“This year, I want to do something more meaningful. I don’t love my job or where I live, so I’m going to make some changes.”

Woman sitting on her couch with a hot beverage and her notebook open in front of her

As a coach, I’m happy when my people are ready for change. But the best first move usually isn’t an outer change to our circumstances—to a new job or city, for example. Pursuing achievements that improve our social status and bring us wealth or fame can be tempting—but people who prioritize those things tend to have lower well-being.

Instead, the best first move is almost always inner work. It’s identifying a vision for the coming year that animates our best selves. When we align our aspirations with our intrinsic interests and values, we tend to increase our well-being and the odds of achieving our goals.

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But that task can feel daunting! Here’s how to get started.

Begin from your strengths rather than your weaknesses

Start by identifying some of your unique attributes: those things that make you you. As a coach, I’m most interested in the person you are without the normal social influences of the people around you. This is your intrinsic self, and it can be a compass for you in uncertain times.

Don’t worry if you’ve lost touch with your intrinsic self. We’re surrounded by external influences that shape us from the moment we’re born. Over time, it can be challenging to determine whether our goals and ambitions come from the hopes and expectations of our family, our culture, the media, our social circle—or our deepest sense of self and our truest values.

When we aren’t in touch with our intrinsic selves, our aspirations and goals are often based on external things like our jobs or roles, our appearance, and status-oriented stuff like houses and cars. These things are by nature all fleeting and fragile.

The good news is that your intrinsic self is always within you. It’s your center. You are like the block of marble that Michelangelo carved “The David” statue into. David was always in there, but the marble needed to be chipped away. I believe that, like “The David,” you are already “in there.”

Sometimes that idea—that you are already, always enough—can be tough to swallow. You are probably more in touch with the areas you want to strengthen and grow than the ones where you already feel good enough. But it can be more illuminating to see who you are than it is to lament who you aren’t.

For example, it’s easy for me to look back on the past year and wish I would have done more of some healthy thing, like meditation or yoga. When I focus on my deficiencies (I hardly meditated at all last year! I paid for a membership to a yoga website I barely used!), I feel inadequate and pessimistic about my ability to change. But when I consider my top strengths—zest and gratitude—I can see how my gratitude practices and love of outdoor exercise were enough. And, also, that I can grow these existing strengths. When I begin there, with my strengths, I feel optimistic about the year to come.

It’s counterintuitive, but, in my experience, people don’t tend to grow or accomplish the goals they set for themselves from a place of deficiency or fear that they aren’t good enough. Something liberating happens when we are no longer on the hunt for things to criticize about ourselves.

So allow yourself a moment to set aside the things you’d like to change about yourself and focus on the unique gifts you bring to the world.

Think about what makes you feel alive or at peace

If none of your unique attributes are obvious to you, reflect on times you’ve felt passion in your life, or when you’ve felt a peaceful sense of contentment. Maybe it’s something common, like a passion for helping others, or maybe it is quirky, like having a passion for Star Wars or an ability to identify owl calls. It might not seem all that “important,” but it’s something that energizes you. It doesn’t need to be interesting to anyone other than you. The things my adult children make fun of me for—like my tendency to cite research I’m excited about before I give them unsolicited advice—usually point to what makes me me.

If your passions aren’t obvious, consider what you loved as a child. What did you do before you worried about being judged or good enough—before the world started telling you what you should or shouldn’t like? When did you feel a sense of mystery, adventure, or magic? When did you feel a spark? Similarly, when have you felt fully at peace?

Set an aspiration for how you’d like to live

Can you think of a story or memory about yourself that illustrates some of the passions or unique attributes you’ve identified? What aspects of that story capture something unique about you? You might use one of those stories, or a combination of them, to name something you aspire to. No one else will need to understand it, but it should be meaningful to you.

For example, one of my clients, whom I’ll call Mike, set this aspiration: “I aspire to channel Brother James to inspire others to do hard things.” In our work together, Mike told me about a special relationship with a teacher who’d truly seen his potential and encouraged him to be his best self. In his work now, he feels most energized and motivated when he interacts with his colleagues in the way that Brother James interacted with him. Mike set an aspiration that tapped into the emotional feeling that being with Brother James gave him, one that animated and inspired him to do his best work in the world—and that, in turn, helps him inspire the people he manages at work.

  • Upcoming Workshop

    If you’d like to work with me to identify your unique attributes, increase your sense of purpose, and set a new aspiration for the year, I hope you will join me in Baja at the Modern Elder Academy. My weeklong workshop, Reconnecting With Who You Are and What You Want, will be running March 18 to 23, 2024. Greater Good Science Center readers can use the code GG20 for a 20% ($1200) discount.

Research by BetterUp, the coaching organization where I’m a leader, found that doing the above aspiration-setting exercise with a coach increased people’s well-being, authenticity, meaning, self-certainty, and life satisfaction. The effect was surprisingly large. (So large that the psychologists Em Reit and Rainy Gu conducting the study reanalyzed the data multiple times to ensure that what they were seeing was correct.)

So this year, before you reach for a familiar resolution or try to make a big change to your circumstances, take a step back and consider what you aspire to. How can you live your life in a way that reflects what makes you unique? From there, you are more likely to set goals and resolutions that help you do your best work and live your best life.

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