How to see the barrier to reaching your goals

I am shocked to hear that 60% of people don’t know what’s holding them back from reaching their goals. So I decide that I will address the topic: The way  you figure out what you should be doing next is that you try stuff.

You make bad choices, you try again. This is really standard advice for recent grads. But then, somewhere around age thirty, people start thinking they are above this advice. Like, this would be too slow and annoying for someone who is older than thirty.

And, in fact, that’s true. Finding out what you should be doing is a slow and annoying process because you have to try stuff. And a lot of times when we get stuck, we think philosophizing will get us out of the rut. But in fact, action gets us out. That’s right. Even for people like INTPs, who basically create theories in response to anything, even the INTPs have to take action in order to find out if they want to think at a think tank or at a university or a business.

There are ten billion blogs written by totally lost twenty-five year olds, but very few written by thirty-five-year-olds; because we often feel stupid and hopeless if we are older and lost as to how to meet goals. So, here we go. I’m going to show you my process for dealing with failure to meet a goal:  I am happy when I am posting on my blog and I am unhappy when I am not posting. So I should write more.

1. Ask someone for input. Anyone, really. You have no ideas, you are stuck. And it’s easy to see other peoples’ problems. So ask someone what they see in you.
I did a coaching session with Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness. She coaches people on how to reorganize their lives to optimize for happiness. She showed me that the reason I’m not writing is because I don’t have a routine. I don’t put aside time to work every day. I just hope work time happens. And then, when it does, I only work on what’s already an emergency. (On a good day. On a bad day I am not even doing the emergencies. I am buying new dishes on eBay and sending photos of them to Melissa.)

I knew this. But I didn’t really know it because if I really knew it I’d have solved the problem before she told it to me. So I only knew it peripherally. I was hoping it wasn’t true.

2. Ask a specialist for input. Now that you have a sense of what’s wrong, ask someone who specializes in being great in that area.
So then I look at what is keeping me from sticking to a schedule. I decided that it’s that I don’t have a plan for what I am doing with my writing. So I called up Ramit Sethi, who does not charge me for coaching, but Ramit is a very transactional guy. So before I tell you what he told me, I need to tell you that he has has this course for teaching people how to negotiate salary. And really, everything he does is good because Ramit’s gift is he’s a promotional genius, and people who have that genius don’t waste it on bad product.

So he’s my go-to guy when I need someone to tell me what I should be doing to make money. He’s really good at telling me to stop selling stuff that is too cheap. This is a good time to tell you that he charges $10,000 for career coaching. I’m not kidding.

3. Everything is a grain of salt. 
This is a reference to tears, for sure, since I go from not meeting my goals to hating myself to tears that I am a bad role model for my boys because they can see that I hate myself and I am ruining their childhood. See how fast that is?

But I meant, actually, salt as in take the advice with a grain of salt. After all you can only be you.

So at first I told myself that I should be charging that much. But then I realized that I would not get to talk to as many people. And I love talking to everyone I coach. They are always super-smart and interesting and fun. I think my coaching business is self-selecting: you have to be a go-getter and an innovative thinker about how you manage yourself if you decided to hire me to give you advice. And, I think I would be really bored in my homeschooling life if I didn’t get to coach people each day.

So Ramit is making a gazillion dollars and he is good at coaching me. I talked to him and I realized that I am focusing on too many things. And I should just sell one or two things and focus on my writing, because I love my writing. It’s because of Ramit that I don’t tell you to buy my books all the time. Because there’s no money in books.

Ramit teaches me how to pitch myself relentlessly.

And then I don’t do it. But he helps me know what I can do to make money and then I get past the barriers to doing what I want to do.

4. After investigation of details, revisit the initial problem. 
You know what? I’m sick of telling myself I want to write more and then I don’t write. The truth is that I write every day. Who knows what I’ll write, but I do write every day. It’s not what I thought it would look like. I thought I would sit down at a desk like a normal writer, and write five pages each day.

Instead, I write when I can write. And I publish when I can publish. And it’s working out. And I know I’ll tell you that I’ll die if I don’t write. And that’s true. And I write. And I am done talking about the barrier to this goal. Because I don’t want to be one of the 60% of people who don’t know what’s holding them back from their goals.

5. Admit there are no barriers.
I do not actually believe we have barriers to reaching our goals. We have difficult paths that we are taking, that we believe will lead to our goal. Or we have stupid goals. If you have the wrong goal, your sixth sense will tell you not to start heading toward the goal—for whatever reason. But really, if you’re not going toward your goal it’s a bad goal.

So, you could reframe your goal, like I just did, so you feel like a winner. Or you can dump your goal and get another. And maybe you’ll head toward that one. Or maybe you won’t. And sooner or later, the goal will be to get a goal that gets you really moving.

52 replies
  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    When I retire again from software product management I’m going to call you up for coaching on how I can get a wider reading audience. This is your odd spectacular brain at its best.

  2. chris
    chris says:

    Is it really this linear? A single goal?

    Isn’t there a plan A and a plan B and a plan C at the least?
    And aren’t there many paths to each plan?

    For example, you like to write ( I do as well). You could write a blog, a book, articles for publications. You could be a speech writer, a journalist, a technical writer . . . You could simply journal and decide later if you want to take it to the next level–an autobiography, a memoir, the platform for a work of fiction or a short story.

    This gets back to your first point, I think: trying different stuff/approaches.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think what you’re describing is trying a lot of stuff. Having a goal is deciding on something that’s important enough to you to focus on.

      There are some people who find focus very difficult and scary and unappealing and then they don’t know why they haven’t accomplished anything that is meaningful to them. For people like that, committing to a goal is often a goal in and of itself.


      • downfromtheledge
        downfromtheledge says:

        I’m not sure if we believe philosophizing will get us out of the rut after age 30, or if we realize, ‘Oh shit! I don’t have time to keep trying out everything that seems like a good idea at the time.’

        The problem is that we start thinking everything to death, laboriously analyzing the pros and cons of every possible choice until we wind up paralyzed, having taken no action at all.

        #1 is great advice; the one thing I have consistently been told is that I should be writing….but as Chris points out, that can take many forms.

      • The Dame Intl
        The Dame Intl says:

        This explains a lot! I have been extremely commitment phobic and a lot of it is tied up in not trusting myself which has kept me from finding my true path, until now. But I do think we have to try a lot of things to see what fits and then the focus comes easy because you want to be there and its easier to figure out what your goals need to be.

  3. Lisa S.
    Lisa S. says:

    How is that you are able to touch upon everything that I’m going through? Maybe its because we are about the same age. I love your writing and I love your blog. I’m saving to get an hour or two of your coaching because I see how valuable it is. I am also “trying” stuff by enrolling in a writing class. Still trying to figure out the rest but your blog serves as a great guidepost to help illuminate my way.

  4. avant garde designer
    avant garde designer says:

    What a great year end post. This is me totally. As a creative sole proprietor, I’m constantly studying and talking with consultants on the best ways to run my business, market myself, blah, blah, blah. It’s all very helpful and I do try to apply it appropriately.

    However, it’s only helpful to a point. Like you and your schedule, some advise works for me and some doesn’t, and I’m not a failure if it doesn’t. I still write up an marketing and business plan each year, as instructed, but if I achieve those goals, fine. If I don’t, there’s always next year and another way.

    Thanks for your post and reinforcing to me that I haven’t become lazy because I no longer obsess about my business goals. I’m simply learning more about who I am and what works best for me.

  5. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I feel the same way about writing, but I don’t need to tell you that because you know. And my other goals too, like getting a job. Well I have written a love letter to the med student almost every day of the holiday break, and I have found five jobs to apply to, cover letters in progress. So even if this is not how I thought I’d be getting over my hurdles, I think it’s happening anyway. I’m hoping so.

    Also, I am not doing my ultra tonight, because I am sick, and I cried about it twice, but then I sucked it up and signed up for a 50K race in February. I ran 200 miles in December and I am going to run even faster, harder, stronger in January.

  6. Jim
    Jim says:

    I don’t seem to have big long-term goals, just little short-term ones that are like stepping stones. I am about to try working for a startup. I’ve never done that before but it helps me achieve some little goals around being able to do things more my way and let something big either succeed or fail almost entirely on my efforts. And I’m going to find out whether this is for me or not.

    I got some coaching earlier this year in my field from someone who’s well known in the field but happens to live in my city. It was a massive bargain at $250 an hour. I can see that he priced it so that he got to do it sometimes, not at its actual value. It helped me see that I know enough in my field that I could be a coach, too — and that’s something I really like to do.

  7. Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian blog
    Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian blog says:

    I love this post!

    Tomorrow at my blog, A Conservative Lesbian, I will be inviting my readers to join me in my project to “Turn 90 blockers into boosters in 90 days.” I’ll be recommending a book with techniques to use. It also has some excellent techniques for goal-setting that are original to the book’s author, which I have found obtain excellent results. I have been implementing his advice in an extremely half-assed way for the last 7.5 years. I latched onto his techniques for gaining “certainty of achievement” which I credit with my pulling off a couple of achievements that now seem miraculous in retrospect.

    The first one was losing over 60 pounds even though my thyroid medication was over 50 mcg. too low. The second one was figuring out on my own the treatment for a rare sleep disorder I have, idiopathic hypersomnia, which was killing me: my thyroid medication was too low.

  8. loafingcactus Mary
    loafingcactus Mary says:

    My first thought is that if 60% of people don’t know what is holding them back, that means the other 40% are wrong. Truly knowing would be enlightenment, thus the coaches, the wondering, and the meaningfulness that remains in living and chasing down that “sooner or later” goal.

  9. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I was googling “life coaches” ’cause I just want 2013 to be different and don’t think I can stand being me anymore, and then I pop on over to and read this…..I’m finding a freakin’ life coach!

  10. Ted Scarborough
    Ted Scarborough says:

    Always a pleasure to click the link to your blog and find a post. They are always interesting. Glad to hear you are writing so much. Please keep them coming, I really look forward to them. Happy New Year.

  11. Marian
    Marian says:

    My biggest goal is writing books and I am doing it and the goal is to do more of it. And yes I know there’s no money in books!! Like you I write every day. I keep thinking about starting more of a routine but still tend to work on big projects in bursts. The stuff I seem to be ‘trying’ for the last so many years is about ways to monetize writing. That remains biggest challenge. I write and edit (well) for clients (too few) and I coach.

    When coaching I see some people are trying writing styles and others very committed to projects.

  12. Gus
    Gus says:

    I just started working with a great team, mostly in their 20s. Everyone loves to talk about what we should be doing, about what our product should be.

    Leading and focusing that discussion is the fun part of my job. But what happens afterwards, when I ask “how are we going to deliver this”? What are the risks, how do we structure it, etc etc. I get funny looks. Suddenly the depth of discussion is over.

    Even the idea of having a stimulating and interesting discussion that projects *how* the thing is going to go (what the pitfalls will be, how the architecture will be impacted, etc) is foreign.

    Do you think this team has any chance whatsoever at knowing whether it’s reaching its goals at any given time? And why or why not?

    Setting good goals is obviously crucial, and all the blogs talk about it. I grew up with blogs talking about “finding yourself” and so forth. But discussing the journey is just as crucial, and we seem to have forgotten to push this particular agenda. Both personally and, since work is just a bunch of persons, professionally as a consequence.

    How many cliches can you think of related to strategy and strategic thinking? The only one that comes to mind for tactics is journey vs. destination.

    Maybe we need more blogs about how to plan the journey.

  13. Gib Wallis
    Gib Wallis says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Loved this post. I’m going to process it and apply my favorite parts soon.

    Your link for INTP is actually to an INFP description.

    With your interest in type, I wish you’d write a short list of the weaknesses of each type as you see them, like you said in an earlier post that ESFPs can’t be alone and here you said INTPs have a theory for everything but need to get things done.

    I think my favorite part of this post is that you love to write and love to make money and have a track record with both, but talk about your challenges with both.

    Very hopeful and inspirational to let us peek at your process at this time of year!

  14. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    As I sit here, having a very early glass of bubbly, and while reading through this wonderful year-end post, I thought it wasn’t all that long ago, that I would have denied myself from attending two of your webinars, signing up for an hour of consulting with you, and another bonus that I won’t mention here because you asked us not to in the last webinar.

    The fact that I took those steps means that in my own weird way I’ve made progress. I know you’ll be honest and so many people can’t, and I think you can’t help it. Engaging with you seems kind of scary on the one hand, but intuitively I know I need some shaking up.

    Happy New Year, to you, the Farmer, and your sons.

  15. me
    me says:

    Fabulous post: very timely/right on the mark for me.

    Deep down, I know I should craft smart goals and work towards them. But it’s just so much easier & faster to watch a rerun of Grey’s Anatomy or curl up and take a nap.



  16. Ebriel
    Ebriel says:

    Life is a great experiment. I’m considered immature by some because I just keep trying things I’m not really qualified to do. Some things work, a little. Others work more. Some not at all. I think there’s something very American about having the freedom to try and fail. We’re so lucky to have more choices and chances than many other cultures out there. It’s why we’re seen as naive and obstinate and egotistical all at once.

    For my New Year’s day brainstorm, I went through my fears. They’re what have been holding me back for months now. I wrote out then color-coordinated my priorities by hand to make them less scary: greens, cool blues, sexy reds.

    There was the NEED column (housing & living expenses, further education for visa/career purposes, art studio etc), the WANT column, the FEAR column, and finally the DO! column – ideas on how to break through it.

    It was good to slice up the fears into bits and see they’re much smaller than they felt.

    Happy new year.

  17. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    penelope – i sooo wish you would read my ebook. it’s 30 friggin pages. it’s called ‘Know Where To Go’ (How To Reinvent Yourself in 6 Steps). I just know you will relate to the journey and want to share it. If the spirit moves you… let me know and i’ll email it to you.

    Amy Parmenter

  18. Santina
    Santina says:

    A great post,i am over 30 and i blog and my resolution for this year is to throw out my rule book.
    Life has n rules,try try try till you get something you can be really great at.

  19. The Dame Intl
    The Dame Intl says:

    I will be 34 in February and I have spent the last 10 years trying stuff and Ive finally come to a place after all that trial and error where I know that I want to use my unconventional life experience to help others through coaching.

    If you dont know what makes your heart sing, go and found out otherwise your life will have been a waste.

  20. TD
    TD says:

    A lot of comments here are about finding life coaches pronto. So, what are the best ways to find a life coach? Everyone googles for one, I have done that too. But what if I am looking for a specialized life coach? Is there a website that aggregates such information?

    • Alison Elissa Horner
      Alison Elissa Horner says:

      Hey TD,

      I recently heard of this site for finding a coach:
      I haven’t tried it, but it might be helpful.

      You could also try doing a few different google searches with relevant terms. So instead of just ‘life coach’ you add in your city or the specific specialty you are looking for.

      You could also check LinkedIn for coaches in your network.

      Hope that helps!

    • Jenn
      Jenn says:

      I have been looking on Angie’s list. You must pay for that though. I”ve had good luck with Angie’s list for other things too so it’s worth it.

      Although now I”m kind of stalled because my husband claims he IS my life coach and I should be paying him, :0, and what I need is a landscaper to help me in the yard. I don’t know, he’s usually right about everything, he’s ISTJ and keeps me in line.

  21. Jean
    Jean says:

    You’re right that the problem is not that you don’t write enough — your writing requires that you have stuff going on in your life to write about. So you can’t just focus on trying to write without interacting with interesting, stimulating people, places and things.

    The real problem is your mental reaction of “hating myself to tears that I am a bad role model for my boys because they can see that I hate myself and I am ruining their childhood.” Learn to take a step back when you feel your mind going this direction and then do a few yoga poses (or plant 100 bulbs, call Melissa, or have sex with the Farmer) to stop yourself from the self-hate.

  22. Robert Wenzel
    Robert Wenzel says:

    Thanks for posting at this topic. I would say it is one of the most important issues for a career. For me I would summarize it with the following steps:

    1. Define your own goals
    Take your time to find out what you want and become clear about it: Is it what you really want or what the people around of you excepting from you?

    Penelope described this phase in her post quite well.

    2. Define your desired environment
    Once you’ve identified your goals you have to ask yourself: Does support your environment you to achieve your goals? If not, change it.

    Penelope described in another post quite: Let’s say an INTP likes to start a company. In theory it is worked out very well but with the partner e.g. an ISTJ it will not work. Therefore you have to change your surroundings to make it work.

    3. Take Action
    Take Action like described in this blog post. You can only be right! Otherwise you will die with the questions like if I would have done it my life would have been… Just do it and don’t worry! It’s an adventure and makes fun anyway.

    Thank you for the post and Happy New Year.

    PS: 4. Review
    Goals can change, so reviewing your goals is always good.

  23. SV
    SV says:

    It’s possible that it’s just your Myer-briggs personality profile. Some people naturally think in a less linear structured way and like to have a lot of open-ended options so they are open to a flow of ideas (P personality) vs. those that are more structured and execution-oriented (J aspect of personality). Instead of beating yourself up, learn where your natural strengths lie and focus your career there.

  24. karelys
    karelys says:

    I love Ramit but I am never brave enough to pay for his expensive classes because I think “what if they don’t change my current situation and then I am even worse with less money than before? but his class won’t change my situation, my action will, and if I can’t get myself to act on single small goals today then his expensive class won’t either. I will just feel overwhelmed which paralyzes me.”

    So I’ve never paid for his classes. But man! he sounds so interesting all the time.

    • CL
      CL says:

      I paid for the first iteration of Dream Job. Was it worth the money? Definitely. But when he walks you through the process of defining what you want, most people get paralyzed by choices when he asks you to figure out dream job titles and dream job companies. The upside of that is that you get lifetime access.

      If you think that you would be paralyzed (as most people are, according to Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice), then you definitely shouldn’t buy his courses. I will say, though, that Ramit has a TON of useful information/mini courses on, which is a great starting point.

  25. Rebecca Lynn Forehand
    Rebecca Lynn Forehand says:

    Penelope, I am so honored that you mentioned me in your post… “There are ten billion blogs written by totally lost twenty-five year olds,…” Tee hee… I love your blog. You’re the swift kick in the pants I need. :)

    P.S. Your frequency of posting is good enough… and you are not a “normal” writer, you are abnormally good at expressing content-driven contrarianism.

  26. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    I definitely agree that the way to success is trying a lot of different stuff. When I started freelancing, I wanted to make lots of money from a few projects right away. It’s only been with a lot of effort and attempts at various projects and through various writing venues that I have realized, variety is what it is about. I’m much more successful in my own mind now that I have experience and completed projects through various avenues of writing. Happy New Year!

  27. Erica
    Erica says:

    Hi Penelope, as an over-thinking INTP myself, I’m curious why you mentioned INTP in this post…was that random? or…?

  28. Danielle33
    Danielle33 says:

    I like how you described the people you come in contact with : “And I love talking to everyone I coach. They are always super-smart and interesting and fun.” Indeed, it’s very hard to find a job nowadays, where you can express your ideas, your passions, where you can work with pleasure. It’s very important to have a job where you like what you do, because this will contribute considerably to your fulfillment. Every person is unique and everyone deserves a chance to show what they are capable of.
    This is a complete and very interesting article, and I personally find myself in it.

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