Starving Artist No More Blog

018: Purpose and Flexibility (Goal Setting for Creatives, Part 1 of 2)

Feb 28, 2023
Starving Artist No More | Jennifer Jill Araya
018: Purpose and Flexibility (Goal Setting for Creatives, Part 1 of 2)

Goals and goal-setting are sometimes really hard for creatives. I work with a lot of artists who struggle to set goals within their creative work. They want the freedom to pursue any project that strikes their fancy, and they’re afraid that establishing a formal business plan or writing set of strategic goals within their business will keep them from accepting work they would enjoy. Or sometimes I encounter a creative who has tried goals in the past, only to have those goals languish in a drawer or computer file somewhere – they’re not quite sure where – never to be looked at again, and certainly never to be achieved. If you’re a creative who has struggled with goals and goal-setting, I hope you’re willing to give it one more try. I’ve got two mindset shifts around goals that I think will make a big difference to how you see the role of goals within your creative business.


Hello, and welcome to episode 18 of the Starving Artist No More Podcast. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Araya, and I am so excited to talk with you today about your mindset as you think about goals and strategy within your creative business.

Before we get to the meat of today’s discussion, I want to take a quick moment to let you know about a live workshop I have coming up in less than a month from when this episode is originally airing. On March 26, 2023, I am hosting an in-person workshop in New York City. The workshop is titled “Starving and Panicked No More: Business Strategy and Text Breakdown for the Thriving Actor,” and that pretty much sums up what the workshop will be about. We’re going to work through both the art and the business of what it means to flourish in your work as an actor. I am so excited about this!

For this day-long workshop, I’m teaming up with award-winning actor, audiobook narrator, and acting coach Marni Penning. Marni is a good friend of mine, and we’ve worked together many times. I’ve also taken courses and workshops with her in the past. Her method for text analysis is one that I use in my work as an actor and audiobook narrator every single day. At the workshop on March 26th, Marni will be teaching you specifically how to do focused and in-depth text analysis for auditions, so that even when you only have 5 minutes to prepare a text for an audition, you’ll be ready with a one-of-a-kind, text-based read that is singularly shaped by your unique acting style. It’s amazing stuff.

In my portion of the workshop, I’ll be discussing how to find projects within what I call your creative and financial sweet spot. You might have heard me talk about this a while ago, in Episode 7 of this podcast, but I’m going to go into lots more detail in this in-person workshop. Projects in your creative and financial sweet spot are the projects that you find most creatively rewarding and that also pay you your very best rates. Working within that space within your business is an incredibly empowering place to be! On March 26th, I’m going to be helping the workshop attendees take concrete steps to grow their business in a way that brings these kinds of projects their way.

This workshop is going to be an amazing day of learning and sharing and growing together, and I cannot wait. If you’re interested in signing up or even if you just want to learn more about the workshop, just head on over to the Events page of my website. Quick little hint: the early bird price for the workshop, which is a $50 discount from the regular price, goes only through the end of February. Starting March 1st, new registrants will be paying the full price. So if you happen to be listening to this episode when it airs on February 28th, you’ve got until midnight tonight Pacific Time to get your registration in at the lower, early bird price. Registration will stay open until the workshop sells out, but the early bird price goes away when February rolls over into March.

And if you’re listening to this way in the future and March 26, 2023 is in the past and you didn’t catch this episode when it initially came out, you can still head to my website and check the events page to see if I have any in-person or online events coming up that you’re interested in. Who knows, maybe I do!

Ok, now that I’ve shared that super exciting information with you, it’s time to focus on the main topic of today’s episode: purpose and flexibility within your business strategy, within the goals you have for your creative business. Today’s discussion is episode 1 of a 2-part series about goals and goal setting. Part 2 will be published next Tuesday, March 7, 2023, and that episode will give you a step-by-step guide for how to formulate goals that help and direct your work. In that episode, I’ll discuss what SMART goals are and how you can use the SMART goal-setting framework to establish a business strategy that will guide and focus your creative work.

But before we get to the how-to part of things, we’ve got some mindset work to do. If you remember, I always encourage the artists I work with to look at creative entrepreneurship through a 3-part lens, that of Mindset, Strategy, and Action (listen back to Episode 11 if you want more information about that framework). So before we get to the how-to of goal-setting, aka strategy, in part 2 of this series, we need to first look at the mindset behind those goals.

Let’s begin with the basics. I spend the majority of my work time as an audiobook narrator, which means I most of my working time just about every day dealing with text and text analysis. I am a firm believer that words matter, and more than that, the exact definitions of words matter. So before we dig into how goals fit within your creative business, let’s first look at the definition of “goal.” Let’s make sure we really know what we’re talking about.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a goal is “the end toward which effort is directed.” has a very similar definition, “the result or achievement toward which effort is directed. Wikipedia’s definition is one that I find really helpful when I’m thinking about my own goals, how to set them, how to achieve them. Wikipedia says “a goal is an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envision, plan and commit to achieve.”

A goal is an idea of the future. It’s something that you imagine as being possible for yourself. It is your desired result. Because you see it is possible and you desire the result of achieving it, you make a plan for getting there, and you make a commitment to working that plan so you can achieve it. You decide you will work to make that imagined future your reality.

Goals within your business are incredibly powerful. Goals, when used properly, can give you intentionality around your work. They can help focus your efforts so that you are truly making a difference with the work that you do.

As I mentioned at the top of this episode, and as I’ve mentioned in past episodes, I know a lot of creatives struggle with goals and goal-setting as it relates to their artistic work. Artists in general like spontaneity and flexibility. We like following our creative whims to the projects that most spark our imagination and ignite our passion in the moment. Following a business plan or a set of goals can feel like the opposite of that. Goals can feel restrictive and not very creative. I know that goal-setting might not be the topic you’re most excited to talk about.

In episode 14 of this podcast, titled “Begin with the End in Mind,” I go into detail about why goals are helpful for every creative, even if you are one of those creatives for whom goals feel too restrictive. If you’re struggling even thinking about the fact that you need goals to guide the growth of your artistic business, then I highly recommend that you pause this episode and go back and listen to that episode. I really think it will help you think of goals in a new way. Goals truly can focus and enhance your work. Setting goals is not a restrictive process. The goals that you develop for your business are your goals. They should be a unique reflection of who you are, both as a person and in the context of your work. Setting goals for your creative business is a freeing and empowering process, not a restrictive one.

All of that said, I do want to be upfront about one big problem with goals: goals by themselves are not enough. Specifically, goals without a larger purpose behind them will not help you. There has to be an underlying reason why you are pursuing a goal for you to benefit from the motivation that goals can provide.

On a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam interviewed Anthony Burrow, a psychologist at Cornell University. The entire episode is fascinating, so if you’re looking for a really good listen about motivation and purpose, I highly recommend it. But I want to share one specific moment from the episode with you.

In the interview, Dr. Burrow describes an experiment he conducted to try to quantify how motivating things like purpose and goals are. He asked volunteers in the experiment to climb a very steep hill and then rate how much effort the task took and how steep the hill was. But before they started their climb, he also asked the study participants to write about something. Some participants, the “control” group, just wrote about a movie they had seen. Other participants wrote about a goal they intended to accomplish after the climb, and still other participants wrote about their life purpose. For the study participants who wrote about their life purpose, their driving intention in life, they perceived the climb to be less difficult and the hill to be less steep. But for the participants who just wrote about a goal, something they planned to accomplish, the hill was steeper and the climb more difficult.

In other words, just thinking about a goal isn’t enough to help you overcome the obstacles in your path. You need to have a reason for doing the hard thing that goes beyond the hard thing itself. Your purpose, as it relates to your creative work, is the driving force behind why you do what you do. It provides the direction you need and helps you know where you’re going and why you want to get there. Your goals are actual steps that you take as you live out that purpose. The goals are the pathways that help you get there. But just having goals, just having a path, isn’t enough. With only a path, you could wander around and around in circles and never actually move closer to your intended destination. Goals have to be guided by a purpose to be meaningful. A purpose is what makes goals motivating.

Here are some examples of goals and purposes, to hopefully help you understand why they are so interconnected. Let’s say your goal is to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall. You work towards that goal and practice endlessly (after all, as the saying goes, the way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, practice), and you play that concert at Carnegie Hall. It’s a huge thrill! It’s wonderful! You achieved your goal! But you wake up the next morning … now what? The concert is over. Your goal is achieved. You’ve played at Carnegie Hall. The goal is done. “Carnegie Hall: check!” What comes next?

If you only had a goal and didn’t have a purpose behind it, that next morning is going to leave you floundering. You will have no idea what comes next or what to do now that this huge, driving goal in your life has been achieved. Without purpose, there is no logical next step after the completion of this huge goal.

But if you have a purpose behind that goal, your work still has meaning the day after that goal has been achieved. If your purpose is sharing beautiful music with your audience, that purpose doesn’t go away just because the goal of performing at Carnegie Hall has been achieved. The concert happened, and it was wonderful, and you absolutely take time to celebrate the achievement of such an incredible dream, and then you keep moving forward to find other ways to continue sharing beautiful music. Without a purpose, the goal of performing at Carnegie Hall is a dead end. With purpose, the goal of performing at Carnegie Hall is a beautiful, sparkling milestone on your journey through life as a performing musician. The purpose makes all the difference.

Here's another example of how purpose and goals work together, this one outside the world of creative entrepreneurship. Every two years, elite athletes from all over the world gather for the Olympic Games. In each event, a huge number of competitors participate. For example, in the track and field events in the 2020 Olympics (the ones that actually took place in 2021), 2,176 athletes competed in just 47 track and field events. That is a lot of athletes for not very many events! If each athlete competed in only one event each, that’s almost 50 participants per event, but especially in track and field, a lot of the athletes compete in multiple events, raising the competitive stakes even higher. And in each of those events, out of the mass of participants, only three will go home with medals. In other words, just statistically, the odds of an Olympic athlete going home with a medal are incredibly slim.

Every single athlete at the Olympics has the goal of winning one of those medals, preferably gold. But only one athlete in each event will get that gold, and only three athletes will get a medal at all. Inevitably, there are going to be athletes who go home from the Olympics not having achieved their goal of medaling in their event.

Let’s imagine an athlete who has focused all their time and energy on winning a medal, and who doesn’t have a deeper purpose behind their efforts. What happens if they don’t place in the top three? What happens if they come in 30th, or 10th, or (heartbreakingly!) 4th? I’ve obviously never been in that position myself – I am definitely not an Olympic athlete – but I can imagine the level of disappointment that athlete would face. If an athlete comes into the games with only the goal of medaling, lacking any larger purpose, and doesn’t end up leaving the games with a medal, the sense of failure would be overwhelming.

However, let’s say that same athlete still has the goal of medaling, but they also have a larger purpose behind their athletic work of being the best athlete they can be while also being a positive role model to the schoolchildren in their hometown, who attend their elementary school. That wider context to the goal changes everything. This athlete might not medal, but they can still give 100% of their effort and give the competition everything they have. They can still behave in a way that is a positive example for the people around them and the children looking up to them. If medaling in their event was a realistic goal for them and they fail to medal, of course there’s disappointment there. But the larger purpose behind the goal is still valid and still motivating, regardless of whether or not the goal itself is achieved. A purpose gives meaning to the entire process of pursuing a goal, from creating the goal to achieving the goal and everything in between, even when that goal ultimately eludes our grasp.

If you’re listening to me talk about the importance of having a purpose in your work and you have no idea what your purpose is as it relates to your creative business, I’ve got resources to help. Go back and listen to episode 13 of this podcast. That episode is titled “Finding Your Why,” and it walks you through the process of introspection and self-examination that will allow you to determine why your creative work matters to you. Goals are not an end unto themselves. Once you have a deep understanding of your purpose within your artistic work, your purpose combines with your goals and allows your goals to be a means for living out your purpose as it relates to your creative business.

Purpose is what allows goals to be meaningful and motivating, and thinking about your purpose as you craft your business strategy will make a huge difference to your likelihood of actually achieving your goals. But purpose is not enough on its own. There’s one more important thing to consider as you think about goals within your business: flexibility. You must stay flexible with your goals.

This should be good news for those of you out there who think that setting goals for your creative business will be restricting and confining. Au contraire, my creative friend. If you want your goals to be effective, you must stay flexible with them.

In October of 2021, I ran my first half marathon, which was an incredible experience, and right now I’m getting ready to run my 4th half marathon in just over two months. I have officially been bitten by the half marathon bug! It’s such a fun distance. I know that now, but back in 2021, I didn’t. I’d signed up for this race, and I had skin in the game – half marathons are expensive. But I didn’t have any lofty goals for myself with this race. As I was training for that first half marathon in the summer of 2021, my goal was simply to get across the line faster than they close the course. No speed demon aspirations for me!

I’d never run such a long distance before, and if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t completely sure I could do it. But I was determined to put in the effort and do the training, and I was going to make a sincere attempt. I had no illusions that I was going to be a fast half marathon finisher. The course closed at a 16 minute mile pace, and so my only goal was to get around the 13.1 miles of the course taking no more than 16 minutes per mile. I’d been training around a 13 minute mile on my longer training runs, so I figured I would probably be able to do much better than that 16 minute pace, but I also wasn’t counting on it. Finishing at a quicker pace would be nice, but truly, finishing faster than the course closed – at a 16 minute mile – was my only goal.

But even still, in September, about 6 weeks before race day, I came down with a really bad cold. It wasn’t covid, but this cold was nasty and just kept lingering and lingering. I lost 3 weeks of training. I had been feeling great for this half! After that training gap of three weeks without a single training run … not so much. I was no longer feeling so confident!

At that point, my goal shifted. The pace matter didn’t matter at all. Simply finishing became my goal. The marathon I was running, the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, does close the course at the 16 minute mile pace, but people who are slower than that aren’t made to quit or anything; they’re just moved up to the sidewalks so they can continue their way through the course from there. Even if I wasn’t going to be running in the road, I could run from the sidewalk and be just fine. When it seemed like my original goal was going to be out of my reach, I adjusted. I reset my goal to something that felt more achievable to me. It still felt like a stretch and it was still pushing me, but it was actually achievable. My larger purpose in running the race, of improving my fitness and attempting a new distance, would still be satisfied by my adjusted goal.

In this real-world example, there was definitely a happy ending. I ended up finishing that race in 2 hours and 56 minutes. I was not fast, by any means, but my mile average pace ended up working out to just under 13.5 minutes per mile. I shifted my goal because of those lost weeks of training when I was sick, which allowed me to continue working toward the adjusted goal with the confidence that I would be able to achieve it, and I still managed to achieve my original goal. It was pretty incredible and a wonderful example to myself that I can do hard things when I truly work toward them with consistency and determination. I’ve since run two more half marathons, loving every single second, and as I already mentioned, I’m getting ready for my fourth as we speak.

When you’re working with your goals, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Stay flexible and nimble as you think about what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. To continue the running analogy, if you’re running a 5K, and your goal in that 5K is to run your personal best, and you realize in the 2nd mile that it’s just not going to happen today, that you’re not feeling your best and aren’t going to be able to make that “personal best” threshold, you could give up – or you could shift your goal to something that you can achieve, perhaps to improve upon your most recent 5K time. This is still a goal that motivates you to keep running, even if it wasn’t your primary, starting goal.

If you’re an audiobook narrator, and if your goal is to record 80 pages on Monday, but your cat gets sick and has to go to the vet, or your child needs to be picked up from school, or you wake up with a headache, or you just can’t focus that day, shift your goal to recording 40 pages instead. This is still making progress and still moving the project forward, even if it’s not what you’d planned to do.

If you’re a musician, and your starting goal is to perform 60 concerts during a calendar year, but you realize halfway through the year that you’re not actually on track to meet that goal, allow the goal to shift to 45 or 50. You’re still sharing with audiences in a real and meaningful way, and you’re still gaining valuable performing experience and presenting exciting and innovative concerts, even if it’s not the “yearly number” total you’d initially hoped to achieve.

Sometimes we realize as we’re working that the goals we set for ourselves are goals we aren’t going to actually be able to achieve, but other times, we realize as we’re working toward those goals that they’re goals that we no longer want to achieve. They don’t actually serve us anymore. Maybe they fit when we were originally setting out our strategic plan, but they’re not working the way we’d intended or hoped for, and something needs to change. In that instance, staying flexible with your goals gives you the freedom to make adjustments, to modify a goal into one that actually serves you. Your goals are your goals. If something you had been working toward is no longer something that you want or need, give yourself permission to pivot that goal toward something that better fits where you are now.

When I’m coaching creative entrepreneurs individually or in my group workshop programs, I always recommend that they give a strategy or goal several months to see how it’s going to work before they make changes. Where you are in your business right now is a result of the work you did 3-6 months ago. It takes time for a new strategy to pay dividends. You can’t know immediately that a strategy you’re trying is or isn’t going to work. But if you’ve given a strategy a true try and can tell that either it isn’t going to work, or that it isn’t going to take you where you want to go, there is no shame in letting that strategy go. In fact, you should let that strategy go. Your goals should serve you, and if they don’t, it’s time to change the goals so that they do.

I am a huge fan of Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-American marathon runner who was the 2004 silver medalist in the marathon and who won the 2009 New York Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon. He wrote the book 26 Marathons (which I highly recommend!) about his process training for and running 26 marathons during his career. Meb’s story is a life lesson for everyone, runners and nonrunners alike, and as I was reading his book, I found a lot of parallels between the focus required for his life as an elite athlete and the discipline and continual improvement required for my life as a working artist. I’ll link his book in the show notes.  I want to share a brief passage from his book with you, one in which he talks about his process for creating what he calls “backup goals.”

“As a child I had chores such as fetching water or firewood. In the barren areas of Eritrea, it was often difficult to find all that we needed for daily life. I always set out with the goal of fulfilling my mother’s request, such as getting a full basket of firewood. But that wasn’t always possible. Sometimes I could find only enough to fill the bucket three-quarters full, or half full. I still worked as hard as I could to forage the next-best amount. Sometimes I couldn’t find any wood. Then I would switch to finding cow, oxen, or donkey dung for heating fuel. My mother knew that whatever I returned home with, I had given 110 percent but wasn’t always able to do what I had set out to do.

“Start with your dream outcome as your A goal. Then create a series of cascading backup goals that will also motivate you. When doing the task, try your absolute best to reach that dream goal. If it becomes obvious you won’t reach that goal that day, refocus on reaching your B goal. As necessary, continue to move through your goals so you keep working hard toward the best possible outcome rather than giving up.”

Meb Keflezighi, 26 Marathons

As you are thinking about your goals for your creative business, stay flexible and nimble. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you see that you aren’t going to achieve a goal you set for yourself within your business, don’t give up. Adjust! Look at what B goal you can set for yourself. Remember, change is a direction, not a destination. As long as your goals are moving you in the direction of your larger purpose, your goals will continue to be motivating and inspiring, even if they’re not the goals you originally set for yourself.

We’re just about to enter the 3rd month of this calendar year. If you took the time to put together a 2023 strategic plan for your business, I encourage you to take a look at it over the next few weeks, as the first quarter of this year draws to a close. Are there goals you had set up for yourself for the first part of the year that you aren’t going to achieve? I know for myself, in my own work, there are two goals specifically that I had set for myself at the end of 2022 and that I’d hoped to achieve in the first quarter of 2023 that aren’t going to happen. I’m in the process of adjusting those goals now. How about you? Do you have goals that aren’t going to make it to your “to done” list for the first quarter of 2023? Do you have goals that are going to get done, but that maybe aren’t taking you where you thought they would? The first quarter isn’t quite done yet – in fact, it’s only 2/3 of the way through, so you still have time to make adjustments that will give you that extra boost of motivation you need. How can you adjust that goal, that either doesn’t serve you anymore or that you aren’t going to achieve, to something will still motivate you to work and grow and strive, something that will still advance you toward your deeper purpose with your work?

If you keep your eyes focused not on the individual goals you set for yourself but rather on the larger purpose you have within your creative work, and if you stay flexible and adaptive with your goals as your work progresses, your strategic plan for your business will be a living, breathing document that guides and supports your creative work. It won’t hinder or restrain you at all. With purpose and flexibility, your business goals will help you to show up to every project on your calendar as your best artistic self.

Thank you so much for your time today. Goal setting for creative entrepreneurs is a topic that I am passionate about and that I love sharing with other artists. Thanks for taking the time to learn and grow with me. I hope this discussion helped broaden your understanding of how goals fit into your business and what they can do for you and for your work. If you have comments or feedback about this episode, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach out to me through my website, And if there’s something you’d like me to talk about in a future episode, write to me and let me know. I always love hearing from the creative entrepreneurs who are being inspired by this podcast. If you have any questions about my work within Starving Artist No More or if you’d like to learn more about my coaching and workshop programs, please reach out. I’m always excited to share and learn and grow with fellow creatives. Again, my website is

As always, I would deeply appreciate any ratings and reviews, and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast. Those things really make a difference in helping new listeners find this podcast. If you know any other creative entrepreneurs who might be helped by today’s episode, or any episode of this podcast, please pass it along. Sharing is caring!. Thanks again for spending this time with me. I hope this helped you better understand how purpose and flexibility can change the way you think about goal setting within your creative work. Goals truly can help move you in the direction of positive change. I can’t wait to see what you create.


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