Charting My Course

Apr 29, 2010 |Rachel Starr Thomson
Charting My Course

It had been many years since we'd talked about values and dreams and plans and goals. It was time for a refresher.  

Picture an old-fashioned living room with wooden beams across the ceiling, a stone fireplace, and a baby grand piano in the corner. Couches line three walls, and upon them, sitting, sprawling and in various states of attention, are children ranging in age from 6 to 26. Blankets wrap around our shoulders; cups of tea steam in our hands. Before us stands my father, poised at his whiteboard with a marker.

Thomson family meetings were a mainstay of my growing-up years. As I still live at home, I still take part in them. In our meetings, we discuss life. We talk about goals and finances and dreams. We are forced to think about what matters to us and where we want to go.

When I was quite young, my father got his first Franklin Planner and learned the Franklin-Covey system of goal setting. Adding dimensions and convictions of his own, Dad faithfully taught us what he had learned, even when we were 9 years old and responded to questions like "What are your core values?" by blinking in confusion. At the time, we didn't think most of it stuck. Now, we realize it did — and it's made a big difference in all our lives.

In 2009 Dad realized it had been many years since we'd talked about values and dreams and plans and goals, and it was time for a refresher. So back we all gathered, notebooks and pencils poised, and looked up at that whiteboard once more.

Defining What Matters Most

In the Franklin-Covey system, goal-setters are urged to start out by identifying their "core values." In other words, identify what matters most to you. Otherwise, you're liable to spend your whole life tied up in urgent trivialities.

Core values include things within (integrity, honesty or compassion) and things without (family, friendship, relationship with God). Defining them means thinking and praying long and hard about who you want to be, about what you truly value. And like so many things in life, thinking more clearly about your core values will allow you to act on them more consistently.

For example, one of my core values is to glorify God. I further defined that: "To glorify God is to share the gospel, extol His virtue, and reveal His character to others." What does that look like practically? For me, it means involvement in the arts, active promotion of biblical literacy, and discipleship. This core value would take different practical dimensions for different people, but these areas line up with my gifts and are extremely important to me.

In Matthew 25:14-28, Jesus told the story of a man who entrusted three servants with differing amounts of money — "talents," as they were called:

The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

When the master returned, those who had put their talents to use — even though they had risked something in doing so — were praised and rewarded. The man who had simply hidden his talent was judged wicked and lazy.

In a sense, identifying our core values is about recognizing what God has given us so we can put it to practical use. Knowing what matters most ensures that we'll actually invest our lives, not just bury them in meaningless pursuits.

Building On What Matters Most

Obviously, core values are very broad. You can't write "have integrity" or "glorify God" on a daily to-do list. The next step is defining what Dad calls "dreams" — the clear vision of where you want to go. I divided my dreams into "Who" and "What" sections, one for who I want to be inwardly and the other for outward things like finances, housing and activities.

For a long time I resisted defining my dreams. I said I just wanted God to direct me, day-by-day, and I felt it was insulting His sovereignty to lay out ideas of my own. Two things have changed my perspective. One is the realization that dreams can and will change with maturity and as the callings of God become clearer in my life. The other is an understanding that God, who gave me the gift of choice, wants me to use it.

I can't determine where I'll end up, of course, but God gives me wisdom and desires for a reason. Like the men in the parable of the talents, I need to take some risks. Whether I bury or invest the talent is up to me. The increase will depend on God.

Last year, Dad urged us all to spend time praying, even fasting, over our dreams. "Real dreams are something on which you and God agree," he said. "If you want something God doesn't want for you, it's not a dream; it's an illusion. You could write 'Have a yacht and spend my life watching TV' as your dream, but God isn't going to be in that. It might even make you happy for a while, but you'll be wasting your life."

So I did. And I wrote out dreams that have to do with ministry, with what I want people to remember about me when I'm gone, with the impact I want to have had on the world. I wrote out dreams for my finances and my future home. I wrote out dreams for my career and my character. And I laid it all out before God and asked Him to mold my dreams and to bring to pass all that pleases Him.

Dreams are the first part of building on core values. What comes next are plans, practical steps to achieving your dreams. Plans are concrete. They have deadlines. If my dream is to walk closely with God, my plan should include things like daily Bible study, prayer and service. If my dream is to support myself by writing, I need plans that look like this:

Have a book traditionally published by [Date]. Write X articles per year. Break into X new markets per year.

You get the idea. Plans force us to get serious about our dreams, to evaluate whether we're just building castles in the air or making real changes in our lives.

Walking Out What Matters Most

Plans further break down into goals and to-do lists. To make a plan happen, goals are necessary. Again, these have deadlines, and they're concrete. If my plan is "have a book traditionally published" by a certain date, my goals will tell me when I'm going to write that book, how long it will take me to revise it, and when I'm going to research agents and publishers and start querying.

(To tie this all the way back to the beginning, my core values will determine what that book is about — in some way, its content will reflect what matters most.)

Finally, the lowly to-do list is the daily manifestation of my goals. I want to write an 80,000-word book in three months, so I need to write just over 1,000 words per day. I want to grow closer to the Lord, so my to-do list includes set prayer and study times. To have a new production ready for our performing arts group by the summer, my daily to-do lists include listening to music, writing narrations, praying over the direction of the production, or making props.

None of this is meant to be rigid or inflexible. For years I thought that trying to dream, plan or schedule my life was somehow not very Christian. But I've learned that just as a to-do list keeps me moving through the day, defining what matters most and mapping out ways to live it keeps me moving through life. It helps me in the battle against sloth and inertia, keeps me passionate about life, and inspires me to constantly seek God and learn what He wants for me.

Dad held a whole series of family meetings on these topics last year. When we finished, the youngest among us went away blinking in confusion, somewhat overwhelmed, but having taken in information that will be helpful one day. We older ones went off to think over our lives, to mull and pray and determine where we want to invest our talents.

The outcome is still in God's hands. But I pray He'll find us doing all we can to be faithful, relying on Him all the more as we find we can do nothing without Him, and making passionate and fruitful use of the gifts He has given us.

Copyright 2010 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.

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