Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals

Should we or should we not set big, hairy, audacious goals where success is far from certain (at least without the benefit of hindsight)?

I for one am grateful for the existence of people who set big goals. My country (the USA) would not exist otherwise. Nor would my city, my family, our computers, the Internet, my breakfast, this Thanksgiving holiday, or the various freedoms I enjoy today. A number of people close to me would be dead if not for the existence and drive of “unrealistic” goal setters.

If you have a Hitler setting big goals and you don’t have an equally strong goal-setter like Winston Churchill on your side, well, … there won’t be much quo left in your status. Personally I’d rather see a lot more Winston Churchills or Mother Theresas or Stephen Hawkings out there trying and failing than none trying at all.

If you set a big goal and fail, you learn something. If you set a big goal and succeed, you gain the outcome of the goal, AND you learn something. If you don’t set a goal at all, you gain nothing and learn nothing. There’s nothing inherent to this process that is stressful or peace-reducing. To create such stress requires a particular way of thinking known as fear of failure (which unfortunately many people have been conditioned to believe). Working on big goals is like rolling a die: If it’s even, you win a little, and if it’s odd, you win a lot. If you don’t roll the die, you break even. Those are great odds to me, a bet worthy of being made frequently.

Another side to this is that most people underestimate what goals are truly “realistic” for them. Certainly some people overestimate their capabilities and fall flat on their face. But if you never overestimate your capabilities by occasionally setting a goal that’s beyond your ability to achieve, you never develop a good sense of your true capabilities — you never map out those edges — so you risk spending your whole life way below your capacity. And unfortunately this is what most people do.

An optimal strategy for investing in your life will include failure. Consider financial investing. If you adopt a strategy that 100% guarantees you’ll never lose money, will that be optimal in the long run? Not even close. In fact, since you couldn’t invest in anything because nothing is truly risk free, you wouldn’t earn any interest at all, so inflation alone would cause you to lose money. The same effect occurs in your physical body. If you never strain your muscles to push beyond their current capabilities, you won’t just stay at the same level of strength and not grow stronger — over time you will actually grow weaker.

And this is what happens to people who never push themselves to take on goals that truly challenge them. They grow mentally weaker over time, losing more and more of their capabilities.

Think back over your life for a moment and consider those times when you really challenged yourself, regardless of whether you successfully achieved the desired result or not. How would you be today if those experiences never happened? Would you be stronger or weaker?

Setting a goal and failing to achieve it doesn’t have to be regarded as some terrible thing to be avoided at all costs. In weight training failure is your goal for each session. Hitting the point of failure is ultimately what helps you grow stronger. A weight lifter doesn’t bemoan the event of hitting that limit, opting to stick with 10-lb weights indefinitely because 100 lbs is just too heavy. That would be silly. Similarly, don’t bemoan your own failures in life when you hit one of those weights you just can’t seem to lift. Simply take a step back and go after a slightly lighter weight for a while, and eventually you’ll be strong enough to heft that heavy one. Don’t conclude that just because you can’t currently lift a weight that’s too heavy for you (or achieve a goal that’s too challenging for you) that you’ll never be able to do it or that the whole process must be inherently stressful and disappointing. Learn to love the process itself.

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