For the better part of my working life, I have been taught to create “challenging goals.” The idea is that if some work is worth doing, it is worth doing well. And, that means to conceive of the end result as higher and better than that which an ordinary effort would produce. Start, therefore, at the end, and conceive of the end result, or the goal, as higher, bigger, more impactful, etc. In other words, begin every work with a ‘challenging goal.’
I’ve learned well. I’ve applied that idea so often that it has become part of my routines, and I mindlessly begin every new effort by first crystalizing a view of the end. It has become one of the bedrock principles that I teach sales professionals and leaders in the training I do for them.
And, while I continue to believe in the usefulness of motivating goals for worldly success, I have, in recent years, begun to observe some negative effects on my spiritual walk
Here’s what happens. I begin some work that we could loosely call ‘ministry.’ Starting a new blog for Christian business people, for example. Because it is my nature; as well as my training, to ‘think big,’ I create exceedingly high expectations for the quantifiable results. I’ll have ’10,000 monthly visitors by the end of six months” I think. And thus I create a ‘challenging goal’ which represents my high expectations.
I work earnestly at the project. But, alas, after six months I have achieved some number less than my goal. Maybe I have 1,100 monthly visitors for example.
And that’s the genesis of the problem. Now, I become doubtful and depressed. “Wasn’t the Lord in this work?” “Didn’t he want this to succeed?” “Am I outside his will?” “Should I have even done this?”
This, of course, impinges upon my relationship with Christ. I begin to doubt that. Not because of the results, but because of the difference between my expectations and the results. The problem wasn’t the work, it was my expectations for the results of that work. Had I not created such high expectations, I would not have had to endure this time of doubt and depression.
What to do?
From a worldly-wisdom perspective, there are those who would counsel: “Work harder and smarter. The problem isn’t your goal, it’s the effort you put in to reach the goal. You can accomplish anything.”
I understand that advice. I have lived in the world of sales and marketing for decades. Long enough, in fact, to have observed that to achieve a goal of any substance requires some cost: Typically time and emotional energy. Some goals are just not worth it. And, there are some goals that are not going to be met, no matter what. They are just outside the realm of realistic human effort. So, the text-book response to work harder and smarter isn’t a solution for a lot of situations.
From a spiritual perspective, the counsel varies: “Pray harder and ask God for direction.” Generally, that’s a pretty good idea, but, here’s a secret hardly any spiritual guru will tell you: God doesn’t always respond to our prayers. There are some things he is silent on. There are some issues he leaves to us. What if this is one?
Others counsel, “Don’t worry about the outcomes. Leave those to God.” Again, pretty good advice for a lot of situations. But, this is business. There are bills to pay, employees to take care of, commitments to be met. Satisfactory measurements are the vital signs of good work done well. Without measurements, we are reduced to a world of no focus, no accountability, and no structure.
As Christian business people, we live in the nether zone defined by the tension between expectations and results. Frequently, those decisions that we hope to be black and white often devolve into shades of grey. Negotiating that tension between conflicting forces is a constant challenge that absorbs our energy and ultimately defines our character.