Back when I was newly widowed, I emailed a farewell letter to the community I served in my position at the cancer center. A friend wrote back, pleased that I was able to take an early retirement: “Define your purpose; live your reason.” These words were his mantra as his young daughter was dying of cancer.
I had a clear idea of my purpose for the next season of life: I wanted to write. I wanted to speak hope and courage to other people through my writing. And so I listened to podcasts, signed up for an online course, redesigned my website, and drafted a list of goals and action steps.
In his study on strategies for achieving goals, Dominican University’s psychology professor, Dr. Gail Matthews, recruited 267 participants from a variety of global businesses, organizations, and networking groups. He randomly assigned each person to one of five groups. In the points below, you will see how the different groups had different assignments, and you will also see how their tasks impacted the outcome of their goals. If you feel prompted to share your talents and stories to encourage others, then you might also benefit from implementing these strategies.
1. Capture goals in writing.
In the study, Group One was asked to merely think about the goals they hoped to accomplish within a four-week slice of time and to rate each according to importance. Meanwhile, Group Two was to rate their goals, but also write them down.
If you can identify what your talents are, think through how you might want to utilize them. Do you want to teach violin to inner-city children? Organize a mentoring program by pairing college-aged young women with high school girls? Bake and cook for people in your neighborhood who could use a bit of cheer? Capture it all in writing.
“Cherish your visions and your dreams,” says Napoleon Hill, “as they are the children of your soul, the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.” Perhaps we should value our talents and the desires in our hearts enough to record them in ink or on screen.
2. Determine first steps.
Group Three was instructed to write their goals and settle on action steps for each. If we have a natural talent and interest in caregiving, for example, but we never research the prerequisites for nursing school, or check out volunteer opportunities for rocking babies in the hospital NICU, or sign up to serve as an aid in an elder care facility, then chances are, our caregiving skills will lie dormant. If you know where you are and you know where you want to go, what is the first step in getting there?
This is wisdom from Joel A. Barker: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”
3. Recruit an accountability partner.
Group Four in Professor Matthews’ study was asked to write and rate their goals, establish action steps, and share it all with a friend. There’s power in having accountability—someone who believes in the beauty of our dreams, someone who asks the tough questions: Where are you in the process of finding an outlet for your musical/teaching/organizational skills? How’s that book/grant application/business plan coming along?
4. Report progress made.
Participants in Group Five were asked to be the most proactive: Write and rate goals, determine and share action steps with an accountability partner, and provide a weekly progress report. The reporting of progress isn’t for the sake of our partners; it’s for us to see that headway is being made, that someone invisible is pushing us toward employing our talents.
The statistics of this study may surprise you. By now you’ve probably figured out that the more action steps people took to accomplish their goals, the higher percentage of success was recorded. And you’d be right. But the numbers are pretty astonishing: more than 70 percent of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement compared to 35 percent of those who kept their goals to themselves, without writing them down.
Twice as many people were successful by simply valuing their talents and passions enough to write them down and take proactive steps toward achieving them.
5. Be willing to re-imagine.
This point wasn’t part of Professor Matthews’ study, but sometimes hard things show up and try to derail us, which oftentimes affect how we think about utilizing our talents in a purposeful way. Adversity hits and you let the dream die. Because now you’re a single mom with strained finances. Because now you’re the main caregiver for a family member with a challenging health issue. Because your husband lost his job and now you need to go back to work full-time. Because your husband and dream-sharer died of cancer and the thought of moving forward alone is overwhelming.
Adversity is a guaranteed part of life. So, how ought we to manage loss and setbacks when it comes to developing and using our talents? Is it possible to regroup, re-imagine, and work in the direction of the revised goals?
Speaking from experience, yes. Absolutely, irrevocably, undeniably yes.
Back when my husband left this earth for his home in heaven, a bracelet arrived in the mail from one of my beautiful sisters-in-law. The charm dangling from it read: “Embrace the journey.” Hanging from the bracelet was a tiny heart with a cursive “B” engraved on it. Back then—before I knew the “B” stood for the name of the jewelry company—it spoke to me of my life-changing, uncertain, scary decision to leave the comfortable and risk the unknown.
Be unafraid. Be a risk-taker. Be about finding your purpose, it said.
“A dream is your creative vision for your life in the future,” wrote Denis Waitley. “You must break out of your current comfort zone and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown.”
Your road and mine may have taken a few drastic detours, but our talents and passions are still alive and burning. And traveling with a repurposed vision can be just as brimming and extraordinary. Which begs the question: What is it you want to do with your one, wildly unique, blazing life? What talent do you want to develop as part of pushing back the darkness and letting the light shine through?
Write it down, girl. Define your purpose; define how you want to apply your talents. Throw in some action steps and accountability partners, and then go for it. Be about living your reason. You can do this!
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