Developer growth

SMARTER Goals and Valued Living

Hello this is Kevin O’Shaughnessy from, and I want to share with you the most valuable lessons I have learned this year.

For the past few years I have found it useful to have a personal goal to achieve each year, and this year has been my most ambitious goal yet: completing a Pluralsight learning path in every month in 2016.

For several years I have had an agreement with my wife that when we go on holiday together, we go without computers and spend all of our time together. It’s a decision that has always worked out well. Time off is very important for your own health and for strengthening the relationships that matter to you the most.

The downside of this is the difficulty it adds onto achieving my personal goals. Take a two week holiday, and completing a learning path in the remaining time that month is something exponentially more challenging.

Lesson 1 – You are going to fail somewhere, so decide where

The first month went very smoothly. Then I had a conversation with Craig “Cargo Wire” Rowe about speaking at developer events. He was saying he’d like to speak but was hesitant because there’s often at least someone in the audience asking tough questions.

I told him “Don’t be silly, you can’t worry about that, just go for it”. As I said this, I realized I was giving advice to myself – for years I had thought about doing a talk, but was afraid. I knew I had to face my fears.

I found it surprisingly easy to get accepted for a first talk. Then I found that preparing for a talk involves a lot of work, and felt the friction of competing goals. Which is more important: delivering a good talk, or succeeding at my learning challenge?

By the end of April I wrote to Pavneet about the challenges I was facing and what I was learning from them. How should you prioritize personal goals alongside the needs of others? I came up with this list of priorities:

  1. Family and health
  2. Pluralsight learning path challenge
  3. Friends
  4. Reading books, writing blog posts, doing podcasts and speaking at events
  5. Television

I learned to understand the possibility of failure, and the conditions under which I was prepared to “happily” accept them.

The Internet is awash with motivational material along the lines of “failure is not an option”. There are major benefits to having a winning mentality, but to be a winner over the long run you do not need to succeed at every single goal.

Failure IS an option, and if you are ambitious you will find it is not so much a question of “Can I fail?” as “Where will I fail?”. We all have the same 24 hours per day and must carefully pick and choose where to spend our efforts.

Not accepting the possibility of failure is putting yourself under unreasonable pressure. Everyone has failures, especially at things we are inexperienced at. Aim for continuous improvement, not perfection.  

It is well worth asking yourself the difficult questions up front. Would I be prepared to let my marriage suffer in order to achieve this goal? Would I be prepared to let my health suffer? Would I be prepared to let my relationships with my friends to weaken?

These are questions that only you can answer. The “failure is not an option” quote comes from NASA.

The men who went to the moon worked such long hours that they rarely spent time with their families, and their marriages often ended in divorce.

Danbo Photography Collection

But they achieved something extraordinary in their lives, which will remain in the history books.


We can either consciously make the hard choices for ourselves upfront, or follow a blind path where both the successes and failures come at us by surprise.

Lesson 2 – SMARTER Goals

When I originally blogged about doing this challenge, I wrote about also doing a lot of work surrounding and reinforcing the learning. I’ve been less successful at these things, because they are extra goals which are not SMART.

The SMART acronym has been used and reused with several different alternative terms.

There are also SMARTER Goals, which is an evolution of the SMART goals concept. Here is my preferred definition:  

Specific – exactly what is it that needs to be achieved?
Measurable – how will you know for sure when it has been achieved?
Achievable – is this a realistic goal, within your sphere of control?
Relevant – to your core values, which they serve (explained in lesson 4)
Time-bound – exactly when will it be achieved by?
Evaluate – Regularly assess how likely you are to achieve this goal, and is your current strategy is working?
Readjust – Don’t set goals in stone if they are no longer working for you

When you have some goals that are SMART and others which aren’t, the SMART goals tend to be the ones which get done. They are the easiest to remember, and tend to be prioritized higher because of their associated deadlines.

Lesson 3 – Mental health is for everyone

By July, I had taken one week off as holiday and been working pretty much flat out everywhere else. I was gradually feeling increasingly tired. I began to feel that my life was becoming all about trying to avoid imminent failure, and not enjoying it much at all.


Pushing through can be an effective tactic, but over the longer term we also need to be pulled by the things that motivate and excite us.

I went to the library and picked up a copy of Build Your Resilience.

When I saw that this book was written by a therapist, I almost stopped reading. I thought “oh, this isn’t for me, I don’t have any mental health problems”. Fortunately, I decided to be a little more open minded than that, and gave it a try. Some of it wasn’t relevant, but the best bits were the inspiration for this article.

Unfortunately in western society we are not taught much about mental health. Physical Education is a mandatory subject as schools, but the mental side is mentioned very little.

If you walk into a gymnasium, you will see many people in there who are in good physical shape. If you ask them “What are you doing here? You are already in good shape.” you might get some funny looks back at you.

They might answer “I am here so that I stay in good shape” or you might get the imposter reply “Oh not really. Not anywhere near as much as [someone (s)he admires]”.

It is well understood that we need to keep exercising our bodies to keep them healthy. The importance of good nutrition is also written about at length, and understanding how our muscles work and how we absorb foods can help us to make even better choices.

It’s less well understood that we should also work to keep our minds as healthy as possible. We should “feed” our minds with healthy literature.

As with all aspects of our lives, there is a kind of gravity acting on it: a force which pushes us downwards. In Steven Pressfield’s book “The War of Art” he calls this “Resistance”. We can overcome it.

We can appreciate that mental health is much like physical health, and that they are very much related to each other. The best athletes work as hard on the mental side and on the physical side. Each side helps the other and to be genuinely fit we must be strong at both.

So think positively every day. Focus on the things that are within your control, and let go of the things outside of your control.

Lesson 4 – Valued Living

800px-aristotle_altemps_inv8575The most important lesson I have learned is the principle of valued living – living in accordance with our true values.

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote about causality, the final cause being “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”.

We can clarify our underlying values by choosing something that we do and asking ourselves “What is this being done for the sake of?”

This is a question that may need to be asked multiple times. For example if the answer to the question on the sake of work is to earn money, ask yourself what is the sake of earning money?”

For more on the importance of “Why?” see this article by Derek Sivers.

Australian nurse Bronnie Ware spent several years working in palliative care, and asked her patients what their biggest regrets were. The most common answer was:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

I want you to live your life without any regrets. To do this you must clearly understand what your own values are.  

Before reading further, take a few minutes, or as long as you need, to answer these deep questions:

  1. What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  2. What do you really want your life to stand for, or be about?
  3. What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  4. What sort of things do you most want to spend your life doing?
  5. What sort of person do you most want to be in your relationships, at work, and in life generally?
  6. If you knew for certain that you only had one month left to live, how would you want to spend the remaining time before you died?

If you want to explore your values and goals in further depth, read Values Clarification: A Practical, Action-Directed Workbook.

Now what are the differences between values and goals? Goals are specific outcomes that we try to achieve. Values are more fundamental ideals that give meaning to our goals, and give our lives a sense of direction.

Goals have a beginning and an end. Values are never finished – they are a lifelong pursuit.

It is well known that the rich and successful tend to have good habits. A habit has three elements: Cue, Routine and Reward. Charles DuHigg’s How Habits Work article explains a process for changing your habits for the better.

But did you know that there are two types of rewards? Rewards can have either intrinsic value or extrinsic value. We are most familiar with extrinsic value – these are things such as money or fame. There is also intrinsic value – pursuing activities for their own sake.

For example, if we play a musical instrument we can gain pleasure from playing just for the sake of playing. If we become really good at it then we maybe one day we could also gain fame and fortune from it. But there are never any guarantees of that, and we don’t enjoy playing for the sake of playing then we have almost no chance of becoming good enough.

Values are intrinsically rewarding whereas Goals are extrinsically rewarding.

Valued living means holding onto your goals lightly. Your goals should serve your values, not vice versa. Your goals should change much more frequently than your values.

Based on this new understanding, I realized that I didn’t like putting career goals ahead of friendships. I rate the learning path goal above any specific objective with regards to friendships, but as a core value good friendships are more important than career development.

Good friendships sometimes also have the beneficial side-effect of creating new career opportunities, and that is a bonus not an objective.

I recommend creating your own chart of your values and goals. SMART(ER) Goals are not always better than goals which are less specific as sometimes it is good to have vague plans that we can clarify later. However it is important to be aware of whether your goals are SMART(ER) or not because if they are, you are giving yourself the best chance of succeeding at them.

Here is my revised chart. This is just an example and yours should differ. Remember: have the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life that you might feel others expect of you.

Values SMARTER Goals “Dumb” goals
Health and Fitness Every day either:

  • Row 100 times every day, and gradually increase this after it becomes a habit
  • Go out for a walk with my wife
Be a good husband
  • Help with housework
Strong family relationships
  • Speak to my parents every month
  • Keep in contact with brothers
Strong friendships
  • Maintain good relationships with friends
  • Make new friends
Outlier Developer Manifesto – I’m not interested in being average. I’m out to be exceptional.

I’m not waiting to be picked. I’m actively creating opportunities.

I’m commanding my time so I can own my trajectory and maximize my impact.

  • Read a book every month
  • Always have a developer talk lined up
  • Go to at least one developer meetup every month
  • Continue to study and review Pluralsight course on my blog
  • Get involved with open source projects
Relaxation and Travel
  • Take 5 weeks holiday every year visiting new parts of the world

All that remains is to wish you the very best of luck in your lifelong pursuits.

This has been a guest post from  Kevin O’Shaughnessy from zombiecodekill.comReach out to me directly if you have any thoughts, questions or criticisms. Or leave a comment below.

Cover Image: carnagenyc via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC