Updated on 01.20.11

The Art of the Audacious Goal

Trent Hamm

I want to run for mayor of a large city.

I want to publish a series of fantasy novels that appear in every bookstore in the country.

I want to pay off the $300,000 in debt that I owe.

I want to start a restaurant chain.

I want to visit 100 countries by the time I’m 40.

I’m a fan of overly audacious goals. Setting a huge goal for yourself can shock you into action and sometimes make you go beyond what you believe you’re capable of.

In 2002 and 2003, I worked on a software development project that was far, far over my head. During the course of that project, the technical advisor (the one helping me figure out the actual specs of the software) essentially quit, leaving me to not only write all the code, but also design the interface of it based on what the customers would want.

Waiting around for additional hires was not an option. I either had to move forward or the project went under and I would be looking for another job.

Add on top of that the fact that I was writing all of this in a language that I was largely unfamiliar with (as I was under the impression I would have plenty of room to learn on the job).

When I realized the scope of what I had to do, it was almost overwhelming.

Not only did a two man team manage to pull it off (myself and a database expert), the project is still in existence (albeit in very modified form) to this day, using largely the same code I wrote in 2002 and 2003.

How did this happen? There were three real factors involved here, in my opinion.

First, a big part of this project was the personal challenge. I wanted to show myself that I could do this and, in the end, I was really the person that I was accountable to. If I failed without really trying, that sense of failure would hang over me for a long time. If I failed with a sincere effort – or better yet, succeeded – that would stick with me as well.

Second, a spectacular failure was worth far more than no action at all. I realized pretty quickly that if I gave this project my all, I would still get something out of it even if it failed. I would learn a great deal of domain knowledge. I would learn some significant skills. I would have an entry on my resume and a good story to tell. I would also learn some lessons from failure.

Finally, I had supportive people in my corner. The people up the food chain from my project were pretty supportive of what we were working on. They wanted us to succeed. They cheered us on when we needed it. They took care of peripheral things that would have just distracted us. They gave us carte blanche to use our own judgment, but were willing to provide input when we asked.

To be sure, not every big, audacious goal works. Any enormous goal you set for yourself needs to have a few key elements.

It must not seriously damage your life if you fail. No goal is worth risking the key things you need to have in your life. No goal is worth sacrificing your childrens’ needs or the well being of your marriage or your closest friendships or your career. If the worst case scenario of a goal is apocalyptic, it is never worth it. If you’re setting a big goal, spend some time teasing out the worst case scenario and make sure that you can roll through it. Often, this means that you need some advance planning before you leap into your big goal.

Ideally, you gain some degree of benefit if you only partially succeed – or even if you largely fail. For example, if you want to travel to 100 countries by the time you’re 40, but you only make it to 80 of them, you’ve still succeeded big time and you have a huge warehouse full of stories and memories for the rest of your life. If you want to pay off $300,000 in debt in seven years but only get rid of $240,000 of it – you got rid of $240,000 in debt. That’s not a bad thing.

It must be met with the support of key people. If you’re married, this always includes your spouse. It can also involve your coworkers, other family members, and close friends. The people you rely on most need to be in your corner when you approach something audacious.

The real fire has to come from within you. You’ve got to want it so bad you can taste it. If you don’t have the fire to make something happen, it won’t happen. Think of those moments in your life when you’ve most wanted something. That’s what this goal needs to feel like within you, because without that fire, you won’t go beyond what you think you’re capable of to reach that goal.

Set a big goal for yourself, something you’ve always wanted for your life. Throw yourself into it. You might be surprised at what you find along the way and on the other side.

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  1. TC says:

    Nice post, Trent!

    I’ve got some goals I’m working on right now, but nothing ‘audacious’ per se. This post was a good kick in the rear to at least consider doing something *big*.


  2. Carmen says:

    This is so true and also tied to innovation. Most innovation comes from these audacious goals. It reminds me of a book all of us engineers had to read in Engineering 101 called “To Engineer is Human”. It is all about some of the most important engineering failures and what we learned from them (think suspended bridges). You might want to add that one to your reading list!

  3. sjw says:

    @#2 Carmen – I really liked To Engineer is Human, but I don’t think that was really about audacious goals. Especially given that it uses several engineering examples which cost many lives. I think the problem was that those engineers didn’t realize they were being audacious, and so didn’t put in enough checks and balances to make sure it still worked.

  4. Carmen says:

    @#3 sjw – You know, it was so long ago that I read it. I must just remembering what I got out of it!

  5. I think it’s a very rare thing that failure to accomplish a goal will cause your life to implode. What might be more of a risk is focusing too much on succeeding while ignoring the other aspects of your life (family, friends, health, etc.) But as far as fear of failure, when you really think about the worst-case scenario, more often than not, the risk is worth the reward. You can’t always go through life playing it safe. To me, there’s more risk in fearing failure and playing it safe than there is to chase after your goals and dreams, even if in the end they don’t work out exactly as you’d hoped. Great people did great things. They took risks, stood up for what they believed in, fought against authority, put their lives in jeopardy for what they thought was right…these are the people we read about in history books. Those who played it safe and didn’t take chances because they were afraid of failure have long been forgotten. Sometimes a person just has to face the challenge.

    It’s an impossible dichotomy to play it safe and take risks at the same time…one I see you (Trent) struggle with based on your writings. One day you tell people to chase their dreams, risk it all, forget about practicality and then the next you’re telling us to hedge our bets, don’t do things that will risk [what’s important to you], make sure you’re safe and secure financially. A lot of people who are successful put it all on the line without a parachute. Granted, there are many people who fail but failure is part of success. You don’t just wake up one morning and become a millionaire or the CEO of a successful non-profit organization. You don’t meet the girl of your dreams sitting at your desk replying to mindless emails. You don’t visit 100 countries without buying plane tickets.

    At some point, you have to take risks in order to accomplish your goals. And yes, sometimes that means risking things that seem important today, like a steady income from a career but at the end of the day, isn’t succeeding at whatever your goal is supposed to improve your life from the one you have today? We can’t be afraid to take the steps necessary because we’d rather play it safe.

  6. ABQBrent says:

    Just what I needed to read this morning. This afternoon my boss is going to pitch the idea up the ladder that I should design the division website. This will be a solo project and the scope might be overwhelming. But today I’ve got to persuade everyone that I can do it. I doubt I’d get fired even if I completely dropped the ball on this, If its really awesome I might get lots more assignments like this and bigger chances to do cool things.

  7. Nick says:

    @ABQBrent #6: Let me be the first to cheer you on! We all know you can do it, because you’ve got the attitude and drive to get it done.

    I’ve always found that taking on big projects like this is also an excellent time to network, as you’ll be recruiting help and support from lots of people you wouldn’t have otherwise.

  8. Telephus44 says:

    @Steven #5 – you hit the nail on the head! I hadn’t consciously noticed it, but you are right that there is a definite dichotomy to TSD – sometimes we’re told to just chase our dreams and everything will work out, and other times we’re told to play it safe because anything else is too risky. I always think of this when people ask for advice on either buying a house or having children. If someone wants to have a child, the advice is always to go for it, the happiness it brings is worth it, and you will find a way to make it work. If someone wants to buy a house, then they better have 20% down, a 6 month emergency fund in the bank, be able to afford the payments within the 25% net income of only one salary, and even then they should wait and practise paying a mortgage payment for a few years.

    More on topic, I personally find myself accomplishing more when my goals are a reach, but not audacious. I find that for myself, setting the bar really high is just discouraging and causes me to give up.

  9. Marti says:

    Holy Wow – this post just made a lightbulb click on for me.

    Thank you Trent.

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