• Joe Cooke


A trio of nerdy business people came up with the SMART acronym way back in 1981. It’s not magic, and I figure I’m at least as nerdy now as they were then, so I have a different acronym for the new millennium. Forget SMART goals; adopt Motivating, Aligned, Deadline-driven, Ambitious, and Focused (MADAF) goals instead.


Goals that are motivating are meaningful; when you get up in the morning, are you enthusiastic? Are you looking forward to making progress?

Let’s say you are heavily in debt, you hate your job, and you are overweight. Or maybe you don’t have any debt, but you don’t have any income either, and you’re severely underweight and out of shape. Maybe you have a great job but you really, really want to be doing something else, or living somewhere else. Maybe you are sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time, or maybe you have achieved some success but you feel stuck. In other words, you are Mad As F**k and ready for a change. Someone mentions network marketing to you, and although it sounds like a good idea, the thought of going out and selling a scheme to your friends kind of makes you throw up in your mouth. That’s not going to motivate you to get up in the morning and hop to it.

Another friend mentions the idea of creating jewelry and selling it at craft shows. Nope. Not ambitious enough. You could focus on that, but it probably won’t solve your financial problems. In fact, it will take time and effort and resources that will most likely lead you in the wrong direction.

You do some soul-searching and decide that your greatest desire is to write a screenplay. Okay. Does that get you out of bed in the morning? Are you willing to give up mindless TV watching and other time-wasters? Are you willing to give it everything? Most of all, are you willing to pursue your dream for years and years, even if you fail repeatedly? Do you feel driven to tell a story and see your work someday on the big screen? Will you be proud of your efforts even if that never happens?

If you answered yes to all those, you may have a motivating goal.

That’s not to say making jewelry can’t be motivational. I have a friend whose designs were worn in the Harry Potter movies. I’m also not specifically implying that a network marketing company couldn’t be motivational. It might be for certain people. The point is to find something you are passionate about and then to do that with all your heart. At the same time, you may be working a day job, waitressing, bookkeeping, cleaning, loading boxes, teaching, or any number of non-dream jobs while you also work toward your dream.

Also, sometimes we have to take a break – usually when our bodies (or minds) get sick. You may just have to spend some time not working on your dreams. That’s part of life, too. When that happens, you may only be able to play cards or watch TV. Have patience. Wait it out. Sometimes that’s part of the journey to a better life.

Even so, motivating goals make all the obstacles and waiting worth it. Finding your passion if you haven’t identified it yet is the subject of a whole other post.


Goals that are in alignment all work together toward a set of specific outcomes.

Back to getting out of debt. Selling a screenplay would be in alignment with that goal. But going on vacation in Hawaii before you are debt free is not in alignment with getting out of debt. You can have goals that are out of alignment with each other, but achieving them becomes more and more difficult as they work against each other. You could make your dream vacation a reward for getting out of debt, staying that way, and saving up enough money to pay cash and not dip in to any reserves. You could make your goal to get out of debt AND save up enough for the trip to Hawaii. And selling a screenplay could be your ticket to both of those goals.


Goals that are deadline-driven create a tension, like a giant rubber band that pulls you onward.

SMART goals have a time-bound component to them (the T). They are also Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Realistic. All of that is fine, except they can also be pretty boring. Dream-Stealers will tell you to be Realistic. “You think you can write a screenplay? Be realistic.” I say, be AMBITIOUS. But also, set yourself a goal, and not, “Before I die.” Set a deadline, like: “I will finish a screenplay by March 31st of this year.” Then ask yourself what steps you need to take to do that, and THEN assess whether you could realistically achieve that goal in that amount of time. Adjust the deadline before you adjust the goal.

Many people set a goal with a deadline, creating a great deal of tension in their lives, but instead of holding that tension, they give up on the goal. The tension can pull you forward, toward the goal, if you just let it. Hold a rubber band between your hands. Let your left hand be current reality, and your right hand be your dream. What happens if you relax your right hand and let it drift toward the left? You have just adjusted your dream downward. What happens if you hold the tension, and just keep holding it, concentrating on your right hand? Eventually, your left hand will move toward your right, in the direction of your dreams. Let go of reality, not your dream.


Goals that are ambitious push you beyond your comfort zone. Also, if you fall short of an ambitious goal, you still hit a pretty amazing target, and more often than not, you will overshoot your goal and amaze yourself. Most of us tend to underestimate our abilities and potential.

Whenever Katie and I are kicking back and enjoying our success, we say to each other and to ourselves, “We arranged our lives to be this way.” It’s a good reminder of our own ability to achieve more than we thought we could, as well as a reminder that we made this happen. Also, this little affirmation works when your life is not the way you want it to be. Yet. You may say, “yeah, but life happens…” Yep. Hold that thought until the last section on “The final ingredient.”

Remember that although Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” the more modern rendition of that is, “the unlived life is not worth examining.” Don’t be content to merely suffer one of Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Set big goals that benefit humankind and then go for them with all your heart.


Focused goals are highly specific and consistent.

Are your goals the same over time? Are they the same this month as last? Are they the same this year as last? Until you achieve a goal, if it is changing, you are wandering all over the place. Certainly if a strategy is not working, you should change it, but if your goal last year was to move to a new town, but this year you have decided to stay, and next year you think you want to move again, you lack focus. Maybe you should make a decision and then work toward that end single-mindedly. Daniel Goleman has a great book on focus called, FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Focused goals are also clear in your mind. If you’ve decided you want something and you’ll go to any length to get it, then focus on it. Commit to it, and imagine it. FEEL it already accomplished. Use affirmations and visualization and DON’T STOP. Be prepared to do this for YEARS and also don’t be surprised when all of a sudden you have achieved your goal. When you do, don’t forget to celebrate.

Focus on making consistent progress.

I have my MADAF goals on a 5.2 square foot post it note on my wall in front of my desk, and in red Sharpie I wrote that reminder – “focus on making consistent progress”. I learned this way back in the days of SMART goals, when I was intent on earning my CPA along with a masters degree in taxation and a law degree (J.D.). I took a plain white business card and printed Joe Cooke, CPA , MT, JD on it in bold letters and taped it to my bathroom mirror and it stayed there. I looked at it every day, but really, it was the actions I took that accomplished the goal. I worked during the day, went to class at night, studied on the weekends, took breaks when I had to, stumbled a few times (like the time I broke my knee in a car accident, but still came to class all bunged up and bruised.)

There is magic in the trifecta of focus, patience, and persistence. Stay on task, consistently. Don’t expect success without work and time. Never give up, no matter what. It took me 15 years to get my CPA MT JD, and it took us over five years to turn Willow School, designed to reach out to the most at-risk kids in our community, from an idea to reality. During that time we had to fight the legislature, teachers unions, and even the state Supreme Court, and then something even harder tripped us up.

The final ingredient

That’s the final ingredient: dumb, blind luck. Call it chance, call it fate, call it karma, whatever. Shit happens.

Katie and I were having one of the most amazing years of our collective careers when disaster struck us. We’d just gotten married, bought our first house together, I was working on a textbook, teaching, and consulting, and we were in the final stages creating Willow. The state Supreme Court had overturned the law the day before we signed a five-year lease on a huge building, so we had to lobby for a new law and then, when it passed, we had to find a new building. But despite some pretty big players that saw things differently than we did, we had a lot of supporters, including people like Bill Gates who invested millions of dollars in our project. Personally, we were fit and strong and active and better off financially than we’d ever been. They weren’t exactly halcyon days, because we were working harder than ever, but we were accomplishing more than we’d ever accomplished before.

But at the end of that year I was getting exhausted and dizzy during the day. I thought it was a virus or sleep apnea, but it turned out I’d been developing bone marrow cancer and it took me completely out of play for two years. TWO YEARS. Most of that time now is just a fuzzy, faded blur. Fifteen weeks of chemotherapy to prepare me for a stem cell transplant that involved wiping out my bone marrow completely, leaving me susceptible to just about everything and weak as a baby. After three months of recovery just to be able to be around people again, I caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. I’m making a short story long – you can read all about it in our book that we compiled from our blogs. Anyway, it’s a long, slogging road to recovery – not just physical, but mental and financial as well. Cancer was a train wreck for us, but here we are, picking ourselves us, dusting off our tattered dreams, and starting over. It took a lot of patience, this waiting to feel better. I still have nausea and I’m tired a lot, and the cancer is in remission but there is no cure. And? Cancer was a great gift as well as a terrible tumble. We were climbing a mountain, nearing a crest, skipping along merrily, and then boom. We were beaten and bruised in the bottom of a valley. I was so weak after cancer treatment that my physical recovery started by walking to the mailbox, and then around the block, and then around two blocks. A year after stem cell transplant, I’m skiing again and walking the dog every day in the arroyos behind our house.

We got the charter school launched and turned over to a new leadership team. We moved to the mountains to heal. I’m writing again—in fact, I just finished two books in the last three months and I’m working on a third. One page at a time, one day at a time. I had a lot of time to plot and think and to integrate this new experience into my creative being.

The point? Luck will just blind side you.

Oh – one more thing about luck. Katie and I have been playing a lot of cards, mostly 500 Rummy, as we waited for my body and brain to heal up enough to start working again. She’s better than me at strategy, especially when my brain is foggy, but both of us being steeped in statistical theory, her as a sociologist and me as an economist, we developed this theory that chance, over the long run, would even out good luck and bad.

So, instead of playing to 500, we decided to track the winds of fate longitudinally. Of course I fell behind by an egregious margin early on, but over time, the nominal deficit stayed about the same, becoming lesser and lesser in terms of percentage, and for a while I had a string of exceedingly good luck that more than offset my initial bad luck.

That’s how things work. Luck is fairly neutral in the long run. So, you get in there, you play the game, and you have some good days and some not-so-good days. But MADAF goals keep you going, through the ups and downs, and the more you play the game, the better you get at it.

And guess what follows, eventually, a string of bad luck or no luck?

Yep. Good luck. It’s inevitable, but the only way to experience it is to play the game. Skeptical? Then prove me wrong. Get out there and pursue your dreams relentlessly, no matter what, and then report back to me about how MADAF goals don’t work. I look forward to it.

Good luck!

A few future topics on the path to meaningful personal accomplishment:

  • What is meaningful personal accomplishment?

  • What to do if you are just too exhausted at the end of the day to work on the future.

  • Finding your passion.

  • The secret power of letting go.

  • If you aren’t working your plan, you’re working someone else’s.

  • Developing courage, truth, and honor.

  • The values of fidelity, discipline, and hospitality.

  • Self-reliance, industriousness (productivity), and perseverance.

  • Overcoming gumption traps that keep you stuck.

  • Gratitude and taking control of your thoughts.

Watch for these posts and more as I reboot my writing life now that my bone marrow has been rebooted.

Someone re-posted this meme on social media just as I was writing this post, and I thought it was appropriate:

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