If you’ve ever taken a dive into goal setting research—academic or otherwise—you’ve probably been told that your success hinges on your ability to get real with yourself.
When we say “get real”, we mean setting down-to-earth goals that you know you’re able to achieve.
This idea tends to be a core piece of popular goal setting models like “SMART,” which tells us our goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. And if you dig deeper, you’ll find that it’s a fact that has been verified by researchers on several occasions: If we set realistic goals, we’re more likely to achieve them.
We don’t believe that’s wrong. In fact, small, achievable goals are an important part of success. However, we do believe that telling people to only focus on “realistic” outcomes gives many people the wrong idea.
Many people might read that kind of research and walk away thinking that they should only set goals that they know they’ll be able to achieve. They treat big goals as a hot stove that will burn them if touched. As a result, their lives only ever amount to something that feels small.
Goals can be broken down into two components: activities and outcomes. The traditional approach doesn’t take into account this divide.
While the actions we take to achieve a specific outcome matter and should be realistic, it doesn’t mean that achieving an outcome shouldn’t serve some larger purpose—say, for instance, creating an opportunity to achieve something that was once unrealistic.
You see, it’s our belief that goals themselves aren’t realistic or unrealistic – the way we decide to approach them is.
Keep Your Eyes Up and Your Feet on the Ground
I’ve been a musician almost my entire life. I’ve dabbled in a ton of different instruments, including the piano. However, I’ve never had an official piano lesson.
If I set a goal of picking up where Mozart left off, surpassing him in both fame and the eyes of critics, and left it at that—I’d fail. I’d sit at a piano, look at all of the wonderful white and black keys, believe in all my heart that I’d make it sing, crack my knuckles, and watch my fingers clumsily crush my dreams one wrong note at a time.
When people talk about the importance of setting realistic goals—this is the problem they’re talking about. If we pit ourselves up against a mighty Goliath without the right tools to get the job done, we’re dead in the water.
But the lesson here shouldn’t be to refrain from setting a goal to take down a Goliath, it should be to set goals that will get us the tools we need to take down a Goliath.
We should never let what’s achievable determine what we want out of life, we should let what we want out of life determine what we set out to achieve.
Sure, I might not be Mozart now and I might not be able to turn into Mozart by tomorrow, but there’s no proof that I don’t have the capacity to get to that point someday—and the same goes for you, too.
“Big” goals aren’t our enemy. They’re our destination.
If you want to reach your full potential, you have to be willing to shoot for an unrealistic goal. The size of our lives is determined by the size of our goals. If we only ever set small, achievable goals, we’ll invariably only ever live a small life. We’ll be led in circles, trapped in what we know is available to us and will always be. We need larger goals to challenge us and guide our small goals so their success compounds into something greater.
Dream Big, Then Get Real
According Lorne Whitehead’s research, a single, two-inch domino has the capacity to topple over another domino that’s 1.5x its size. If you were to set up a chain of dominoes that were each sequentially larger than the other by 1.5x, toppling the first one over would set off a chain reaction that, by the 57th toppling, would generate enough energy to knock over a domino stretching the distance between the earth and the moon.
In The ONE Thing, we call this “The Domino Effect.” It shows us how small beginnings lead to big ends.
When we set our goals, we want them to set off a chain reaction where each goal we accomplish leads to an even greater opportunity. And if we maintain our sight on the end result of our chain reaction, we can align our smaller “achievable” goals, so they’ll generate enough power to help us accomplish that even bigger, “unrealistic” one.
The process we use to line up our dominoes is called Goal Setting to the Now. (Check it out by clicking here.) By beginning with our pie-in-the-sky aspirations or goals, this process breaks down the activities and outcomes that have to occur for us to achieve that goal from where we stand today.
For instance, if I want to reach my full potential, instead of just sitting down and “trying to be Mozart,” I should consider the second to last step I would need to take before that would be possible. Maybe that would be “Having access to a symphony.” From there, maybe “Writing a symphonic masterpiece.” And as I continue to walk backward, I’d eventually arrive at an immediately productive step like “sign up for my first piano lesson.”
At the end of the goal setting to the now process, I will have created a realistic path toward accomplishing an unrealistic goal.
Don’t be Afraid to Go for It!
Achieving your full potential comes from going after some pretty audacious goals.
The kind of drive and focus it takes to build a Fortune 500 company, win a gold medal, or solve some of the world’s most pressing problems doesn’t manifest itself by keeping our eyes on where we are. It comes from setting our sights on where we ultimately want to be.
As you begin your goal-setting journey, don’t be afraid to go big and don’t feel like you have to go at it alone! Join our community on Facebook and get plugged into a network of people who are setting big goals, just like you, and get the support you’ll need to see it through.