When I was young, I wanted to go to Harvard. I don’t know why or how the idea got in my head, but it did. I knew Harvard was a prestigious place where all the smartest people went.
Well, that sounds good to me, I thought.
I didn’t take into account all the other things in life that makes going to Harvard possible. At a minimum, not only do you have to be exceptionally gifted academically, in most cases you’ll also need lots of money and a heavy helping of luck.
Other things can help, like having opportunity and educational advantages. You’ll need to maintain your excellence in academia for at least four years. Hopefully, when you were younger, you built great skills and habits to last you through times when morale and motivation are low.
Point is, there’s a lot to success at such high levels. There’s a lot of success at any level.
But more importantly: When I reached high school and learned that my dream was nigh impossible, I didn’t do the smart thing. I didn’t adapt and change my goal. Instead, for a while I wallowed in the disappointment and failed to move on–to set a new goal in the light of new information. Nothing else could compare with the dream I couldn’t achieve. Everything else tasted sour.
This was a failure to adapt.
Having an ambitious goal is admirable. But the question is really–how ambitious? And if your ambitious goal proves to be overzealous, are you then setting a more realistic one?
When you’re young, you don’t know any better. Some of us are naturally better at going with the flow and can shrug off the road bumps that we all face at some point. I was not so great at that.
So, I’ve set out to learn it.
Over the last couple years, I’ve set a number of unreasonably ambitious goals–complete the first draft of Journey in 2016, write 10,000 words a week in 2017. I sincerely wanted to meet them and gave it a good shot, but I was naive to set them in the first place. I was still learning my own writing process, how much I can give to writing without ignoring all the other important parts of my life. The point isn’t so much whether I succeeded or failed–though failure hurts–but that I’ve learned more about myself and improved my writing skills along the way.
This year, I’ve set better goals for myself. I’ve already met a few of them. It doesn’t just feel good, but it feeds into healthier, happier writing practice. I’ve written more and stressed less about my writing this year than any other year previous, which just gives credence to the saying: It’s about the journey, not the destination.
So, stop fighting the road and start adapting to it.
Spot your overly ambitious goals
In my experience, here are some red flags for an overly ambitious goal:
- You haven’t done anything like your goal before. It’s either completely outside your realm of experience, or it’s so advanced that it’s the equivalent of running a marathon after you’ve learned to sprint.
- Your schedule is already taxing you to the max. If you’re feeling run down now, how bad will you feel once you add this extra thing?
- You have little to no outside support for achieving this goal. It’s not always necessary to have outside support to do the things you want to do, but ambitious achievements require a lot from you. When you feel low, support networks are key to pushing through.
- Someone with good judgment, who knows you and whom you trust has told you this is too much for you. If they’ve already done the thing you’re trying to do, give this even more weight.
Don’t confuse an overly ambitious goal with what is simply ambitious. Furthermore, what is overly ambitious for one person is reasonably ambitious for another. Context matters.
Adapt your overly ambitious goals
Speaking of context, this is where it really comes into play. If you have a history of setting overly ambitious marks and missing them, it may take some trial and error before you find the sweet spot. Think of it as a journey. It requires self-knowledge and reflection.
Here are a few suggestions for adapting your overly ambitious goals:
- Change the parameters. Depending on your goal, you could easily knock it down from too much to just right simply by changing its boundaries. How about instead of finishing your 200,000 word novel in one year, you give yourself too? Or instead of running a mile in 7 minutes, you allow yourself 10?
- Pick the next step, not the last step. Say you want to write a novel. Set your first goal to completing the outline, rather than “finishing my novel.”
- Build a support network. Find or create networks of people who share your interest or who personally want to see you succeed. When motivation runs low, lean on them to help you get through.
What goals are you setting for yourself? Are they too high? Too low? Share in the comments below.