Every year, millions of people wake up on January 1 with a slate of New Year’s resolutions. This, they say, will be the year I launch the next Google/write a book/land a magazine cover.
These are admirable goals, certainly. But the unfortunate reality is that 80 percent of those resolutions will never be realized. While there are any number of reasons why our resolve tends to wane, it’s often the case that our expectations are simply unrealistic. Why set out to train for a half marathon when you can train for a whole one? Why write a short story when a novel sounds so much more exciting?
At the root is this thinking is what’s called the “overachievers paradox,” in which our successes lead us to set longshot goals that may or may not be achievable. Laura Huang, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, explains that overachievers have a habit of making mental leaps — for example, a student thinking that giving an excellent answer in class will guarantee them a competitive internship. On the flipside, a lousy answer means they’re an abject failure.
“Overachievers tend to toggle very quickly between ‘the world is amazing and everything is a huge success’ and ‘this is a disaster and I’m never going to make anything of myself,’ she says. The problem is that this mindset can be very destructive to success.
Unattainable goals: Friend or foe?
There are two ways of thinking about unattainable goals. The first can be summed up in a classic inspirational poster hung in elementary school classrooms around the country: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
In less hackneyed terms, setting unattainable goals sets you up to work harder and stretch yourself to the outer limits of your potential. Such was the case for Steve Davis, a SpaceX employee who was tasked by Elon Musk to make a $120,000 part for just $5,000. After months of fiercely hard work, Davis delivered on Musk’s request, creating the part in question for just $3,900. (Musk’s response when Davis told his boss he’d succeeded? “OK.”) The moral is that even when a demand seems unattainable, we’re sometimes surprised to learn just how much we’re capable of achieving.
On the other hand, the problem with setting unattainable goals is that failure is a very real option. If we focus solely on achieving the goal, we lose sight of whatever benefits we’re gaining from the journey. This is especially true if we neglect to celebrate the incremental wins we make along the way.
There’s also the risk of being totally crippled by failure. The fact is that the longer shot your objective is, the more likely you are to fail. There’s nothing inherently wrong with failure — in fact, it’s an indispensable tool for growth. But if you’re so crushed by a setback that you can’t recover and stop trying altogether, it probably wasn’t worth it.
How to make unattainable goals work for you
With the right perspective, unattainable goals will spur growth, even if you don’t hit your original target. Here are a few ways to set hard-to-reach goals without letting them destroy you.
- Abandon perfectionism
“Perfectionism” is one of those traits that sounds admirable on paper, but is actually destructive to meaningful progress. Underneath those perfectionist tendencies lie a real terror of making a mistake. As Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert put it, “perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear.” Abolishing a fear of failure — or at least learning to manage it — is the only path to achieving a moonshot goal.
Perfectionism will stop you from ever really trying, because you’ll search for reasons that the outcome won’t be just right. To curb perfectionism, Leo Babauta, founder of Zen Habits, suggests playing out the worst-case-scenario in your mind: Will the world end? Will your career be ruined? Likely not. Another strategy is to create a backup plan to help manage your fear of the unknown, and use it as a safety net. And finally, try reframing fear as excitement, approaching it as though you’re an explorer embarking on an adventure.
- Celebrate small wins
In the 15 years since I started JotForm, I’ve come to realize that one of the best ways to keep employees motivated and happy is to not wait until we’ve tackled a huge goal to celebrate our successes. Instead, they routinely showcase their work, often during our Friday demo days, which helps maintain positive momentum in between major victories.
When it comes to striving for an unattainable goal, these small wins can be the fuel you need to keep going. Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer call this the progress principle: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” they write. “And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”
- Work as a team
If your goal is truly daunting, why try to do it alone? Whether you’re running a marathon or launching a product, having a supportive, dedicated team is going to make all the difference. Navy SEAL Brent Gleeson says that in the first phase of training, a boat crew of seven paddles in rough waters for miles each day, and that it takes every crewmember paddling hard to make it through without flipping over.
“When setting goals and pursuing success, you must sometimes lead and get others to paddle with you. You can’t do it all alone,” he writes. “The minute you realize that you don’t know everything and need help along the way, the better off you will be.”
Setting big goals isn’t really about the big goal itself. Keeping an open, flexible mind will allow you to grow along the way — and even if you don’t achieve exactly what you set out to do, you’ll have learned new skills and become more resilient.