The Art of the Audacious Goal

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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