to make time to reflect and question them. Someone told me an interesting approach to that: Schedule a time in the year (maybe twice or so) when you make life-changing decisions. Write down your doubts and crazy ideas. Reflect on them in your scheduled time. You free your mind from nagging questions in everyday life and at the same time make sure that you don’t “just go on”. I sometimes did the latter for too long but learned from it.

    Now I’d rather be the happiest person in the room than the richest or smartest. To me, the hardest thing in accomplishing that is to overcome my ego. Once you stop trying to live up to other people’s expectations (including the ones in your head), you’re halfway there. :-)

  • Dennis Meng

    Love this perspective. Reminiscent of DHH’s perspective here:

    Wish I’d known about both of your blogs before I launched my first startup, but I know I would’ve ignored all the advice anyway. Keep creating great content – I’m a case study on (1) startup founders who are better off because of your advice, and (2) the power of content marketing (just created a Buffer account today!)

  • François Chabé-Ferret

    Glad to read this from you, Joel ! It reminds me what I wrote to you as an answer to your older post entitled : “The Founder’s Paradox : When Thinking Big Holds You Back” :

    “I totally agreed with your first 3 points : how good and motivating it is to often « think big », how every single startup started small (usually : someone with a dream !) and how it is fundamental to be able to focus on small but essential concrete actions to finally achieve part or all of the « big thought » we first had.

    Now, I need to tell you that I disagree with two main ideas you shared in the rest of this post. And I’d like to explain you why (and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it !).

    Here are these two ideas (as I understood them) :

    1/ It is good and healthy for everyone to have ambitious thoughts, to « think big »… but not to much ! Otherwise, you venture to spend too much time thinking (not to say dreaming) instead of doing all the little things that will allow you to finally reach your actual goals.

    2/ You need to fight these world-changing thoughts if you don’t want them to stop you moving forward.

    First, « those of us who think big too much need to pay attention to this : a certain amount is definitely healthy, but beyond a point it becomes a huge time sink, and could actually stop you reaching your goals », you say. Here is what I read between the lines : if you keep on dreaming, you won’t be able to fulfill your commitments, defined as the little everyday actions you are supposed to do to get one step further and finally reach your goal. To me, your post is not about « thinking big », it’s more about commitments and how you struggle to fulfill them while being who you are : a dreamer, a « world-changing thinker ».

    Then, it’s fun but « inevitably (…) comes the time to get working again (…). You’ve got to stop thinking about changing the world, and do the nitty-gritty to get one step further », you also say. Again, here is what I read between the lines : what’s fun (thinking big) and real work (immediate tasks) can’t get along, and there’s a time you have to choose between these two activities ; and when this time comes, don’t make any mistake and focus on real work. To me, your post is not about « thinking big », it’s more about the place of dreams and fun when it occurs you have an actual job and responsibilities.

    These stakes seem complex, and I totally understand the difficulty you face in finding satisfying solutions. But believe me : they’re not that complex if you keep in mind who you deeply are. Of course, I don’t know you personally but I can tell dreams and world-changing thoughts are really important to you. And I’m sure your ability to « think big » – and how much you enjoy it – are some of the keys that explain your personal success so far, and of course Buffer’s.

    Now, here’s what I’d like to tell you : when you decide, on your own, to stop thinking big to get your everyday job done and fulfill your commitments, you trade fun for obligation. You lock yourself in your own prison and you’re not yourself anymore. So my question is : why ?

    You are the only one who can answer this question, but let me share a hypothesis with you ! I think there’s a time in life when the fear of loosing or waisting all one has already achieved becomes stronger than one’s desire to keep changing the world and achieving bigger things. This is a time when we all insidiously become more and more « managers » (of our lives, of ours companies…) and less and less « leaders ». Our main concern becomes the preservation of what we’ve created, and not the process of creation itself. For a dreamer – or at least someone who is still dreaming and thinking big – it’s a sad sad moment. Because it appears you have to give up or fight or distrust what made you feel alive and proud so far.

    Eventually, there’s a time for each one of us when we want to rest a little, think smaller and enjoy some kind of comfort – for a while or for ever ! And it’s a good thing, because we deserve it. But I’m pretty sure this time hasn’t come for you yet. And what allows me to say that is a simple fact : you can’t help yourself keeping on thinking big ! There’s no better proof.

    In reality, I think what you’re concretely doing today – despite how much you love it and how much you love the people you work with – does not completely satisfy you anymore. And now you’re dreaming of something bigger than all you already achieved. In Mark Suster’s words, I would say : you are in Basecamp 2, but you didn’t realize it yet. And instead of enjoying the point of view, the perspective and the new opportunities in front of you, you feel guilty, turn around and struggle with yourself to forget about all this (or at least not think too much about it).

    What you’re facing is a divergence of trajectories : your own personal path and your company’s (and the people working for it). This divergence may also be a difference of speeds. Whatever it is in reality, I’m sure there are many other ways to figure out a solution than the sacrifice of your will to « think big » and change the world !

    This is one of the true injustices in creating and owning a startup/company : without your ability to dream big and your leadership, nothing would exist. But this whole process of creation doesn’t give you any particular skill or palatability for management. Yet, to exist, grow and thrive, any human project needs both leadership and management. For a natural leader (or dreamer : these are synonyms to me), it’s a full (and maybe long) learning. But for a natural manager, it’s probably a way longer path to learn dreaming big !

    To conclude, my conviction is that your « world-changing » thoughts are what is most precious for you and your company : you should never fight nor sacrifice them. A company whose leader has stopped dreaming always turns into a sad and anesthetized place. Management is one of the keys you’re looking for. And my first recommendation to you would be : most of your time consuming tasks symbolize Basecamp 1 for some of your teammates, so reassign them, help these chosen ones to learn and achieved their new missions… and, Joel, keep on climbing, dreaming and thinking big !”

  • Money certainly makes life better but as you mentioned, it’s not the whole enchilada. While being financially free means a lot to me, I’ve realized that helping people reach their goals makes me so much happier. I get so excited when I see a “lightbulb” go on in another person’s head when they get in idea or concept that I teach. I’m ecstatic when I see my yoga clients give a sigh of relief because their body doesn’t hurt anymore. I get a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart when a reader of my book or article says what they read transformed their way of thinking. Those are a the things that really give me drive each and every day. And yes, being able to spend my time on things that matter (or having the luxury to do so) is a great gift in life.

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