How to Stay Motivated When Your Goal Is Far Away
You're not there yet. So let's find where you are.
Welcome to One Thing Better. Each week, the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine (that's me) shares one way to level up — and build a career or company you love.
Today’s one thing: Being far from your goal.
That one thing, better: Recognizing the steps towards your goal.
DALL-E 2. Prompt: “one-line drawing of a person trying to reach a star that’s far away”
You’re trying to get somewhere. But you’re not there yet.
That’s frustrating. And worse, it’s embarrassing. You’ve worked hard. You’ve traveled far. And you think: What do I have to show for it — just this?
I’ve felt this myself. Actually, wrong tense: I feel it myself. Often.
Today, I’ll show you how to stay focused and motivated, even as you feel frustration. I’ll prove that you’re further along than you think. And I’ll start by sharing something that I’m insecure about — and the thing I tell myself, that helps me keep going.
First, here’s what embarrasses me.
I do a lot of keynote speaking — mostly helping people (and especially corporate teams) find new opportunities in changing times. I love it deeply, and dare I say, I’m really good at it too. Clients are always happy.
But there’s a problem: Audience sizes are unpredictable.
Sometimes the room is packed with hundreds or thousands of attentive listeners. That’s a thrill! But sometimes, the room is nearly empty.
Here’s one like that — a college that hired me to speak, and the maybe 20 students (bless them) that showed up and scattered around a lecture hall:
These moments are demoralizing. I aspire to be in demand — to be someone that people can’t miss.
Empty rooms tell me the opposite. They say: You’re not there yet, and maybe you never will be.
So I came up with something to tell myself. Something that makes me feel better.
But before I tell it to you, I’ll explain why it works.
Because this is a problem we all face: We are trying to get somewhere, and yet…
We don’t know how long the journey is.
Like I said above: You’re trying to get somewhere. But you’re not there yet.
So OK — where are you, exactly?
Let’s explore that.
Imagine yourself somewhere on a clear path. You begin at the starting line. You head towards a goal. And you know exactly where you are. Here, I’ll sketch it out:
That looks so satisfying! It’s like running a marathon — the journey is long, but you can track your progress and manage your energy. You know exactly what you’re working towards: just 10 more miles, just 9 more miles, just 8 more miles…
But the problem is, most things don’t work like that.
Instead, most things work like this:
You have no idea where the finish line is, or where you even are on the path, which means you have no idea how much work is left. Is it one month? One year? Ten?
No wonder we can feel so frustrated and embarrassed! When we strive towards something, we often have no idea where we are in the process. Which makes us feel like we’re nowhere. And it makes every bad thing feel enormous.
I mean, imagine your legs aching at the end of a marathon. But you know you’re only one mile from the finish line. You think: I can make it.
Now imagine your legs aching as you run towards an unseeable goal. You think: Can I make it?
That’s the deeper problem we need to address — and it’s exactly the problem I have in those empty rooms. It isn’t just embarrassing. It isn’t just demoralizing. It’s disorienting.
To move forward, we must know where we are.
Here’s how to know.
Look, let’s be honest: We cannot see the future. We do not know where our goal is, and we certainly don’t know how long it’ll take to get there. Hell, we might not even really know our goal at all!
So forget about the goal. Let’s try locating ourselves instead.
It’s a two-step process:
Step 1: Recognize your progress.
Like I said above — whenever I’m about to speak to a near-empty room, I now tell myself something.
It is this:
There are a certain number of empty rooms that I must speak in, before all the rooms are full. And today, there is one less room.
I mean, what is that number? How many empty rooms must I stand in? Is it 50? Is it 300? I don’t know, and I can’t know.
But I do know this: The path to success goes through empty rooms, which means that empty rooms are not a sign of failure. They’re a sign of progress. Every time I speak in one, that’s one less empty room I need to speak in. And eventually, I’ll speak in them all — the last of the empty rooms.
And then I’ll never see one again.
That’s been a helpful exercise. Because it reminds me: This is just the stage of the journey I'm in. I am passing through.
DALL-E 2, plus a little editing from me
And then, you can go a step further:
Step 2: Measure the distance between then and now.
I often think back to a piece of advice from Drew Barrymore, which I learned when we profiled her in Entrepreneur. She said that, when she’s struggling to achieve goals, she lists out what she’s already accomplished.
"We don't often take inventory of what we've done — it's very much a to-do-list kind of world," Barrymore said. "But once in a while, make an "I've done this' list."
In other words: When you only focus on the goal ahead, you only focus on what you don’t have. But when you look back at what you’ve achieved, you can see the path of progress that you’re on.
I try to remember this. I don’t literally list out old accomplishments — though it’s not a bad idea! Instead, I sometimes just go through old photos. I have photos of me at my very first speaking events. They remind me of how unsure I was back then. How I was still finding my way.
And they also remind me of other goals that I had — goals that I’ve reached, that I now take for granted. At the start, for example, my goal was to get $5,000 for a talk. Now I far exceed that. That’s worth appreciating.
Here is what it means to build something, whether it’s a career or a company or a relationship or anything else: You are living one part of a much larger story — some parts incredible, some regrettable, some forgettable, and with many of the best parts yet to come. You cannot live it all at once.
So when you are feeling lost, or frustrated, or embarrassed that you aren’t where you’d like to be, step back and remember:
You have already gotten so far.
Everything that happens next is a form of progress.
Because every empty room is one less empty room.
And eventually, they’ll all be full.
That’s how to do one thing better.
A few more things better:
Struggling with sales? My podcast co-host, Nicole, is riddled with anxiety on sales calls. We talked through it and found the real heart of the problem — which is tied to today’s newsletter subject. How can you feel more confident doing sales? Listen.
Are you holding back? The thing you think is a liability might actually be your greatest asset. To find out why: Read last week’s newsletter.
How much do I obsess over this newsletter? Oh you don’t even know. So just for the lolz, here’s how I drew those charts above — and then re-drew them, and re-drew them, and scanned them and fixed ‘em up digitally, and…
New to the newsletter? Subscribe for free and take control of your future.
💌 What do you think? Let me know!
📕 Order my book to future-proof your career!
🎧 Latest podcast: “I’m Managing Former Coworkers and It’s Awkward. Help!”