Sunday, December 27, 2015

Planning for Success

Before any of us were born there was a great council in heaven to plan for the earth on which we live, our mortal lives and our eventual exaltation. Planning, including setting and reaching goals, always has been and always will be an essential part of gospel living. Elder Ballard has famously taught that, “If we don’t set goals in our life and learn how to master the techniques of living to reach our goals, we can reach a ripe old age and look back on our life only to see that we reached but a small part of our full potential.”

Goals, plans and resolutions can be difficult to implement. We often begin like the people of Lehonti that summited a mountain to avoid unnecessary war: “fixed in [our] minds with a determined resolution” (Alma 47:6) to lose weight or read our scriptures or get out of debt. It seems like everything is going to go our way. This is the year we reach our goal!

And then the rationalizations start. Soon, we find ourselves willingly walking down the mountain… and into a trap.

We’ve all been there; but unlike Lehonti’s army we don’t have to stay there. If you’ve had trouble setting or keeping meaningful goals that help you excel in life, perhaps a return to the core principles of planning will help you find a more successful approach. Here are five keys to setting resolutions that are both extraordinary and reachable.

First, planning of any sort starts with a vision of what the future looks like. Proverbs teaches that “where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18). In case it isn’t obvious to you, breaking resolutions within three days counts as perishing—and it could just be because you haven’t thought about it enough.

Before you set a single goal, take time to dream. What will you look like if you lose that weight? How will you feel getting that big promotion? How will your demeanor change if you read your scriptures consistently? How will your relationships be if you make time for date night or playing with your kids? What would life be like with children that have been taught to be independent or the financial standing to retire and serve a mission?

Think about who you want to become and fall in love with that version of yourself. This is a critical step in the process—and often the most neglected. Goals are not expectations to live up to but possibilities to live into; just as God “created all things… spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5), we have to visualize our possibilities before we can make them reality.  Even if you don’t set any goals at all for a month or two months or three, make sure you can see the light at the end of your tunnel.

Next, with your vision in mind, you can begin developing plans to become your future self. If you are working toward a new career or a big promotion, what additional education or experience do you need? How will you change your diet or find more time to exercise to reach your fitness goals? When will you practice playing the guitar, speaking in public, hitting your golf ball into the fairway or cooking in a dutch oven?

No matter our goal, we should always have a plan that outlines how we will be successful. The oft-quoted axiom is true: failing to plan is planning to fail.

I learned this as a young missionary in Central Europe. Elder Perry was our area president and his office was ten steps across a parking lot from the stake center where many of our meetings were held. He loved to come to our meetings, even when he wasn’t scheduled to make an appearance, and he would always take the time to shake all of our hands.

While shaking hands, Elder Perry would often ask us about our plans: plans for our areas; plans for our missions; and plans for life after our missions. We learned quickly that “I’m not sure yet” wasn’t an acceptable answer. “Always have a plan,” he would say. Your plan may change from time to time, but always have a plan you are committed and working to achieve.

Our plans will likely include friends, family, coworkers and others upon whom we will rely to reach our vision. Life’s greatest successes and eternity’s greatest joys can only be reached by people working interdependently. You should identify your role in the plan and the role you will ask the people around you to play. Your role in whatever plan you conceive is your personal mission statement.

When you have laid out your vision and identified the major steps along the way, the third key to setting reachable resolutions is to begin to walk toward your goal. We don’t need to see every detail to start. Planning of any sort is a faith exercise. As we begin striving in the direction of our vision, the details will become clearer.

Like many students, I started college without a clear idea of what I wanted for a career. I first enrolled as a physics major. Then I decided to be a pilot. By my sophomore year I had decided to go to graduate school. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would go to medical school or business school or law school, but I knew I wanted to be a professional something. I chose to study economics because it was a rigorous study that would help me get into whatever graduate school I chose.

As an undergraduate student, I was often tempted to stray from the path I had chosen. The recreation management majors, after all, spent their days hiking and rafting, or at least I assumed they did; meanwhile, I was sitting in the library trying to figure out why the entire Greek alphabet was involved in my econometrics formulas. With the help of frequent prayers and a wife with more sense than I have, I managed to make it to my senior year studying economics. I still didn’t know what I was going to do for graduate school.

One day at church, an inspired conversation with a friend introduced me to a graduate program I hadn’t previously considered. I researched and applied to several programs, including one that I attended. Excellent advisors and mentors have helped me make wiser choices along the way and introduced me to the career field I have pursued.

Each decision along my path has taught me more about myself and clarified the details of my vision of the future. I still do not see every step along the way, but starting to walk down the path has helped me learn to discern opportunities that will move me toward my vision from distractions that would leave me wandering around the same metaphorical block or losing sight of my ultimate goals.

A vision, appropriate plans, and the faith to start walking are necessary but insufficient elements for long-term success. The fourth key to extraordinary and reachable resolutions is to identify our core values.

This summer, my family took a trip to New York State. We had never been before and talked excitedly for months about our visions of seeing Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty and the Hill Cumorah Pageant. As we began to plan however, we soon learned that it was just as important to plan our route as it was to plan the destinations we wanted to see. Did we want to take toll roads or drive around them? Was there a more efficient route that allowed us to see more? Where would we stop to sleep each night?

Our core values help us know which way to go when we face decisions in our lives. When traveling across New York, my family chose places to stay based on the safety, price and proximity to the attractions we wanted to see. These factors made it easier to decide when and where we would stop for the night. Your family may have chosen to stay somewhere with more amenities or an even lower price based on what is important to you. In the same way, our values help us know what decisions to make to get the outcomes we are seeking.

Of course, sometimes we make decisions that are inconsistent with our values. We stay in a dirty hotel even though we can’t stand it and end up not sleeping well. Or we buy something we think we want only to regret the purchase later. Explicitly identifying our core values helps us strategically and consciously improve our decisions so they can propel us toward our vision more effectively.

Because each of us is unique, explicitly stating our values only works if we are authentic to what is really important to us. This is not the place for aspirational statements. Values are not goals and the values we want but don’t yet have won’t help us.

As someone who does strategic planning for my organization for a living, I had tried more than once to develop a vision with a plan and stated values for my family—and more than once it had failed to catch on. My research for those plans indicated that faith, love, knowledge, opportunity and action were five values often stated in one way or another by families I admired. The trouble is, that’s not a very convincing argument for three kids ages five and under.

Looking closer at who we are as a family revealed that we are a family that values adventure. We are devout and family-oriented. We are independent and love to learn. Honestly, these values sound a lot like the ones I had researched, but the researched values were not personal or authentic to our family. Now when we come to a fork in the road, or even just want to find something to do for the weekend, we decide to do the adventurous thing—and we’re happier and making greater progress toward our family vision because of it.

Finally, we all must ultimately realize that success is not earned—it is given. The fifth key to successful resolutions is to trust completely in God and recognize his hand as the giver of life’s greatest successes.

In the Old Testament we read of a conflict between Gideon’s 32,000 men and 135,000 Midianites (Judges 7:1-3). Despite being desperately outnumbered, the Lord told Gideon, “The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me” (v. 2). Only after the Lord commanded Gideon’s army be reduced to a mere band of only 300 men—less than one percent of its original size and now outnumbered 400 to 1—did the Israelite soldiers trust enough in God to be victorious.

How would you pray if you knew the odds were stacked against you as they were against Gideon’s army? How would you converse with the Lord if you knew your life was on the line and it was impossible for you to save it yourself? If we will pray with that same earnestness, nothing will be impossible for us.

This is the same lesson the Lord taught the sons of Mosiah. After serving fourteen years as missionaries, Ammon celebrates their successes among the Lamanites. The key to their success is in verse 22 of Alma 26:

Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which have never been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls unto repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance (emphasis added).

Many of us talk about our goals as if we just need to try harder or muster more discipline or resolve; but muster as we may, how often do we set the same goal over and over and over again? Ammon did not earn his greatest successes and we will not earn ours. Our willpower alone is not enough. If it were, we would have already done the things we dream of doing.

Immediately following Moses’ death, Joshua became the new leader of the Israelites. He was uncertain about how to move forward. The Lord explained his vision for Joshua and taught him how to find success: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:8-9).

President Eyring has taught that we “need strength beyond ourselves to keep the commandments in whatever circumstance life brings us.” Like Ammon, we must recognize that we are “nothing” because “as to [our] strength [we are] weak” (Alma 26:12). Even the Savior withdrew from the multitudes at times to pray and receive strength from the angels of heaven (Luke 22:43). If we will do the same, the Lord will be with us always to give us success.

From the beginning the Lord has planned for our every success. He has a vision of what we can become. Through his prophets, he has taught us that “all human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 2010, 129). Each means all of us-- not collectively but rather every one of us individually-- have a divine destiny, or the potential to be like our Heavenly Father and live the life he lives. There are no exceptions. The Lord sees this glorious potential in you and in me.

He has been putting plans in place to help us reach that potential for eons. The Lord told Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). He planned the creation of the earth, the mortal life that teaches us to repent and serve God, and the opposition in all things that makes our choices meaningful and refines our judgment (Alma 42:4, 2 Nephi 2:11, Moses 3). He planned the families and dear friends that support us and the challenges that teach us valuable lessons. At the center of it all he planned a perfect atonement to pay for our sins and enhance our efforts (Mosiah 14). We shouted for joy in the premortal realm when we learned of the plan that made possible our immortality and eternal life (Job 38:7, Moses 1:39).

The values that guide our path back to Him are contained in His gospel. Faith, repentance, hope, charity, endurance and obedience help us see the straight and narrow path to our divine destiny. Temptations will surely come to stray from that path, but the more we rely on gospel values the brighter they shine and the clearer our vision of what the Lord has in store for us becomes.

Whether you envision a closer and more loving family, a healthier life, achievement in your professional life, or something else entirely, the Lord is anxious to bless us if we will begin walking toward our vision with faith. He has been planning our success for thousands, maybe millions of years and he delights in our progress. If we will rely on him, he will fight our toughest battles. He will go before our face, he will be on our right hand and on our left, his spirit will be in our hearts and his angels will be round about us to bear us up (D&C 84:88).

Through faithful planning we can reach a ripe old age and look back to find we’ve walked a great deal of the path toward our potential. We can prepare to return to live with our Heavenly Father again. And we can succeed in whatever resolution we pursue. 

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