Do you feel like you matter? Do you help others to feel like they matter? Do your habits support mattering? To feel valued by, and add value to self and others, we must engage in certain behaviors. Thinking about mattering is not enough. People come to love us and to trust us through our actions, not our thoughts. We feel capable and agentic through specific behaviors. Positive routines can fight helplessness and foster belonging, meaning, and self-determination. The question is how? Part of the answer is through setting appropriate goals.
Let’s start by setting a mattering goal.
Let’s say you picked adding value to others. Your goal is to make a particular person feel good about herself. It may be your mother, whom you don’t call often enough; or your girlfriend, who feels neglected due to your crazy work schedule. Or perhaps you want to add value to yourself. Maybe you want to add value to the community by joining a social cause, such as the rights of gender minorities, the fight for a living wage, or climate change.
There is really no shortage of ways to add value and to feel like you matter. Notice, however, that mattering does not mean heroic efforts to save humanity. While some people achieve great transcendence through bravery and courage – Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Rigoberta Menchu, Muhamad Yunus, Malala Yousafzai – most of us feel a sense of mattering by engaging in simple acts of kindness and competence.
Society absolutely needs giants of justice, but it also needs caring human beings who may never achieve fame. The goal is not to achieve greatness, but mattering, and mattering can be attained by looking after someone frail, teaching kindergarten, or being a great carpenter. The last thing we want is to create a mattering neurosis: if you don’t achieve some kind of greatness, you are a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Everyone wants to matter, and everyone can achieve it in vastly different ways. Our aim here is to help you achieve a goal that will make you feel like you matter, to yourself and others. Our aim is not to feed the frenzy of fame, which is so much part of the “Me Culture.”
Studies show that there are a few simple rules in the formulation of goals. They apply to general as well as to mattering goals.
Make it meaningful. The first rule is to set a goal that is authentic and congruent with your values. Do not pursue a career just because your parents want you to. You may find yourself making a lot of money and being miserable. One of our son’s friends is a very successful lawyer who makes a lot of money and absolutely hates his corporate job.
To make a goal meaningful, we assume that you know what you want, and that you know what you stand for. No simple feat — especially in light of social pressures that tell you what to think — but totally necessary. An authentic goal is one that is congruent with your values, and not with someone else’s. Ask yourself who you are doing this for? Is it for your kids, for your spouse, for the community, for yourself? Images of a better future, for you and for them, will make the goal sustainable.
Make it SMART. There is a difference between your long-term goal and your near-term steps. You have to break down the long-term goal into small sub-goals. You don’t get a degree by saying “I will study hard for the next four years.” You need a plan to tackle each course, each assignment, and each test.
Whether you want to add value to yourself through a new diet, savings plan, or meditation routine, you need to identify one specific step towards that goal. Without a concrete plan of action, your goal will remain illusory. This is why you need to make your goal SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Make it real. Having a meaningful and SMART goal will help, but let’s be real, setbacks are bound to occur. It is best to plan for barriers and impediments along the way. The more prepared you are for stumbling blocks, the easier it will be to get back on the horse. Studies show that having a contingency plan for addressing barriers will help you achieve your goal. If you cannot go the gym on Thursday due to an unanticipated work meeting, plan to go on Friday. Contingency plans help with persistence.
There is a lot of empirical evidence that specific implementation plans facilitate engagement with goal-oriented behavior. Examples include going for a much-dreaded colonoscopy, recycling, getting a flu shot, and finishing assignments. The more specific the plan (when, where, what, for how long), and the more detailed the contingency plan (if X, then Y), the higher the likelihood of success.
Make it positive. Certain addictions and negative behaviors may get in the way of your mattering goal. You cannot find time to spend with your family if you are a workaholic. You cannot find time to study Spanish if you are addicted to social media. Research shows that instead of framing goals as the reduction or elimination of a negative behavior (less time on Facebook and Instagram, fewer drinks, less junk food), it is better to frame your mattering goals in the positive: more time with family, more time to relax, becoming proficient in Spanish
Make it about the process. Once you have framed a SMART and meaningful goal in positive terms, and have made concrete implemental plans, it is time to focus on the process. The process is the system of working towards your goal. If you follow the system — at this time and place I will engage in this specific behavior for a certain period of time — the goal will take care of itself. If you focus obsessively on the outcome you may get discouraged. You do not master Spanish in a week, nor can you run a marathon because you exercised for ten consecutive days. If you focus on the process and the system you put in place, outcomes that are within your control will eventually materialize. Do not get discouraged if it takes a little time.
If you want to make a change in the world, focus on what you can do and what is within your control. Some changes, like reversing climate change, will take a long time. The same goes for eliminating inequality.
Identify a SMART goal that you can work on, make it meaningful, and make it real. That is our best bet for contributing to others, work, and the world.