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An Unconventional Approach to Goal Setting with Tara McMullin

by | Last updated: Oct 14, 2022 | Podcast

As we head towards the end of 2022, we look forward to setting aims for the incoming new year. But sometimes, goal setting can be a pain in the neck! Everybody’s trying to tell you that you should do this or that: create a seven-figure business (or several), gain millions of social media followers, etc. It can leave you feeling frustrated and like you’re shooting yourself in the foot!

But what if there was another way? My friend Tara McMullin has a unique view on goal setting. In this episode, we discuss her latest book What Works and why it’s so radically different from what most people think about when it comes to goal setting. So if you’re like me and have a love/hate relationship with setting goals, then you’ll love this conversation! 

On this episode of Promote Yourself to CEO:

6:54 – What led Tara to radically shifting her relationship with goal setting?

9:57 – The struggle over goal setting really boils down to this belief, and social media and news just reinforce it.

13:35 – How are goals like “cultural technology”? Tara describes how goals can affect your values and how you think of yourself.

16:27 – Tara and I discuss how society has reached the point where following the usual goal setting advice is such a challenge (and one that can actually cause more harm than good).

32:14 – So how do we move forward and do goal setting differently? Tara reveals the process step-by-step and warns about “value hijacking.”

40:52 – What does personal growth without striving or being beholden to harmful cultural systems look like?

43:00 – Tara and I discuss the low-stakes way she went about making commitments for herself over recent years.

49:41 – This low-stakes approach can translate into business too, like my six-month Tik Tok experiment. I describe my approach to using the social media site.

51:00 – Tara mentions a couple of important things to keep in mind when it comes to your projects and plans.

Mentioned in An Unconventional Approach to Goal Setting with Tara McMullin

Racheal Cook: Do you have a love-hate relationship with goal-setting? Me too. As we are headed towards the end of 2022, there is a lot of talk right now about what we should be aiming for in the New Year. Well, it leads to a lot of frustration and challenges for ambitious women because it often feels like there are all these goals we should be going after, we should be aiming for multiple six, seven, or eight figures of revenue, we should be living this specific lifestyle, we should, should, should, and I am tired of shoulding all over myself because it never leads to actually having a fulfilling life, it never leads to actually feeling like everything is in alignment.

In fact, sometimes all this goal-setting and all this shoulding all over ourselves makes us feel frustrated, it makes us feel out of sync and like nothing is ever enough. If you have been going through this experience with goal-setting, then you're going to love this conversation with my friend, Tara McMullin, and we are diving deep into her view of goal-setting, a new approach, a new way to approach goal-setting, and digging into her latest book What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal Setting. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Are you ready to grow from solopreneur to CEO? You're in the right place. I'm your host, Racheal Cook. I've spent the last decade helping women entrepreneurs start and scale service-based businesses. If you're serious about building a sustainable business, it's time to put the strategy, systems, and support in place to make it happen. Join me each week for candid conversations about stepping into your role as CEO, the hard lessons learned along the way, and practical profitable strategies to grow a sustainable business without the hustle and burnout.

It is that time of year, CEO, the time of year where so many of us are starting to look at setting our big plans, our big goals for 2023, and I'm doing it too. I mean, this is the time of the year where we always run our annual Plan Your Best Year Ever Challenge. It's coming up. You can make sure you get full access to it at theceocollective.com/bye.

I felt like this was an especially important conversation to have as we gear up for our annual planning challenge because too often, there is so much conflicting information out there that really settles in and really has people feeling like they have to do things a certain way in their business because the so-called gurus or celebrity entrepreneurs said, “These are the goals you should be aiming for,” and it doesn't take much to realize that when we set our goals based on someone else's shoulds, we will find ourselves out of alignment.

This is the entire reason I had to start my own business was because I was chasing everyone else's goals for me. I went and got a master's degree in business, check, I got married, check, had the amazing salary, making over six figures at such a young age, check. On paper I was achieving everything that had been set in front of me. It wasn't until I had my own really crashing realization, my own burnout, my hitting-the-wall with adrenal fatigue and anxiety that I realized I was chasing everyone else's shoulds to look perfect on paper, to be the perfect brag-worthy daughter, to seem like I had it all together, while internally, all I could feel was “Not this, not this, not this. I had gone after the wrong goals, I had gone after someone else's definition of success.”

I think it's really easy to start our business because of that because we realized we aren't living in alignment so we want to do things differently. Then we get into this entrepreneurial journey, we get a little down the rabbit hole of learning from all of these different people about how we could grow our businesses, and again, we lose that internal compass, we start to lean too heavily into what other people's opinion of what we should be doing and it just repeats this whole cycle of building something that's not in alignment.

When Tara reached out to me, I was absolutely thrilled to have her come on to the episode today and talk with me about her thought process around this. We are so aligned in so many ways but I love the way she thinks about goal-setting. If you have not had the opportunity to learn from Tara McMullin, I highly recommend picking up a copy of her newest book, it comes out November 1st, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal Setting.

I promise you, it is so aligned with how I approach goal-setting, which is all about what works for you, what works for you as an individual, as an individual with individual needs, individual circumstances, and to really put the blinders on a little bit to all the shoulds that we hear we should be doing. I hope you enjoy this conversation and I absolutely cannot wait for you to share your insights and ahas with me.

Hey, Tara. I'm so glad we're talking today.

Tara McMullin: Hey, Racheal. I am also so glad we're talking today. I am so grateful to be here.

Racheal Cook: Well, I knew you were working on a book and when y'all reached out to me about talking all things goal-setting, I just couldn't say no because, as you know, I love setting goals that my whole business seems to be around goal-setting and 90-day planning. Your approach and my approach is so aligned that I can't wait to get my hands on your book and really, really dive into why this is so radically different than what most people think about when it comes to goal-setting.

But before we dig in, I'd love to have you just share a little bit about why did you change your approach to goal-setting. Because I know you, like me, attract a lot of super ambitious high-performance women into your ecosystem and goal-setting is something a lot of us have a love-hate relationship with. I feel like you've cracked the code on how to not feel so defeated by it.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I mean, not only do I attract overachieving, high-performing, very ambitious folks into my orbit, I am one of those people. A classic anxious overachiever have been my entire life and I think that is largely what led me to radically shifting my relationship with goal-setting because I realized that my process, which looked like a normal goal-setting process, “smart” goals, and objectives this and that, and tracking things, all the usual characters there, but that approach was making me miserable, if not on a daily basis because I do enjoy working hard and going after an objective, but it was making me miserable on an existential basis if I can be so bold this early in the conversation.

By that I meant I was constantly thinking about all of the goals that I hadn't reached. There were all sorts of things that I set out to do that I had done, building of the business in the way I wanted to build it, making the money that I never dreamed of making, all of these different things, I had achieved those things but always, always, always in the back of my mind, if not in the front of my mind, were all of those goals that were still elusive to me, all of those things that I thought that I wanted or that I should have achieved that I had not, and that I think is a story that almost anyone in this world in this particular business entrepreneurial world can relate to.

There are the amazing accomplishments that we've had and at the same time, there are all those shoulds and supposed tos in the background, all of those stories about what success looks like, about what achievement looks like, about what a business looks like, about what a CEO looks like that weigh on us but we don't even know it sometimes. Sometimes it is just that feeling of being unsatisfied, being unfulfilled, feeling like you're treading water and you don't really know why that is.

A big part of my story and my journey, and now a big part of the book as well, is really unearthing those stories and unearthing that lack of satisfaction around all of the shoulds and supposed tos that we haven't accomplished, bringing them out in the open, examining them, asking, “Why is this here? What what is this doing to me?” and then reshaping a new story and a new structure for goals and goal-setting, and thinking about what we want to achieve on top of that.

Racheal Cook: I think what just hit me, and I just wrote it down, was the feeling of you haven't done enough even if you have achieved all these amazing things. If you were to sit down and actually itemize a list of all the things you have accomplished, anybody else would be like, “Wow, look at what you've done,” and still it's that feeling of “It's not enough. I'm not good enough. I haven't done enough, there's no amount of how much I can do that would fill that void of not feeling good enough,” and I think that's really what I'm hearing is it just comes down to feeling that. It's so much harder now than ever before because now we're just bombarded by social media, the news, and so much that's always reinforcing that feeling.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I think that point is really important because there is a whole body of work out there, a whole cultural tradition of pathologizing that feeling of not being good enough, not having done enough. We turn it into a personal failing, or we say “What's wrong with me that I don't feel like I've done enough?” when really nothing is wrong with you. The reason that you feel like you haven't done enough or achieved enough is because that is literally the story that you're being told on a daily basis in all facets of life.

It could be exercise, nutrition, productivity, the way you dress. It is literally every bit of our world because that's the economy that we live in. Consumer capitalism is driven by creating these discrepancies between who we are, who we want to be, and what other people want us to want. It benefits a company to tell you that you want to be more productive or that you want to dress in a different way, that you want to be exercising more differently, or whatever, they're going to pursue that messaging, it gets stuck in our heads and then it turns into the infrastructure that we build our lives around.

Racheal Cook: Yes. As marketers, this is one of the things I hate about marketing so much. It's the whole idea that you have to pick the pain point and then just poke that pain point until they're finally like, “Okay, I'll do it,” and it's so tough to be in that space because that's not how I want to be showing up as an entrepreneur, as a leader, as a wife, as a parent. I mean, all the areas where I feel not enough, especially parenting right now pre-teens, our pre-teens are really difficult to parent at this stage, but it's so true, this whole feeling of not enough, our whole ecosystem in the world out there is built on making us feel this way.

I think goal-setting is also a huge part of this because we're told we should set goals in order to change ourselves, make ourselves better, make ourselves whatever, and then there's a lot of research that says most people don't achieve the goals they set so then they just continue this downward spiral of feeling not good enough.

Tara McMullin: Yes, absolutely. I mean there's so much here. One of the ways that I like to think about this is that goals are a cultural technology. Goals are the manifestations of our values, our beliefs, and the stories that we live in, and as a culture, that is amplified. The goals that we set, whether we have consciously crafted them from our values or not, they reflect back what our values are or they create values for us.

I can say I have a value for rest and recovery and going slow, but if I set a goal that doesn't take that into account, if I set a goal that requires some level of urgency or pushing myself beyond my limits, then that value starts to erode my actual personal value and that starts to create a different relationship between me and the world, and how I think of myself and my identity. Again, as that broadens over the cultural landscape, it becomes something that's embedded as a value in our culture as well.

Even if I am mindful about being slow and steady, our culture has a value for fast, urgent, and now. Again, I'm likely to forget my own value, set a goal that's based on that cultural piece, and then that as a cultural technology then shifts my own values. I think that's a place where a lot of us get really stuck is that we're trapped between what our values actually are and all of the messaging and all of the cultural history that we have that tells us what our values are supposed to be. We feel that tension and it comes up as instability and uncertainty. That just makes us all the more uncertain of ourselves and insecure with ourselves. It's a really nasty cycle.

Racheal Cook: Well, you brought up the cultural history of modern goal-setting advice. Like you, I totally geek out about this stuff and I know you have done a ton of research here, so let's dig into it. I want to hear what you have learned as you've been doing research for this book about how we got to this point, how did we get to this point where goal-setting is just such a challenge for so many people and is actually maybe even causing harm.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. In the book, I lay it out looking back. I start most recently and go as far back as I could and I think that's probably the best way to explain it now because they're the things that are closest to us that we can start with most recently in history, and then we can look and peel back the layers and say, “Okay, what was underneath that, and what was underneath that?” In the 20th century where our relationship to goals, goal-setting, productivity, hustle, and all of that, we see this inflection point in the discourse, is in the late 70s, early 80s with the real rise of neoliberalism as a political and economic system.

Basically, what neoliberalism does is it reduces the amount of regulation of the market and it reduces the amount of government administration and oversight such that then the free market is supposed to come in and solve all of these problems for us. We see the decline of labor unions during this time, we see an increase in self-help literature, there's all of these different things that start going on at the same time that are all related in there.

But at the heart of it, there is a very specific story that gets told about personal responsibility that is essentially the nut at the heart of all of the goal-setting advice that's out there, even the stuff that feels pretty touchy, feely, or feels like it's coming from a different spot, there is that piece of “You are responsible for your own life, you are responsible for how things turn out for you.” That's powerful because there's a grain of truth in that or maybe more than a grain of truth, we do have a lot of responsibility, we do have a lot of agency in our own lives.

Also, I think it's very, very important to recognize all of the systemic problems that many of us face, and that can be big things like race or class, and it can be small things like where you went to college or if you went to college at all. That's something that cuts across gender, class, and race in some ways. There's that personal responsibility doctrine and neoliberalism that really inculcates the discourse that we have around goal-setting right now. It's what creates the move towards smart goals, a different kind of management thinking, and getting ahead that corner office, the cliche 80s stuff that really is still with us right now.

Racheal Cook: Absolutely. These are the things you have to do by this age. I feel like that is so true. My aunts were in college and going through their early 20s through the 80s, they were much younger than my mother and I can remember my aunt saying like, “I had this goal this is exactly what I was going to do. I was going to graduate by this age. I was going to get married by this age. I was going to buy a house by this age.” They had such a clear like “This is just a progression of what you do,” and it stuck with me my whole life. These are the boxes you have to check.

Tara McMullin: That's a really interesting example though too, did you say it was your mom or your grandmother?

Racheal Cook: No, my aunt.

Tara McMullin: Your aunt, sorry, so most likely when your aunt was putting out those goals, there were government supports in place, there were cultural community supports in place that allowed that to happen, that allowed for our parents to buy a house in their early 20s. There were things in place that allowed vets to go to college. There were all these different governmental supports that were supported by both sides of the aisle in the United States that were systematically undone over the course of the 70s and 80s, but the story sticks with us.

I have that same story. I think we're exactly the same.

Racheal Cook: I think we're the same age and I think it's so interesting because now there are so many people like us who are 40, in their early 40s, and we're still struggling to accomplish things our parents were able to do in their 20s because there are so many things we don't have access to, it's just gotten so much harder.

When the narrative is all that “Hey, you were responsible for doing these things. It's your fault that you have student debt. I didn't have student debt. I could work a job and pay off for college,” and I'm like, “Oh, that's great,” or “I bought my first house when I was 22,” and I'm like, “Great, you didn't even have to have a credit score back then. They didn't exist.” Basically, like if you walked in a bank they would be like, “Oh, you're 20 years old with nothing to your name? Yeah, we'll give you a mortgage.”

It's so fascinating when you start putting things in context, especially if you've been struggling with a lot of these narratives that your family has passed down and maybe made you feel terrible about yourself that you're not as far as they were at this point. Then you start to realize, like you said, there were these systematic things in place for them in the 50s, 60s, 70s that started to get taken away and then the narrative that it was your responsibility was still there, it's just not possible.

I remember my dad saying to me when I was in college, a lot of my friends went on to become teachers and he was like, “If they're smart, they'll just marry another teacher. My friends who are teachers and two teachers got married have this amazing life together. They were able to retire with this great retirement,” and I'm sitting here going, “Dad, do you know how much teachers make? Do you know how much it costs to live?” and it is a massive difference between what was going to work for them. You could basically do anything and still fail upward in that generation.

Our generation, it's just much harder. There are too many things that have been taken away that now amplify the challenge. We're pretty privileged. There are a lot of cards we can play, and there are people who don't have those advantages. It's even more challenging for them. Oh, crazy.

Tara McMullin: I know. The story doesn't end there, of course. Neoliberalism grew out of a fear in the 30s and 40s, basically that socialism or communism was going to take over the world. These guys got together and they decided “We don't like this. We don't think the government should do any of these things. Let the free market take care of it.”

A dude named Friedrich Hayek was really big in, not only that group, the Mont Pelerin Society, but also just a figurehead for individualism. One of the American cultural stories that we have is this idea of rugged individualism, and that originates with Herbert Hoover who was the president that presided over the first four years of The Great Depression, the big stock market crash, all of those things. But in his last speech before becoming president-elect, he used this phrase rugged individualism and he used it again as a way of pushing back on what was becoming the European experiment in social democracy where governments were providing all of these different things, they were making life easier for their citizens.

Herbert Hoover was like, “That's not us. That's them. That's not us. Americans are rugged individualists, we're pioneers. We do this, that, and the other thing.” Even in that speech, he was very clear about saying, “This is not a free-for-all, it's not like everyone's looking out for number one,” and it's like, “Well, I'm pretty sure that is exactly what you're saying,” and history has borne that out so that even when we have this complete reversal when he is not re-elected and FDR comes in with the new deal, there's still this big cultural segment of the American population that's rugged individualism.

Even parts of the new deal, while they're definitely socialist in form, they have a spirit of that American pioneering, that American individualism as well. That's where I get individualism. Before that we get what Max Weber termed The Protestant Ethic or The Protestant Work Ethic. I think this is a phrase that we throw around, at least here in the Mid-Atlantic Northeast, but it is a very specific phenomenon that he observed that set the stage for American capitalism.

The Protestant Work Ethic is essentially this idea that because of what the Pilgrims believed, those early Puritans that started some of the colonies in the Northeast, because of what they believed about predestination, which is the idea that God has predetermined who God will save and who God will punish, and it is not for us to know what that is and it's not for us to change what that outcome is, and so the Puritans were like, “We totally believe this.”

Also John Calvin, “We're not super thrilled about not being able to figure out whether we're saved or not,” so they started thinking about like, “Well, what would some of the signs be?” One of the signs of being saved that they came up with was this idea that hard-working people, people who had a vocation and pursued it with fervor, were predestined to salvation. So we get this overlap in the spiritual eternal salvation story and then an economic salvation story which then is what sets the stage for modern American capitalism as the Industrial Revolution proceeds.

But all of this and all of it is rooted in supremacy culture, white supremacy culture, the idea of The White Man's Burden that we need to leave Europe and colonize the rest of the world and show the people who don't know any better the European, the American way of life because it is obviously so far superior to the way that they've been living.

It's true of The Protestant Ethic and how it's all about ordering people, it's true of rugged individualism, again, all about ordering people, neoliberalism, all about ordering people, so that we create these hierarchies that essentially our goals become tools that we use to climb up these hierarchies that started to be established—I mean, they've been established since the dawn of time—but really started to be established in the American tradition way back in the 1400s, 1500s.

Racheal Cook: If you think about it way back in the dawn of time, there were a lot of societies where you were born in the, I don't know class you were born in, and you really couldn't do much to get out of that class, but this whole story was, “No, you can climb your way up, you can pull yourself up from your bootstraps.” Hello, hustle culture. It has been around for a very long long time.

I actually remember hearing something about the reason the Puritans and all of those early Americans who came over with this Protestant Work Ethic came, yes, it was so that they could practice their own beliefs and their own religion, but also it wasn't really that they were being persecuted, it was that they were being told, “You're being a little exploitative here with your people. You can't do this.”

Tara McMullin: They had very few theological disagreements with the institution of the Church of England at the time. It was very much more about how they were constructing their communities and their interpersonal relationships.

Racheal Cook: It's crazy if you start thinking about it and look into that. I love that you've set this up because if this is the background and the foundation we're all coming from, we've all been indoctrinated into believing that if you just work hard enough, that if you just do these things, if you follow this path, you will be saved or you will be able to rise up into this next level of success. That's just not the way it's been for a lot of people.

I always think if working hard was the only thing required, the hardest working people you know, who are usually the people who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic status, should be the most successful because it is a whole lot harder to do the type of usually very physical work that they do, to me that's a whole lot harder than sitting in this chair and talking to a microphone.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, absolutely. We discount all of the knowledge and emotional skill that goes into those jobs too. If you think about the caregiving professions, whether we're talking about elder care, child care, or any other kind of care in between, those professions require an immense amount of emotional labor, they require an immense set of interpersonal skills at a crazy amount of organizational and administrative skills, and yet they're some of the lowest paying jobs in our society. That again speaks to this idea that there are people that are better and therefore higher up the ladder, and people who don't deserve as much and are lower down the ladder regardless of how hard we're working.

Racheal Cook: Oh, my god. Yes, absolutely. Now that we've set the stage for how we got here, at the same time, we both have worked with small businesses for a long time and we know that some parts of goal-setting are very helpful, some parts can be detrimental if they're taken in this approach, in this mindset, and I mean goodness knows, I've seen so many entrepreneurs who are so tired of coaches saying to them, “Well, if you're not getting where you want to go, it's all your mindset. You're not trying hard enough. You're not working hard enough,” all of that crap.

How do we move forward, what do we do differently with goal-setting that allows us to be more aligned with our values, like we talked about the very top, more aligned with our values and not get stuck in this vortex of feeling like “I'm not enough. I'm not doing enough. I'm not working hard enough,” etc?

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I really do think that the first step is recognizing those stories. One of the things that we can do is look back over the goals that we've set recently, maybe this year, maybe in the last five years, and ask ourselves very critically, critically as in with curiosity, not critically as in being hard on yourself because there's no room for that here, looking at those goals critically and saying, “Okay, what are the stories that informed these goals? What was I really trying to do here? Was I trying to prove something? Was I trying to demonstrate that I was better than this, better than that, or better than them? Was this about taking personal responsibility for something that is not my responsibility? Was this about over functioning as a way of combating uncertainty, instability, and precarity?”

There are all of those different stories that we can excavate from the goals that we've set. That reflective practice gives us a lot of information that we can use them when we go to think about what we might want to do next. Once you've reflected on it and you've pulled up those stories and you can say, “I have some patterns here, there are some patterns to these stories,” you can look at the next goal you set and say, “Are any of those stories present in this goal? Are there any of these stories present in this project or in this strategy?” That's the first thing that I think is really important about doing things differently.

The next step beyond that is to get clear on what your values actually are. Look, I know we talk about this all the time, it is in every single goal-setting book, it is in every single goal-setting podcast interview where we talk about personal values, but when I'm talking about personal values, what I'm really looking at again is what are your actual personal values that you believe you have and then how are those values being co-opted by the stories and systems that you've just identified?

I can see a lot of the different ways that, essentially I call it value hijacking, capitalism, the consumer economy hustle culture, they take a value, say, for rest and recovery, and they teach you how to do it in a way, or they convince you to set a goal that is actually counter to that value. But they'll sell you on that value being the reason for it.

For instance, ClickUp, love ClickUp, their marketing message, their main sales message if you go to their website, if you listen to one of their podcast ads is about saving you a day of work every week. ClickUp is saying that if you use our software, you'll get a day back in your work week. Sounds great. That's playing on, tugging on that personal value for rest and recovery. It's playing on that anti-capitalist value of not working yourself to death.

But what do they suggest you do with that extra day? Do they suggest you take a nap, that you play with your kids? I'm sure that they would say, “No, those are perfectly good reasons for that, but no, let's work on a side hustle, let's build out a new project. Let's do this, that, or the other thing. Think how much more you can get done if you have a whole extra day in your work week.” That is value hijacking.

They've said, “You know what, these people have a value for rest or they're trying to create rest and recovery in their lives, this is going to really resonate with them, and look at all these other things that we can convince them that they want to do.” The way I'm putting this makes ClickUp sound extremely nefarious and I absolutely do not believe that is the case, this is just a natural process of marketing strategy of messaging.

I mean, Racheal, you pointed to that very early on in the conversation that this part of marketing today is creating problems for products to solve, and that's essentially what that message does, and in doing so is hijacking our values.

Racheal Cook: Oh, my god that is such a great example. ClickUp, you're a great tool.

Tara McMullin: Totally great, totally a great tool.

Racheal Cook: But this is so interesting because I talk a lot about the importance of rest, I talk a lot about the importance of having self-care, it's probably one of the biggest things that makes my company stand out is it's just such a high priority for us. I also find that as a society, we are uncomfortable with rest. Rest is not easy for us because of that Puritan Work Ethic. We feel guilty taking time off.

In fact, I remember I think Shauna Niequist in her book wrote the idea of fake rest, about there are so many, especially women, women are I think even been harder on themselves in a lot of ways because let's say, even if we do get that day a week back, instead of resting, we'll find a project at home. We’ll be watching a show to relax while doing the laundry, answering emails, or whatever, and it just becomes such an ongoing challenge.

I love that you're bringing this up that we really need to think through our values and then use those as a filter when we are thinking about what is it that we're doing, what are we creating, how are we moving forward.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, and how are we receiving the messages that are coming to us. So that when you hear a ClickUp ad, you're like, “That sounds great. I want to use that day for nothing at all.” The use of that day is not the value of gaining a day in my work week. How I use it doesn't matter. I love the idea that this tool is going to cut out all this b*ll crap that I don't have to do anymore or that makes it faster without me having to work harder. That's great.

Then you have the agency of those values back. But unless you're really conscious, unless you develop that filter, you will constantly be in this value-hijacking cycle and constantly subject to that. That's the next piece. From there, I'm big on vision, personal vision and building it from your personal values, and it's the same thing.

We've all done the personal vision exercises before, we've all closed our eyes and imagined our best day or our best life, and that's fine, and an important part of that is critically thinking about where we're reproducing shoulds and supposed tos, where we're allowing our values to be hijacked as we build out this vision. That's the next piece.

I think there is probably a good place to talk about the question of “Well, what does growth without striving look like? What does personal growth look like that isn't beholden into these cultural systems that are harmful or that are making us second guess ourselves?” With this, I think there are some really interesting answers in the world of existential philosophy.

Racheal Cook: Which of course, you have dove way into.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. This is very important to me. I am a complete religion and philosophy nerd and cultural studies nerd and this is my wheelhouse. But they do really have an interesting answer to this question. The basis of existentialism is that essence does not precede existence. What that means is that there is no core authentic you underneath of these different layers. We're constantly learning and creating who we are, and that every day, every decision we make is an opportunity to explore that. It is an opportunity.

That I think is an interesting way to look at growth without striving growth, without shoulds and supposed tos is what is it that you want to explore about yourself, about what you want, about where you want to go in your life, about who you want to become, that's then how I go about setting what I call commitments, but you can easily substitute goals as well, that's how I go thinking about like, “Okay, these are the things that I'm going to focus on for the next six months, the next 12 months in order to explore who I might become if I make decisions based on these commitments on a daily basis.” That process has been life-changing for me.

Racheal Cook: Oh, my gosh. I'm so glad you went in this direction. I have to say it's been fun watching you do this over the years because I've seen these commitments show up for you and it's just been so interesting because I think for many of us, we get to your 30s, your 40s and there's one group of people who are like, “Well, this is just who I am, this is how it's going to be the rest of my life,” and it feels like they're not of the belief, I guess that fixed mindset like “This is just how I am and how things are going to be. Nothing's going to change anymore. This is the type of job I'm going to have or the type of business I'm going to have. This is the type of family I'm going to have.”

What's interesting is I think what I have seen from you is just this curiosity and wanting to do these little experiments to see like, “Oh, I'm interested in this I think. Let's see what happens.” I remember when you started doing rock climbing and posting your rock climbing videos, and you were sharing like never in your wildest dreams thought that you would start rock climbing in your 30s and here you are, I remember the first few stories you posted, trying to figure it out, and then like a year later and you were just like scaling those rock walls, you're ripped, I'm just going, “Wow, she's really strong.” It seemed like things like that just came out of this curiosity of like, “I'm just going to try this and see what happens.”

Tara McMullin: Yeah, absolutely. I think sports, exercise, working out was a good place for me to start building out this different approach to goals because it felt super low stakes for me. If I ran a 5k at 31 minutes or at 28 minutes, who cares? No big deal. Do not care. Oh, well, I cared, but that's a thing to work on too. The same thing with bouldering. At first it was like “I'm going to take this class on a whim and see what happens,” and turns out I was absolutely terrible at the beginning, like beyond terrible.

Even talking to my coach about it a year or two later, she was like, “Yeah, you were really bad at the beginning.” But by the time we were having that conversation, it totally didn't matter because I was climbing as well as she was. Anyhow, sports gave me this low stakes way of exploring what I could do. What can I train my body to do? What new things do I want to try in terms of boundary setting or growth edges? It was, “Well, I'm going to get my 5K time down. Well, I'm going to run a half marathon. I'm going to run a marathon,” which I did not get to do because of COVID, but that's a story for another time.

“I'm going to compete in a bouldering competition. I'm going to see what happens I'm going to see how many pull-ups I can do all at once.” Those little experiments were absolutely part and parcel with this commitment to exploring those particular growth edges in my personal life and as well as in my business life. It looked similar but with less overt metrics.

Last year, one of my commitments was to practice belonging. In the book and personally, I go through these different exercises of like, “What does it look like to practice belonging? How would that actually change my decision making?” One way I realized it necessarily needed to change my decision making was around being incredibly non-confrontational, never standing up for myself, never exercising boundaries.

That was a thing that I decided I need to focus on is that when there is a conflict, when my needs aren't being met, when my boundaries aren't being respected, I need to say something. I don't need to have an argument with anybody, I don't need to be harsh about it, I just need to say something. In doing that, I'm confronting this fear that if I stand up for myself, if I express a need, that everyone in my life will leave me.

Racheal Cook: That’s the worst case catastrophizing scenario, like if I stand up for myself, everyone's going to hate me, I'm going to have no one.

Tara McMullin: Yes, exactly. Little by little, I start to prove that assumption wrong. The more times I'm saying, “Hey, this is late. I can't look at this immediately for you because it's late,” or “I can't answer your email within two hours,” or whatever it might be, those are silly examples, but whatever it might be in practicing and just saying, “No,” or “No, and here's why.” Every time I did that and someone said, “Oh, I totally understand,” or “Ugh, that's frustrating but I get it,” or just “Cool, what can we do differently next time?” I was demonstrating to myself that they're not going to leave me, that I'm not going to be in my little office all by myself all alone for the rest of my life.

That makes it easier to be bolder with higher stakes things. For me commitments are this very curious and reflective process of who do I want to become and how does that then necessarily affect my decision making, the projects that I take on, the things that I try business-wise, the things I try in my personal life. I'm really looking at goal-setting as a habitual practice-oriented pursuit instead of a “wham-bam, thank you, ma'am” achievement-oriented pursuit.

Racheal Cook: I love this so very much. I love that you shared you started with something that was very low stakes to experiment with. I can see how this translates into business so well. Something I've always done for myself when I'm curious about something in business that I'm not sure if it's going to work or not, but I'm curious, I want to experiment with it, I just did a six-month TikTok experiment and I just decided, “How am I going to do this? What does this look like for me?” and I gave myself a container, “I'm going to experiment with this for six months. Here's how I want to approach it. Here's what feels aligned for me and my brand,” and I just went with it, went through the whole thing.

I didn't really have a goal per se for the outcome, I didn't know what the outcome was going to be. It was just the practice of “I want to play with this platform. I want to see if my people are there, and I want to see if I enjoy it.” Those were the criteria that I really had for it. It wasn't, “Well, I'm going to do this for six months and I have to hit this number of followers, this many clients, and this much revenue,” those were the side effect of playing with it, but in doing little challenges like this, I've done a lot of 100-day challenges or 6-month challenges. I'll give myself just for something in a creative place in my business. It's usually not about the outcome at all, it's usually just about the practice of doing something different for that time frame.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I think something that's really important for that kind of project as well is remembering that our projects, our plans, all of these things can be a work in progress. We're learning as we go. Let's say you got two months into this TikTok experiment with four months to go and you're like, “One, I hate this. Two, nobody's paying attention. Three, it takes way too much time. But man, I committed to six months, I really should stick it out.” Why? Why should you stick it out? You should not stick it out, you have learned three very important things, three very important things.

One, no one cares. Two, it takes too much time. Three, you hate it. Those are amazing things to have learned and we don't often ascribe very much value to learnings like that, to those realizations. Instead, we force ourselves to be completionists in order to say, “I did what I said I was going to do. I achieved the thing I set out to do.”

Racheal Cook: It’s okay to quit. It's okay to quit when it's not working or it's not in alignment. I think this is so important because a lot of people set goals that just make them miserable, you don't have to do that. Your goals shouldn't make you miserable. But if you're trying something out and it's not a fit, be aware enough to know when things aren't working for you. Just because something works for somebody else does not mean it's going to work for you, feel good to you, or whatever. You don't even need a reason. Just quit if it's not working.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I would say totally yes, you don't even need a reason, and also I do think that an important part of that is asking yourself why. In asking yourself why, you identify what you've learned. “I totally want to quit this. I'm going to quit this,” why? Was there something about the time commitment? Was there something about the emotional labor aspect of it? When you actually take just a moment to reflect on those things, you learn something new about yourself, and that also is growth.

Racheal Cook: Yeah. I think it's really interesting that you've tied this in a couple of times, the reflective process here is really the linchpin in each of these steps, it's asking yourself the stories about what you've been told, the conditioning you've had that is maybe making you feel like you have to do something a certain way, the values that you have, being aware of them, being aware when people might be hijacking them to pull you back into a story, having the clarity of that vision.

I think being growth-oriented, a lot of people feel like growth only means checking the box, an achievement. What I'm hearing from you is that's not all that growth should be, it should be also about asking yourself “What did I learn? Does this work for me? Does this feel good? Is this aligned with my values?” and if not, that's okay, you tried it out.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I think the other thing with making the point that growth is not all about checking the box is the flip side of what happens when we don't check the box. So many of us very easily fall into a story about, “Well, that means I'm a failure. It means I'm not good enough. If I didn't check that box, if doing the thing I thought was going to help me check that box didn't work, it reflects on our identity.” If we don't stop to reflect and disrupt that story, then we're carrying that with us, even whether we know it or not.

Just pausing for a minute or two and just asking why, what's going on here? What did I learn is enough to disrupt that cycle of “I'm not good enough. I'm a failure just because I didn't tick that box.

Racheal Cook: Oh, my gosh. Well, this is such a great conversation, especially as we are getting ready to kick off the Plan Your Best Year Ever Challenge and we kick that off talking about your definition of success and what matters most to you so that your goals are aligned. But I really encourage everyone who's listening, Tara's book comes out November 1st. I think you need to go grab it.

It's a great companion to the type of work that we do here at The CEO Collective and that we do inside of this free challenge that's coming up to make sure that, again, you aren't defaulting to a goal-setting system that ultimately is just holding you hostage instead of creating the freedom that you want. That's really what I think we're all here to do is help you to unhook yourself from these oppressive systems that just keep us back from being the version of ourselves we truly want to show up as.

Tara McMullin: Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I will also say of the book too, that while there are specific steps in there that someone can take to develop their own goals and system, it is system agnostic. The goal of the book is to help you identify those stories and think differently about the way you set goals in whatever system you decide to use. It's not about replacing your planning system or anybody else's planning system, it's really about adding a component to that, that is that piece of understanding stories, understanding culture, and understanding your own growth patterns and how you want to show up in the world as opposed to your shoulds and supposed tos.

Racheal Cook: On that note, perfect place to wrap the episode, thank you, Tara, so much for showing up. I will be digging into this book as soon as I get my copy. I so appreciate you spending some time with us today.

Tara McMullin: Thanks, Racheal, it was fabulous.

Racheal Cook: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Tara as much as I did. It is always a great time when we get on the mic together and get to have these real conversations about what we're seeing in the entrepreneurial space and how we can support more entrepreneurs in building businesses that truly work for them, work for you. Because at the end of the day, if you're setting the wrong goals, if you're using someone else's definition of success, it's always going to come back to feeling like a square peg in a round hole, it's not going to be the right fit. We're all focused here on making sure you're designing the business that actually works for you.

With that, I encourage you to take two steps to really integrate this conversation. First, go grab a copy of Tara's book. Go ahead and pre-order it. It's available all over the place. We'll make sure to link up in the show notes, What Works by Tara McMullin. I promise, it is going to be a must-have book for any entrepreneur.

Second, join us for the Plan Your Best Year Ever Challenge coming up, theceocollective.com/bye. You can register for the full five-day challenge. We're going to walk you through our framework for setting yourself up for success in the New Year. I feel like between our framework and Tara's book, which is so complementary, you will be set up so well to truly go after success on your own terms in the New Year, let go of all the shoulds and start focusing on what really works for you and what's going to help you make that consistent progress without all of the anxiety and stress that usually comes with going after big goals. I cannot wait to hear your ahas and insights. Make sure you tag me on Instagram @racheal.cook and I will see you next week.