What You Are – and What You’re Not

I’m never going to play in the NBA.

That’s an unrealistic goal for me, and I knew it to be an unrealistic goal when I was ten years old on the playground. I wasn’t fast enough and didn’t have the natural reflexes of the other ten year olds on the court.

It was a painful thing for me to realize. I loved playing basketball. I still do. For me, basketball is a beautiful game.

The realization that I wasn’t NBA material didn’t mean I couldn’t be an effective basketball player. I had other skills that I could certainly utilize at the playground level. I was very solid and could plant my feet well, which meant that I could be a good defender, especially under the basket. I was willing to scrap for the ball. I was often more proud of a rebound or an assist than I was of a basket. I wasn’t fast and I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn more than ten feet away from the basket, but I did have at least some skills I could utilize and work on.

It also didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy playing basketball. I wasn’t going to be the next Michael Jordan. So what? That doesn’t mean playing basketball wasn’t – or isn’t – enjoyable. As I grew older, particularly during my later high school years and especially my first two years in college, I really enjoyed playing basketball. I knew what my areas of expertise were and I focused on maximizing those and being part of a team. It was a lot of fun and I had a set of experiences from those days that I’ll always remember.

It also didn’t mean that, if I committed to it, I couldn’t have spent my life around the game. Sure, I couldn’t actually play the game at a high level. However, I could coach. I could be an announcer. I could be a scout. I could be a basketball blogger. I could be involved in sports marketing. I could be involved in physical therapy. All of these were options that could have kept me close to basketball throughout my life. Each would have required me to add some additional skills to my repertoire beyond just the ability to play ball, of course, but that’s to be expected.

What’s the point of all of this?

First, some goals are too audacious. It is not realistic – nor has it ever been – for me to set playing in the NBA as a goal. It simply is not going to happen. It would simply be a path to failure for me to set being in the NBA as a goal.

Having said that, there is often some large element of even the most audacious of goals that you can achieve. It might not be realistic for someone to be President of the United States, for example, but it is certainly realistic for that person to aim to be mayor of the town in which they live or to be part of the White House press corps. It might not be realistic for someone to be an astronaut, but it is realistic for someone to become a NASA engineer.

If you find those initial but still fairly audacious goals easy, then aim higher. For example, if you decided that being President wasn’t going to happen, but you found yourself going from nothing to assistant Parks and Rec director to full Parks and Rec director to city council to mayor in a six year span, you might just have a gift for politics and might want to look higher. If you’re young and you decided to not shoot for the NBA but just be the best rebounder on your high school team and you set state records for rebounding during your sophomore year of high school, you might just want to aim higher.

One way to achieve this is to set goals not based on achievement, but based on performance. Let’s say you dream of a political career but are just getting started with a chance to be an assistant parks and recreation director, look at that position and ask yourself what kinds of things you can do in that position to hit a home run in that position while also setting yourself up for higher steps. Make a plan to succeed in just that regard. Set specific short term goals that will define your success and build the relationships you need to climb from there.

Similarly, let’s say you decided you wanted to be a basketball announcer. As I mentioned before, I have a friend who goes home in the evenings, turns the television on mute, and practices announcing the games he sees on television. It turns out that he records these sessions and then listens to them, noting what he’s doing wrong along the way. He’ll watch games while listening to his recorded coverage of them, and he’ll also listen to the straight audio in the truck.

His big goal might be to be announcing games on TNT and hanging out with Charles Barkley, but his short term goal is the priority. His goal, every single day, is to record a play-by-play of a basketball game, listen to another play-by-play, and critique it. Beyond that, he’s making connections in sports broadcasting at every level, using Twitter and personal interactions to meet people who are actually in the business, particularly production folks.

Those are goals that are based entirely on the process of achieving his big goal. Even if his big goal doesn’t come true exactly as he envisioned it, I don’t think anyone would argue that he’s not creating a very compelling path for himself in sports broadcasting.

It gets better. His medium-term goal is any paid job broadcasting basketball games. Anything. It can be for a local radio station broadcasting high school games. It can be voiceovers for a website. Whatever it takes. Again, he has a plan for that goal that’s loaded down with the things he can do today.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t have the skill set needed to be president or the skill set needed to be a Major League Baseball all-star or the skill set needed to be CEO of a Fortune 100 company. That’s okay. There’s still nothing keeping you from having a life filled with doing the things you love. Focus instead on who you are, what skills you can build, and what you can do.

You might just find a better path than you expect.