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Ridiculous Goals

We are often told that our goals should be realistic, and this is no doubt true in a tightly controlled business environment. But is it always the case?

I’ve often found that setting a goal way beyond my ability to do it has great results. Why is that? It’s all a matter of context. Walking a quarter of a mile to post a letter may seem like a drag. But a quarter of a mile in the context of of training to walk from the south of England to the north of Scotland is hardly noticeable.The ultimate goal affects the way you go about even the smallest part of your process.

How does this work in practice?

When I was a life coach I started off by dabbling at life-coaching with the intention of finding something I could do as a self-employed person in place of my salaried occupation. And dabble at it was just about all I did for a couple of years. Then one day I decided to re-frame my goal so that it was to become the best life coach in the world.

I don’t think I ever got anywhere near reaching my goal, nor did I seriously think that it was possible even to identify the “best” coach in the world, let alone become him or her. But re-framing it in that way involved a radical change in attitude. No longer was I dabbling in it and no longer was I just accepting what other people said about how to do it. After all, whatever the “best” coach in the world was like, you could be quite sure that one of their qualities would be that they were a trailblazer.

The real point is that having this ridiculously large goal make me do quite different things from what I’d have done if I’d a goal like “Make a living as a life coach” or  “Be a competent life coach”.
And the result was I had a successful and innovative business, in a field where many fail or stick to well-tried paths.

If I look back on my life I can see that there are many other things I would like to have done, but which I have consistently failed to accomplish. One of these is to be a singer. I don’t want to a brilliant singer, just be able to sing so that other people don’t have to cover their ears or smile though gritted teeth at my efforts. Unfortunately over the years I have more or less given up any hope that I might reach even this very limited goal.

But what if I hadn’t given myself a limited goal? What if I’d given myself the goal of becoming a soloist in an opera company? It wouldn’t really matter if I succeeded in the big goal or not (though you can’t rule anything out) - but I would almost certainly have left the original limited goal far behind. At the very least I would sing a lot better than I do now!

You don’t necessarily have to believe that your ridiculously big goal will ever come about. You just have to set the processes in motion to reach it. And by doing that you will encompass all your lesser goals along the way.

If you want to learn a language, make your goal extravagant like “Speak French so a French person can’t tell you’re not French”. Then set the processes in motion. You may never succeed in speaking like a native, but you will speak a lot better than if your goal were just to “learn a bit of French for my next holiday” or “pass such-and-such French exam”. Of course speaking French during your holiday and passing the French exam may staging posts on the way to your ridiculous goal.
My latest ridiculous goal is to be the oldest person ever to complete the Marathon des Sables.
That’s about as ridiculous as you can get as I’ve never been a runner, am not particularly fit, hate the heat and dislike being uncomfortable!

But there are plenty of staging posts along that way which will get me to my real aim which is simply to get as fit as possible. In September I will be taking part in a Tough Mudder Half - and that I am convinced I can do it if I train hard enough. To keep myself going on the training I need to be looking beyond the Tough Mudder to half-marathons, then marathons and then the ultimate goal.

So here’s my challenge to you:

What ridiculous goal could you set yourself? What would you accomplish along the way if you did?

Reader Comments (20)

Weird. This is exactly what I am doing at the moment, but I am setting myself ridiculous monthly goals. Remember I said that I had got to the point where I had no more backlogs and everything was done? Well, I didn't like that feeling very much, so I set myself a ridiculous goal in May to write fifty thousand words of fiction, as well as a few other things, like read thirty-one short stories, read thirty-one chapters of War and Peace, work an hour a day on the allotment, and lose ten pounds.

It was an almost total success -- I wrote seventy thousand fiction words, but only lost nine pounds. Everything else was surpassed. The odd thing was that it took me about twenty days to get going, so I did two thirds of the challenge in a third of the time.

That prompted me to set an even bigger challenge for June. A hundred and twenty words of fiction (4000 a day), read sixteen books, 40 chapters of War and Peace, 40 short stories, and a bunch of other stuff designed to get the house and allotment in order, and move the business forward.

It is keeping me focussed. I simply don't watch much TV or waste time aimlessly surfing or generally being aimless. And it's fun. I'm planning to take a couple of weeks off in July, though, whether or not it is a successful challenge.

We are told again and again that goals should be realistic, but realistic goals are boring, and usually too far off to have much meaning in the present. Having short term goals that really stretch me seems to work well for me. I have done this a number of times over the years, but never tried to push myself this hard before.
June 6, 2016 at 14:19 | Registered CommenterWooba
"Aim to the moon. If you missed it, you'll reach the stars"
June 6, 2016 at 15:11 | Unregistered CommenterPascal D
Alan Baljeu:

<< I once did a hike on the scale of the Marathon des Sables. 150 miles in 6 days amidst the mountains of Washington State. It is not a running pace, but a walk at 3 miles per hour, with breaks. However, mine was on packed, graded trails. There were no sandstorms, no 50F shadeless heat. >>

And presumably you weren't in your mid-70s either!

<< My training plan was simple: week 1 I did 1 mile per outing. Week 2 I did 2 miles at a time. I continued until I completed 18 miles with a weighted pack. The actual hike was much harder than the training, but I was able to pull it off. >>

As a matter of interest how many days a week did you train?
June 6, 2016 at 15:37 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

<< We are told again and again that goals should be realistic, but realistic goals are boring, and usually too far off to have much meaning in the present.>>

Fascinating, and in itself this subject is an example of an emergent strategy - one which is contrary to the received wisdom.

<< Having short term goals that really stretch me seems to work well for me. >>

I agree, but my short term goals are part of a bigger goal, which in its turn is part of an even bigger goal. So for instance I am training six days a week at present - that's two gym days and four running days. That's part of the Tough Mudder Half training, but also looking forward to marathon training. I'd actually prefer to do hill running, but I don't have too many hills around where I live!
June 6, 2016 at 17:54 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Love this post! I've been stumped by goal setting for many years. Making an outrageous goal actually makes more sense to me. I follow my energy, so to speak, and end up accomplishing a lot. I manage to write things down here and there and seem to move in the general direction of my interests. Are you recommending a "by when" date for the goals or just to have them in mind and let them be your navigator for decision-making about training, etc.?
June 6, 2016 at 18:08 | Unregistered CommenterBev

<< Are you recommending a "by when" date for the goals or just to have them in mind and let them be your navigator for decision-making about training, etc.? >>

Often a ridiculous goal has a timetable built in. For example my Marathon goal starts with a Tough Mudder Half in September. That would then be followed by entry into some half-marathons, then into some marathons and finally into the Marathon des Sables. For me that automatically means that I'm in a race against age (72 at present). I can't afford to slack on the training at any stage.

So my recommendation is that whatever your goal is, identify some major points or events which you will miss out on if you don't keep yourself going.
June 6, 2016 at 19:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Q. What's the difference between runners and hikers?

A. Hikers smile. :-)
June 7, 2016 at 0:02 | Registered Commenterubi
June 7, 2016 at 8:50 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

That's mine for the day: thank you!

Back to the grind.

Snarl, etc
June 7, 2016 at 9:42 | Registered CommenterWill

<<I don’t think I ever got anywhere near reaching my goal>>

Last week, I was a guest on Mike Vardy's podcast -

I specifically mentioned your name/work as being instrumental in my own thinking/system. Mike not only knew your name, but was familiar with some of the details of your work.

Your work and ideas are well known, far beyond the reaches of this blog/site.
June 7, 2016 at 14:19 | Registered Commenteravrum
Mark: no big deal, but you edited my post instead of replying. Slightly confusing for the reader.

I trained 3 days a week, varying speed and distance from day to day.

I wasn't 70 then (nor now)but I did meet a great couple who were about that age, who hiked the entire trail from Mexico to Canada. It can be done!
June 7, 2016 at 16:59 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan Baljeu:

<< no big deal, but you edited my post instead of replying. Slightly confusing for the reader. >>

Oops, sorry! That was unintentional.

Thanks for the additional information.
June 7, 2016 at 18:30 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
matthew S:

<< inspiration! >>

We can beat those! Here in England we have a 105 year old Sikh who still runs marathons.
June 7, 2016 at 19:01 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
It's interesting that you have found this so effective.

I think there might be a few different mechanisms in play:
• By selecting such an audacious goal, you can't help but build significant redundancy and resilience into your approach, which both helps handle failure and even more importantly, take advantage of opportunities. Just as a business can't take advantage of a new opportunity unless they have capital at hand, you can't take advantage of new opportunities in the direction of your goal unless you've invested in the systems beforehand. This is basically what the concept of "Antifragility" from Nassim Taleb is in a nutshell.
• It also seems similar to the strategy described in the book "Obliquity", they give examples of various firms that do poorly after they decide their goal is (for example) "maximizing shareholder value" rather than "Build the best commercial aircraft in the world". The authors believe that those types of goals, like maximizing shareholder value, are too noisy to effectively use for managing things. I also believe that it tends to encourage people to cut corners, which in the longterm do them bad.
• Finally, I think it might cultivate a spirit of excellence and building on character strengths, which is boosts your resilience as an individual.

It's something that I'm trying now, and I'm already more excited about my business than I have in a long time, after reframing it from being "Make enough to survive" to "Being the best there is in the world". So thanks Mark!

My only question is this: What if you have two or more goals, such as "Speak French as well as a Frenchman" and "Be the oldest person to run the Marathon des Sables"? Do you simply select which one is more appealing, or do you integrate them into a larger vision of being a "Renaissance Man" for instance?
June 8, 2016 at 4:39 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Freckleton
Ryan Freckleton:

<< What if you have two or more goals, such as "Speak French as well as a Frenchman" and "Be the oldest person to run the Marathon des Sables"? >>

I don't see any conflict between the two. But, yes, if you wish you could integrate them into a wider vision of what you want to achieve in your life as a whole.
June 8, 2016 at 8:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
In Seth Godin's book "The Dip", he discusses the goal of being "the best". It totally changed my thinking. Truly being the best in the world is almost impossible to even identify for most things, as there are so many criteria and situations. However, "the best" exists for each person/customer/group, and that is a lofty, challenging, audacious, but achievable goal.

In other words, striving to become the best productivity coach in the world has resulted in Mark Forster being the best productivity coach in MY world, which from my limited perspective of one person, is exactly the same thing.
June 8, 2016 at 19:49 | Unregistered CommenterScott Moehring
...and even more ridiculous (?) is being able to relax and let go of your thoughts and bodily tensions.

A lot of the methods people are encouraged to use to get what they want involve planning steps to achieve the desired goal. An alternative tactic is to set aside whatever it is that you want to achieve in the future and instead try to improve the way your body-mind-emotion-intuition system reacts to the present moment, and situations in general. There is evidence that regular periods of quiet and relaxation help emotional regulation, clarity and focus.
June 18, 2017 at 21:28 | Unregistered Commentermichael
...perhaps there can be "activity in more brain areas than those needed to just simply perform the ...... task itself"
June 20, 2017 at 16:15 | Unregistered Commentermichael
I did set big, bold goals for this year, including 'Start a blog, and write every day!' That New Year's Rez expired before February!
Yes, I did write a play and did my fifth round the world trip, but those three non fiction books are still on the drawing board.

The point I want to make is ... those ambitious aims now make me feel silly and ashamed! Who did I think I was?
October 17, 2017 at 13:10 | Unregistered CommenterSavannah Banks

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