When you don’t get what you want

I had a minor setback in September. I applied for a competitive virtual reality training program and I wasn’t accepted. I had worked hard on the application, but it wasn’t enough. Setting aside the very real emotions of failure–something I allowed myself to feel deeply–what can I do next?

Before talking about what I’m planning to do, I’d like to discuss goals more broadly. Most goals fall into two different categories: outcome goals and process goals.

Outcome goals have a clearly defined final outcome. Lose 5 pounds Get a promotion. Save $1,000. If we can state how things will look at the end, we’ve created an outcome goal.

Process goals describe a change in ongoing behavior. Run for 10 minutes each day. Complete one extra task this week. Pack a lunch instead of eating out. Process goals are initiated and sustained; they are never completed.

A good process goal is usually tied to an outcome goal. “I will start running 10 minutes each day as part of my goal to lose 5 lbs.” “I will complete one extra task each day at work so that I’m more likely to be promoted.” “I will pack a lunch instead of eating out to help me save $1,000.”

Process goals help us focus on what we can change, while outcome goals often have elements that are outside our control. We have a lot of control over whether we start running, but less control of our metabolisms. We can choose to work harder, but we can’t control whether our bosses choose to promote us. We can pack a lunch to save money, but we can’t predict whether we’ll have unexpected purchases or be the victim of a tanking economy.

When we fail to achieve outcome goals, we need to ask a few questions: did I do everything in my control? Can I try again, or do I need to do something different? What will I change next time? Is this the outcome what I really want, or is there some other way to reach my goal? If this outcome was dependent on someone else, are they willing to give me a second chance? We ask ourselves these questions with both compassion and honesty. Beating ourselves up doesn’t work, and ignoring our mistakes prevents us from learning. We often do the best we can with the skills, motivation, and situation we had, and (not but!) we can still learn to do better.

My failure this week was an outcome failure, so I’ll go through these questions:

  • Did I do everything in my control? With the skills and time frame I had to apply, I did all that I could. That doesn’t mean that everything I did was perfect, but I did put forth a good faith effort.
  • Can I try again, or do I need to do something different? I can’t try again with this specific program for a whole year. To reach my ultimate goal, I think I’ll be better off if I do something different rather than waiting for this particular gatekeeper to choose me.
  • What will I change next time? The next time I apply for something like this, I’ll be sure to focus on conveying information visually. My application was primarily written content, and I don’t think I played to all of my strengths.
  • Is this the outcome that I really want, or is there some other way to reach my goal? I want to build meaningful psychotherapy apps in virtual reality. This training program is one way to get there, but it isn’t the only way. There are many other resources I can use.
  • If this outcome was dependent on someone else, are they willing to give me a second chance? Yes, but it may not matter by then. There are other ways to reach my goal. (And of course, failure to have my application chosen isn’t a reflection on me. My work wasn’t good enough for the competition judges. That’s something I can change.)

In short, failing to achieve an outcome goal leaves us with two good options: improve our process so that we’re more likely to achieve our goal the next time, or adjust our aim with the new information we’ve just discovered.

Next week, I’ll talk about what happens when we fail to develop or maintain process goals.

This post was originally published at FeelBetterLater.com.

Board Certified Psychiatrist. Mental Health Advocate. Software Developer.