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Touchstone 2024

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Every year around this time I reflect on my touchstone word of the year, and create a new one. Last year was “weaver”. This year will be… (keep reading to find out!)


STORY: Setting Goals and Intentions. What's the difference between a goal and an intention? How does that relate to a touchstone? And why bother creating them?

READ MORE: Additional Resources. Books, articles, and videos on visioning your way into 2024.

BOOK STUFF: Book Club and Book Update. Join me at 4PM PST next week Thursday, December 21, 2023 to discuss Better by Atul Gawande. And there's some news to share about the book I'm writing too!

GOING FURTHER: Free Intention Setting Workshop. And if seeing me once on the winter solsctice isn't enough, Tutti and I are also hosting a free workshop December 21st from noon to 1 pm PST where you can set your intention for 2024.

 

STORY: Setting Goals and Intentions


Every year, when I sit down to write this particular post, I wonder whether this whole intention setting thing is worth the effort. Questions like these run through my mind: What role, if any, does setting a goal or choosing an intention play? How do people make wishes come true (without a fairy godmother)? And most importantly, why bother being intentional? 


For those new to my circle, a touchstone is a single word to serve as my guidepost for the year. Jason Fox calls it a fuzzy contextual beacon. It’s a more expansive and more playful alternative to SMART goals, vision boards, strategic plans, and New Year’s resolution. It’s my intention for the year.



Well, way back in January of 2023, I wanted to publish a book on the science behind why we travel. I was even pretty far along in the process, all things considered, with three chapters and a book proposal ready to go out to literary agents. But writing a book is an insanely long, hard, agonizing process. “Many people have a book in them, but it takes a special kind of freak to leave the Land of Laziness, cross the Plains of Procrastination and Insecurity Mountain, Find the Blade of No One Made You Do This, and use it to cut your chest open and yank that book out.” (2022 Twitter post from Gabino Iglesias)  


Yup. That.


The reason I bother setting goals and intentions is that it’s the only way I know how to be that special kind of freak and get from the Land of Laziness to a book. Or to a PhD, a good relationship, a successful business, or whatever it is I want. 


Let’s clarify some terminology before proceeding any further. What’s the difference between goals and intentions?


Goals 


My GOAL for 2023: write a book and get it published.  


Goals are specific outcomes you want to achieve. Neuroscientist Elliot Berkman says, “a goal is a detour from the path of least resistance… [They] are usually things we want but have difficulty achieving, even when we know they are achievable.” Often, but not always, there’s a time frame (“by December 31, 2023”) and a way to measure progress. Your goal is the destination you are heading to, with sub-goal mile markers along the way: find a literary agent, sign with a publisher, and finish as much of the manuscript as possible by the end of 2023. 


There is quite a lot of science behind GOAL-setting. The neuroscience and research suggests that: 


  • Simple, specific goals are better than complicated ones. Our working memory, that part of our mind which stores plans for the future, has a severely limited capacity. Something simple like “write a book” or “$X in total assets” are better than an unwieldy, multi-tiered, 30-page strategic plan. And goals like “do your best,” or “be more creative,” are too vague to be actionable.

  • Exercising your strengths and passions is better than improving weaknesses or fixing faults. Focusing on problems activates the threat response, flooding your system with stress hormones and activating a brain area called the amygdala. That shuts down creative thinking. Instead, focusing on strengths and passions activates your dopamine system, the central neurochemical underlying motivated behavior. 


Intentions (aka Touchstones)

The thing is, goals only get you so far. Goals are analytical, intellectual things, situated in the cortex of the brain. Goals can also be dangerous. They’re end results that you might not achieve. They can be limiting.


GOALS are the what and when: Write a book. Get it published. 


INTENTIONS are the how and why: In 2023 my intention was to become a “weaver”. 


In contrast to a goal, an intention is qualitative versus quantitative. Heart-led desire versus head-led planning. Being versus doing. Intentions rise from the limbic system, where emotions come from, where the brain’s motivational system lies. I strongly prefer intentions to goals. 


In becoming a weaver, I saw myself weaving stories on paper and on stage, weaving communities around myself and others, and weaving ideas together with a science thread in every tapestry. I would accomplish my goal by taking individual strands of yarn – stories, people, ideas, roles, identities – and weave them together. That would help me be more authentic and integrated as a person, and more connected to the communities around me.


There’s great neuroscience and research behind the setting intentions as well:

  • Challenging intentions are better than easy ones. When you choose something inspirational and aspirational, it activates positive emotions like excitement, awe, pride, and joy. Generally, it’s best to avoid goals and intentions that have negative emotions like fear at the core. Although, anger is a special case of a negative emotion that can be powerful rocket fuel.

  • Self-determined intentions that activate new facets of your identity and core values work better than adopting goals others give you. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex in your brain lights up like a New Years fireworks finale when self-determination, identity, and your core values are involved, not so much when the thing you are aiming towards is someone else’s idea. Your ventromedial prefrontal cortex keeps you going, even when the going gets tough.

  • Flexible is better than fixed, especially when you are looking at a long-ish time scale like one year. The anterior cingulate cortex is the part of your brain where motivation, attention, and cognition meet. When the anterior cingulate cortex is damaged, animals and people struggle to flexibly shift their behavior to match changing environmental circumstances. With the anterior cingulate cortex, you can keep the larger big picture goal in sight, and continue moving forward towards it despite whatever crazy the Universe throws at you.


Why bother setting an intention?


The answer to the question, “why bother?” revealed itself when a dear friend of mine said that the thing she loved most about me was my intentionality. “It’s overwhelming and astonishing to see how with a good intention and her energy, what can be manifested. And then, when you are with Irene, she lends you her power in her intentionality for your benefit. Every time I have had a one on one encounter or been in a space with Irene, her attention is solely focused on me manifesting, on me grasping my power, on me intentionally putting into action what I didn't even know I had.” 🥹♥️🙏

I manifested all sorts of things by weaving. This year was full of books, blogs, columns, magazine articles, and speaking summits. I was both part of and the host of wonderful, inspiring groups. And best of all I really found my voice in a unique mashup of science, leadership, personal growth, and narrative storytelling. 


Although not all my goals were met (I wanted a complete draft of my book by year’s end and achieved only half that) I truly feel like I’ve woven so many aspects of my identity together and used that to spin stories and create webs of community. It’s been a great ride.


Enough musing about the past! No more suspense! Tell us your new touchstone Irene!


My touchstone word for 2024 is Alchemist.


I love the book, the Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I love that alchemy ultimately became chemistry in the 1700s (it’s a protoscience, not a pseudoscience). I love the Mirriam-Webster dictionary description of alchemy as “the power to transform things for the better, real or imagined.” 


Three Principles


“I encourage fellow Questers to identify three Principles to adopt for a year… If your Word serves as a kind of ‘North Star’, your Principles are like the constellations clustered around it. Your Principles are what you turn to when at a loss as to what to decide or do. Life dishes up plenty of perplexity, ambiguity, paradox and doubt in any given year… Your Principles ought be simple statements that evoke a certain quality of guidance, which in turn might influence the kinds of decisions you make in the year ahead.”


My three principles this year are three approaches to alchemy I plan to adopt.


  1. Science of transformation. To be honest, I think the word “transformation” is overused and a bit woo woo. But what if personal transformation could be approached scientifically? My tagline is “using science to help people thrive, not just survive.” And moving from merely surviving to truly thriving is one of the most extraordinary transformations possible. I’d love to smash together the science shelf of the bookstore with the personal growth shelf and see what comes of that. 

  2. Serendipitous mixtures. Did you know that gunpowder was most likely invented by Chinese alchemists looking for an elixir of eternal life? Or did you know that the alchemical experiments of Robert Boyle led to the fundamental scientific idea that all matter is made of irreducible units (atoms)? Unexpected discoveries happen when alchemists mix ideas together, or mix chemicals together. I think that if I play around mixing words (for my book), mixing sounds (for my podcast), or mixing coaching techniques (for my clients), all sorts of serendipitous discoveries might be possible. Alchemy just might be the key to my own creativity. 

  3. In flow with the Universe. In Paulo Coelho’s book, the main character is told: "when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true." I was thinking about this wisdom alongside Howard Thurman’s advice: “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I think that if my wishes align with what makes me come alive, then perhaps the Universe will conspire to make those wishes come true. The key to my own alchemy then, is to really deeply understand what makes me come alive, and go do that. 


So what’s your touchstone for the year? How might it make your wishes come true?



 

READ MORE: Additional Resources


Read the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s a light but profound folktale.


If intention setting isn’t your cup of tea, consider creating a vision board. It has the same limbic system activation as an intention, but may be better for visual learners.


This article about the neuroscience of goal setting by Elliot Berkman is surprisingly accessible. Check it out!


And if you want a TED talk that explains just how dangerous goals can be, and how an intention (what he calls a Possibility) is so much healthier, watch this by Emmanuel Acho.


 

BOOK STUFF: Book Club & Book Update


As a leader, I've always loved this saying, "what gets measured gets done." Well, since book club met in November, I've been doing a little experiment with my own life, exploring how I might create and maintain more spaciousness in the midst of a busy holiday season.


All of this is inspired by the book Better by Atul Gawande. We'll be sharing the results of our experiments at book club December 21, 4 pm PST, discussing insights from the book, and choosing the next read. Those who attend get to pick the next book so if you're interested in joining, please sign up HERE.


And in other news, I launched an author website because (drumroll please...) my literary agent has started pitching my book to publishers (woo hoo!!). You can find Irene as leadership coach at irenesalter.com and Irene as author at irenesalterbooks.com Please send prayers, blessings, wishes, and love to my amazing agent Kimberley Cameron as she matches my book with a publisher!


 

GOING FURTHER: Free Intention Setting Workshop


I’d love to invite you or someone you know to join me and my best friend, Tutti Taygerly, next week Thursday, December 21, from noon to 1:30 pm Pacific Time for an intention setting workshop! We’ll guide you through a process to create your 2024 touchstone. Give yourself the gift of intentionality this holiday season with this FREE workshop.







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