As my 40s draw near, I’m coming to terms with the fact that some of the milestones I thought I’d reach by the time I was turning 40 haven’t come to life. I don’t own a house. I don’t have the three kids I once dreamt of bringing into this world. I haven’t reached the pinnacle of my career, as I’d envisioned doing. So I’m shifting the goalposts.
Far from being bitter or sad, I’m reminded how important it is to allow the goalposts to shift, just as we ourselves do as our life unfolds. We can forget that age-related goals should be flexible. As they tend to be long-term, it’s useful to re-evaluate these goals from time to time to make sure they stay appropriate and achievable and are aligned with our current life circumstances and our changing needs.
Adopting a growth mindset with goals
The first thing to remember is that not meeting your age-related goal, or any type of goal, is not a failure! It actually provides valuable information and gives you a chance to re-assess. In positive psychology, it’s called a growth mindset, the choice you make to view setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
A healthy way to do that is to dissect your experience. Even though the end goal wasn’t reached, you may discover that there are things you gained along the way; new knowledge or perspective, experience, connections, practice.
By reflecting on what you actually did accomplish or achieve, you’ll be better able to note the things that derailed you or areas in which you could improve or alter your mindset or actions in order to reframe your goal.
Assessing and reframing goals after 40
When assessing a goal, ask yourself why you set it in the first place. It’s possible you didn’t meet your goal because you didn’t really care about it. Or perhaps you cared about it when you set it, but then your priorities and desires changed, and it simply no longer fits for the stage of life you’re in.
If you’re trying to achieve a goal to please someone, or to be perceived by others in a certain way, you probably won’t stick to it in the long run.
The big family, the house, the successful corporate career were all goals I’d set when my values were very different from what they are today. I would never have imagined at the time dropping my corporate career like I did to start my coaching business. I could never have imagined back then the reality of motherhood’s challenges, away from family support.
When you assess your goal, dig for the values that are attached to it. Values are an important compass in your life and will drive your intrinsic motivation. Some of your values and their importance will also change and evolve throughout your life. The more alignment you can find between your goal and what matters most to you, the higher the chances that you will stick to it.
I use the “why” exercise with my coaching clients, to help them understand their goal’s deeper motives. If you’d like to try it, grab a pen and paper and write down your goal:
- Ask “why” and write down your first answer
- Ask “why” again and write down the next answer
- Keep asking yourself “why” until you feel you’ve arrived at something juicy, something that could be the ultimate reason why you want to achieve this goal
- Now decide whether this goal is right for you and if it is, hang on to this deep “why” and come back to it regularly for motivation.
How to recognise when it’s time to abandon a goal
Sometimes abandoning a goal is the best thing you can do. I once heard someone say “The only thing worse than being on a sinking ship, is staying on board until it’s completely sunk.”
But it’s certainly not a decision to take on a whim, just because you’re frustrated or disappointed!
Often, when people set goals, they forget to account for what to do if things don’t go to plan. Instead, think about failure upfront in order to take some pressure off as you work to achieve your goal. This will help reduce the chances of your throwing in the towel too soon. It may even keep you motivated as you accept that there will likely be obstacles along the way.
It’s good practice to check in with your body to feel whether a goal should be pursued or abandoned. Cognitive science is showing that our mind resides not only in our brain: our heart and our gut also play a role in shaping our thoughts and actions. Before you settle on a goal, tap into your body’s wisdom: close your eyes and think about it.
Take a moment to feel the sensations within your body. Do you feel expansive and open? Or do you feel contracted and closed up? Notice what’s going on in your body. Chances are you’ll get a “gut feeling” about what you should do next with your goal.
You also want to acknowledge when things aren’t going well: if pursuing your goal starts having negative consequences in your life (on your health, relationships, or finances) or when the risks associated with reaching it outweigh the benefits, there’s no shame in accepting that this goal is not worth your time and energy. These questions may help: do the rewards of achieving this goal justify the efforts? Would your life be better if you gave up on this goal?
If after all this, you still feel committed to your goal, then you can adjust the timeframe to make it more realistic and achievable.
The journey is always where the ‘gold‘ lies
It’s not uncommon to achieve an age-related goal and still feel unhappy or unfulfilled, probably especially so when turning 40. Consider the theory of ‘arrival fallacy’, a term coined by positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar. Arrival fallacy is the concept of achievement, in the end, feeling less satisfying than it did in your fantasies. Don’t get caught up in constantly reaching for more yet never feeling any different about your life.
The lesson here is to focus less on the goal itself and more on the process that you go through as you make your way towards it. The journey is always where the gold is. If you can celebrate the small achievements, the transformations, the chance encounters, you’re more likely to feel content and fulfilled no matter what happens with your goal.