I have always been a goal-oriented person, a maker of mental “To Do” lists that update constantly in my head. In my professional life—as a magazine editor and writer, author, and, for the last 10 years, a ghostwriter of books by celebrities and public figures—I’ve taken goal setting to the extreme.
First, I make short-terms goals, like daily word counts I hit by midnight, filling my iCal with a series of numbers that would look cryptic and deranged to anyone else. Second, I set medium-term goals, aka making a book deadline and lining up the next project. Finally, I’ve had one major, overriding long-term goal, more like a dream or a fantasy, of hitting the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
To stay engaged with life, one needs to be striving for something, right?
Although I’ve achieved mastery in reaching short- and medium-term goals, my long-termer has eluded me. My first novel was published in 1991 when I was 26. Since then, I’ve authored or collaborated on 45 books, including several bestsellers, but never a number 1. I didn’t choose projects based on their potential to get there, but I always hoped, sometimes nonsensically, that lightning would strike. It could happen.
This summer, it finally did. I collaborated on a book that hit number 1 and stayed there for two blessed weeks.
Self-help gurus (including some authors I’ve worked with) always say that you have to visualize the finish line in order to cross it. I began visualizing this particular line as a teenager with dreams of literary stardom, so crossing it decades later was, to put it mildly, profoundly gratifying. The book’s author, editor, and I—the three of us became good friends—celebrated heartily and I basked in some flattering comments and emails. Would it be shallow to say that hitting number 1 was one of the happiest days of my life? It’s not comparable to giving birth of my daughters or my weddings. Apples and oranges. That said, I will never forget the moment of crossing the line, or the feeling.
“I Did It!” Now What? When Reaching a Goal Doesn’t Feel Good
When the high faded, though, the accomplishment wasn’t as monumental or life-altering as I’d imagined it would. Yes, I’d checked a box, a big one, but then I got up the next day, with the same deadlines and word counts and hustle. The only notable change was unexpected: I’d lost my motivation. The fire seemed to have sputtered out.
What was I supposed to do now? After you get what you’ve always wanted, do you just set out to repeat it? At my pace, I wouldn’t get to number 1 again until my 80s.
After you get what you’ve always wanted, do you just set out to repeat it?
Writing is my calling and my livelihood, so I wasn’t about to brush off my hands and start over in a different career. But I needed to do something to stoke the fire again, or I’d fall short of my short- and medium-term goals. Without a powerfully motivating long-term goal, I might not get out of bed. To stay engaged with life, one needs to be striving for something, right?
Wrestling with purpose is almost a parody of a problem of privilege, so even asking the question made me feel guilty and a bit foolish. And, yet, my disquietude existed, and calling it a luxury didn’t make it go away.
Goal-Setting for the Next Stage
As usual, in times of emotional crisis, I reached out to greater minds.
One friend, a wildly successful documentary film director and genuinely happy person, said, “I’ve never had long-term goals. For me, it’s all about the short term, what needs to get done today or tomorrow. I don’t fantasize about winning an Oscar. I just want to work on interesting projects and be able to pay my staff.”
Another friend, an internationally acclaimed architect, said, “My long-term goals are creative, not financial or attached to public acclaim. I’m hungry to do more; I’m not starved for acknowledgment.”
Funny how you can spend decades reaching for one thing, only to realize that the motivation behind the goal itself is inherently flawed.
A friend who started doing community service after her magazine career slowed and who is now getting a master’s degree in urban planning, said, “Maybe you should be looking for a motivation beyond your personal success.” (Ouch.)
Funny how you can spend decades reaching for one thing, only to realize over the course of just a few conversations, that the motivation behind the goal itself is inherently flawed. Success is an ineffective antidote to insecurity. The irony is, I’ve always believed (and espoused) that part of the charm of ghostwriting is the letting go of ego. My name isn’t on the cover of the book, after all. But now I see that I might have been lying to myself there.
Whether it’s “my” book or not, I reveled in its glory as if it were mine, and I need glory to compensate for lingering doubts of personal failings. I wonder if any amount of goal setting and reaching would fundamentally change who I am as a person, quell my doubts, or quiet the nagging voice in my head that prods me forward to “show them.”
Wrangling the Big “What’s Next?” Question
When I started writing this article, I thought it was going to be about the importance of goal setting as we get older, how we should never rest on our laurels and how we have to keep pushing to stay in the game, etc. But now I wonder if being goal-oriented—which inarguably has helped me be productive—has also prevented me from evolving emotionally. The angst I have now in questioning “What next?” isn’t the same kind I felt at 13, miserable, bullied, self-hating, scribbling feverishly in my journals, dreaming of bestsellers to come, but it seems familiar, too, like the beginnings of imagining myself as a better, nobler person.
My husband says, ‘Be like the cats.’ Just eat, sleep, play, stretch and (metaphorically) kill the occasional mouse.
I intended to end this piece with a solid conclusion about what my next goal would be. But I think, for a while, it’d be wiser to relieve myself of that burden. What would happen if I stopped making “To Do” lists, stopped keeping track, stopped counting, stopped hustling? My husband says, “Be like the cats.” Just eat, sleep, play, stretch, and (metaphorically) kill the occasional mouse. I’m not going to stop working; I have bills, tuition, etc. But I can shift the focus of my days and mind away from structure and accomplishment and toward spontaneity and creativity. Since I’ve never done that before, I have no idea what will happen. So my goal at the moment, if I have one, is to find out.
Valerie Frankel is a ghostwriter who has collaborated with iconic celebrities and VIPs on bestselling novels and non-fiction projects, including Joan Rivers (New York Times bestseller Men Are Stupid And They Like Big Boobs), Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (New York Times bestseller A Shore Thing), Ivana Trump (Raising Trump), Jeanine Pirro (He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice) and others. Under her own name, Val has published 15 novels and is an award-winning journalist. She was articles editor at Mademoiselle magazine and as a freelance writer, she has been a regular contributor to Self, Parenting, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, and the New York Times.
A version of this article was originally published in November 2018.