I tell my students that they only need one goal in life: Don't Quit.
This advice comes from personal experience. The only way I can maintain physical fitness is to run. But I have a love/hate relationship with running. It can be boring and difficult, especially in hot, humid DC summers. When I first started running I couldn't run more than a quarter mile without needing to stop. It took me several more months of persistent work to be able to run a marathon. Through it all I had only one goal: don't quit. It didn't matter how many times nine year olds lapped me on the track, as long as I improved my time by just a few seconds.
If you don't quit you make determination, persistence and gradual improvement your allies. I confess that there were times when I just wanted to put everything on hold. Sometimes, progress was so gradual that I couldn't see the future as being any better than the present. Yet every moment that I came close to giving up, something held me back. I couldn't give in to simply letting all my progress go.
Thinking this way has immense benefits (just ask Jerry Seinfeld). We spend so much of our lives worrying about all the other goals in life that we forget about the most important one: the journey.
We give up after achieving artificial milestones: studies find that people often stop running regularly after completing a race. And we stress out about the huge goals we set for ourselves, without considering that committing to the journey is more important than obsessing over the destination. For instance, Americans ritually stress out about achieving their New Years' resolutions but just 8% of them ever end up achieving their goals.
If your overarching goal is not to give up then achieving your other priorities becomes easier. As long as you don't quit, your other milestones - how fast you ran that last 5k, or whether you got a B- instead of an A+ - become less important: you know you'll achieve the goal next time, or in some other way, as long as you remain committed to moving forward.
When I bring this up in class, I sometimes get confused looks and questions. Can't quitting be healthy or necessary? What about quitting a job someone doesn't like? Shouldn't people quit smoking? When I say don't quit - I'm focusing more on the mindset and less on the action. If your goal is to have a fulfilling career, then "quitting" an unfulfilling job actually furthers your goal. But staying in that job because you've given up - that's quitting. Even the person who continually plans on leaving their miserable job (but never does) hasn't quit.
A good strategy for not quitting is to reframe how you think about your goals as a continuum rather than as concrete actions. A setback is pause in a longer journey. Stopping because of a setback is one of the worst things you can do. Focus instead on a commitment to moving forward and learning.
So as the new school year starts and as we get back from our vacations ready to work ... remember to never quit.