Goal-setting is a perennial, and for some perennially frustrating, part of Mormonism. I count myself among the frustrated. I have been setting weekly goals for myself since I was a teenager, and I don’t think I’ve ever achieved them all for a single week. I’m getting closer, however.
Although I believe that goals are positive and necessary, the costs–especially if expectations are misaligned–can be high. Something to keep in mind is that Church leaders of our generation are selected from a group of very high-achieving professionals. Add to this the willing Mormon tendency towards hagiography, and it’s easy to see how, despite their protestation that goals ought to be realistic, there’s a tendency for members to overreach.
Goal-setting is not just a common theme in counsel from the leaders, however, it is also embedded in our institutions. The entire church program seems designed around shuttling children (especially boys) from baptism to a temple marriage through a series of regular milestones: Deacon; Teacher; Priest; Elder; Missionary; Husband. And then… what?
After a lifetime spent working to achieve one concrete objective after another, the sudden absence of predetermined goals is disorienting to say the least. I think this is why so many of Mormon guy friends–young marrieds in the 20s and 30s–are casting about desperately for some kind of external achievement. They start companies, start PhD programs, start books, and start climbing the corporate ladder. I’ve done all four, and I’ve felt myself flailing for that familiar feeling of having a focus provided. Meanwhile, lurking beneath it all, there’s the perpetual temptation to treat leadership positions as the next merit badges to earn.
I know this is having a corrosive effect on Mormon men, and I can’t imagine that Mormon women are immune. I wonder if some of the desire for women to have the priesthood is a tragic attempt to hop onto the same fail train that Mormon men can’t get off of.
This may all sound very critical, but that’s not my intent. I think there are problems with Mormon culture in this regard, but one of the biggest problems is the tendency to lay everything always at the feet of the leaders, and I don’t intend to perpetuate that.
Our leaders are not all-knowing avatars of spiritual enlightenment. They are not sterile conduits to divine knowledge. Although of course they have access to special revelation in the fulfillment of their callings, they are fundamentally human beings. The things they know–and more importantly how they know them–are formed by their particular life experiences. It would be foolish to expect them to be able to provide detailed directions to all of the many varied kinds of people in the Church of Jesus Christ on how to set relatively realistic goals.
What’s more: I don’t think that that is really their job. Our leaders are watchmen on towers, they are not life-coaches. The Church is an ensign to all nations, but but an ensign indicates where a destination is located. It is not a roadmap to help you get there. Although they certainly point the way and provide some needed help and assistance, neither the Church as an institution nor its leaders can or should try to take away from us the obligation to make our own journey.
So: goals are important, but the leaders might not have the best capacity to help us learn how to set them. What are we to do?
For me, at least, the key has been a concept not frequently discussed over the pulpit: acceptance. The reality is that the reason that I keep over-setting my goals is that I’m unwilling to accept the gap between my self-image and the reality. In short: pride. Humility is more familiar terrain, of course, but the fact that I’ve gotten better at goal-setting to the extent that I’ve been lowering my standards isn’t exactly the stuff of an Ensign story.
The tricky part of acceptance is learning to accept who you are without settling for it. Nothing about lowering standards is obviously commensurate with an ideal of eternal progression. Based on a reading of Matthew 5:48 (“be ye therefore perfect”), it would seem that I’m headed in exactly the wrong direction.
In practice, however, it seems to be working.