Move the Goal Post and Declare Victory


The moment I won my panel interview was the moment I discussed losing. The question was, “What do you do when you can’t achieve a goal for reasons outside your control?” My hands had been ever-so-slightly sweaty throughout the previous hour. I tried to hide it with a pleasant expression, but frankly my nerves often get the best of me. At this question, however, I could finally relax and speak from the heart. We’d arrived at a topic familiar to my soul. When you can’t succeed despite your best efforts…

Move the goal post and declare victory.

Move the goal post and declare victory may be the best advice ever given to me by a professor. I was in my first mediation course learning how to resolve disputes so that all parties can accept the outcome and move forward in their lives. A critical component of this work is helping people proceed with a settlement that diverges from their original vision. Often, people arrive at the negotiating table with a rigid position and resist moving towards an agreement. However, a skillful mediator helps parties retain what’s critical and release what isn’t in order to move beyond a difficult situation.

For example, a divorcing spouse may think a 60-40 property settlement means success. However, a mediator may get the spouse to see that she can retain nearly 100% of the items that matter to her in a 50-50 settlement. While the spouse failed to reach the goal of a 60-40 division of property, getting all the things you really want is worth a declaration of victory.

In government work, moving the goal post and declaring victory is an incredibly valuable skill because success can be thwarted in myriad ways outside your control. We work hard, then funding gets cut. We work hard, then senior management decides to go a different direction. We work hard, then we can’t get approval from community stake-holders. We work hard, then Congress changes the law. We work hard, then there’s a new administration with a new agenda. Despite hard work success might not be a viable option, so it becomes important to move on without feeling like your job is a never-ending series of failures.

But, just how do you move the goal post and declare victory?

  1. Accept Reality: If you break your ankle the week before the Marine Corps Marathon, you aren’t running. The quickest way towards eventual success is accepting things just as they are now by realizing that achievement of your initial goal is beyond your current reach.
  2. Redefine Success: With your broken ankle you aren’t crossing the finish line of that marathon, but what did go right? What did you do along the way to achieve your goal? Victory might be sticking to your training plan for months and being in the best shape of your life. This is more than just a positive spin on a bad situation, it is a thorough analysis of what’s been learned and gained, despite the failure to achieve the original goal.
  3. Declare It: While you don’t always need to go public with your claim of victory, feel it in your soul and have your company line ready if asked about your apparent defeat. When someone inquires about a cancelled project, be ready with the truth which might sound something like, “the team did a fantastic job working together in the planning phases before an alternate project was approved for funding. We reached an internal goal of achieving team unity, and we look forward to working together on the next project.”
  4. Move On: Your journey doesn’t end when you declare victory; there is always a new hill to climb. Take what you’ve learned and keep going. You may reach your initial goal eventually or you may find yourself achieving something else entirely.

As I sat in that interview, moving the goal post and declaring victory was about accepting that my career was not a blazing success…yet. I was an achiever (or maybe overachiever) in high school, graduated from college with honors, and earned a full academic scholarship to law school where I earned accolades in my chosen field of study, alternative dispute resolution. Despite a lengthy record of academic success, I had little career to speak of as I sat in that interview. There were no relevant public sector opportunities upon my law school graduation and private mediation practice in my state required ten years experience as an attorney before accreditation. So, I slowly began to accrue those ten years of law practice. I also began a family and eventually took time away from my career to raise my young children. I realized that while my dispute resolution career didn’t match my vision, my overall life exceeded my expectations. I had a law degree, a specialization I was passionate about, a job as an attorney, and a wonderful family all before I turned thirty. Even if I hadn’t succeeded in the way I thought I would, I declared victory on my life.

I was also able to declare victory after the interview. I got the job and with it came the other measures of career success I had been aiming for all along. One of my interviewers is now my Senior Leader. She still reminds me of my statement and has espoused it as a model for how to move forward after set-backs. When you can’t succeed, move the goal post and declare victory!

Krista J. Roche is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Katarina Hong

Thank you for sharing your story on victory! I truly enjoyed reading this post and your tips on moving the goal post and declaring victory. It’s something I will definitely keep in mind.

Sonia Chakrabarty

This is great actionable advice for all aspects of life. I know I can use these tips every day. Thank you for sharing!