“Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.”
~ Clement Stone, rich guy (1902-2002)
I have always been a goal-oriented self-motivator, and use to love these types of “aim high” quotes. After all, it seems only logical that if you strive to achieve lofty goals, you will end up in a good position, even if you fail to achieve them.
Aiming high led me to excel in sports where, beginning at the age of 13, I would swim upwards of 12 miles per day. Aiming high led me to excel in academics where, after swimming practice, I would come home to crack the books for several hours each night.
And truth be told, all that hard work paid off. At 13, I became the second fastest 200-meter breaststroker in the country for my age group. By 16, I had won multiple state titles in Pennsylvania high school swimming. I graduated high school with a 4.4 GPA, 1420 SATs, and got accepted into the most exclusive undergraduate business program in the country. (insert self-back-patting motion here)
So, why the hell would I be writing a post entitled “Lowering the Bar”?
Simply, because there are a few problems with setting lofty long-term goals:
1. Inertia – The moon feels a million miles away, and that can be an easy excuse not to start. Sure, you can aim for the moon, but unless you pull the trigger – good aim is meaningless. So yes, we immortalize this quote by Clement Stone who took $100 and turned it into a multi-billion dollar insurance empire, but nobody talks about the quotes uttered by the hordes of people who heard his quote and wanted to follow suit only to quit before they started. Quotes like:
“Make a million dollars, how the hell will I do THAT?!”
~ Nate Daniels, chronic freeloader
“Lose 15 lbs, that’s going to take a shit-ton of work!”
~ Julie Chambers, fat lady
“Become the next Jimmy Hendrix? I can’t even press the strings without hurting my fingers!”
~ Bluto Jones, guitar smasher
People often TALK about shooting for the moon, but rarely take the shot.
2. False Advertising – How good does it REALLY feel to hit the moon? In fact, how good does it REALLY feel to experience most things that we fantasize about? I can tell you from experience that the payoff is fleeting. The high that comes from a state title in athletics wears off over the course of a weekend. The buzz from getting a promotion at work only lasts for a few days. Heck, even the pleasure that comes from eating a piece of cake drops off around the fifth bite.
The fact is that we spend large chunks of our lives salivating over mirages of future bliss. When we finally get close to them, they disappear in front of our eyes, and we’re left with an unquenched thirst and sand in our crack. Then soon after, the next mirage appears and we’re back off to the races.
3. Hefty Price – There is a cost-benefit trade off to everything in life, and these fleeting glimpses of euphoria that result from achieving difficult long-term goals come at long-term costs. Anytime you fully commit your heart-and-soul to something far-off in the future, and once you are unwilling to waver from the pursuit of it – you become rigid. When you become rigid, you’re canceling out a thousand other potential (better) outcomes for your life, all in pursuit of some fleeting payoff down the road.
Yes, as a society we celebrate results. Magazine articles are written about famous people, rich people, famous inventors, and other men who leave their mark for generations to come. But at the end of the road, when you’re breathing your last breathe, are you really going to regret not making that million dollars or inventing that robotic heart? Or, are you more likely to wish that you had paid a little more attention to your children while they were young or took more time to enjoy each day?
We can avoid these three problems associated with lofty long-term goals by:
1. Being Nearsighted - Some call it “chunking”. Some call it “just for today”. Some call it “being incremental”. I say, become nearsighted. Don’t set out to run a marathon by 2015, just set out to get your ass off the couch and have your running shoes on in the next 10 minutes. Don’t plan to have your doctorate by 2020, just go buy a G.E.D. book this afternoon and read a chapter before you go to sleep tonight. Don’t plan on making a million dollars by the time you’re 40, just plan on doing the best you can possibly do at your job when you drive to work today.
2. Being Flexible – If new information arises, if conflicting opportunities present themselves, if your gut is telling you that your passions have shifted, do not be afraid to change course. More importantly, don’t beat yourself up about your decision to do so. Take breaks. Enjoy the moment. Slack off sometimes.
3. Celebrating Mediocrity – If you fail at one of your short-term goals, make sure to focus on the lessons you learned – perhaps you try again and perhaps you don’t. But realize that your worth as a person is not dictated by your achievement or lack of achievement of these specific goals. You are OK as you are right now. The sooner you grasp that fact, the sooner you can stop obsessing over potential future realities, and enjoy the present reality you’re sitting in.
It’s important to note that there’s a delicate balance between self-acceptance and self-improvement. Taken to an extreme, the concept of self-acceptance might be used to justify unhealthy complacency. Taken to the other extreme, the concept of self-improvement might be used to justify unhealthy perfectionism. Stay somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
4. Setting the Right Goals – Of course everything that I’ve said here is based on the premise that most people have shitty goals. Society has programmed us to pursue goals like: how much money we should make, what type of house we should live in, what type of car we should drive, what type of job we should have, how our bodies should look, and what type of notoriety or accolades we should receive from our peers.
Our society is perpetually stuck in the 7th grade folks. I need to be periodically reminded of this fact because I too drank the Cool-Aid somewhere along the way.
Some people reading this might say something like “Derek, I already know all this. My goals are things like: providing security for my family, pursuing financial freedom, building-up those around me, savoring each moment, and making the world a better place.”
If you are one of those people, this post doesn’t apply to you. Keep up the good work, pursue those goals FIERCELY, and please share your wisdom with those around you.