The Key to Achieving Goals

We’re pretty big on summer goals in my clan. Because you can blink and the summer’s gone, I’ll sit with my boys at the beginning of summer and find some meaningful things we’d like them to accomplish. They can span academics, athletics, and general life skills.

There are always some groans, especially when I’ve decided something of low interest to them or something deemed impossible, but we try to make it a mix of the fun, the noteworthy, and the valuable.

We’ve done this for several summers, so I have data on what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes they crush it, sometimes they just miss, and sometimes they fail miserably. It’s interesting to see – on a small stage and somewhat controlled environment – wins and losses that can mirror my own life and goals.

What has been, by far, the most important key to success? I’ll tell you what it hasn’t been. It hasn’t been the ease or difficulty of the goal. It hasn’t been the time involved. It hasn’t been how “SMART” the goal was. It hasn’t been how interesting or fun they found the subject. It hasn’t even been whether it’s a goal they’ve come up with or one I assigned for them. What then has truly made the difference?

It’s the spirit with which they started.

If they built a fire inside and boldly approached the goal with passionate determination, you could count it as good as done. It didn’t matter if the fire came from joy, or love, or fury, or stubbornness, or stubborn fury. It didn’t matter if it was a goal they desperately wanted or a gauntlet thrown down by mom and dad. And it certainly didn’t matter how hard the goal was – sometimes the hardest of goals were the most easily conquered.

Similarly, if they started poorly, without a bold spirit, you could already predict defeat.

I could write many more paragraphs about this dynamic, but I’d prefer to use my favorite quote of all time, which comes to us from the Grimm’s Fairy Tale The Cunning Little Tailor:

“BOLDLY VENTURED IS HALF WON”

If anything, I think that may be an understatement. When I’ve started something with a bold spirit, the finish line is often in sight.

It seems like spotty math, but that ignores how many ventures never get started, or get started with half a heart.

There is a momentum to all human endeavors, and when you start something with a bold spirit, it’s easy for that momentum to take over and steamroll any resistance. A great start is often the clearest indication you’re going to crush a goal, no matter how hard it is or how long the grind.

Achieving the Impossible

I was reminded of this last week when my youngest son and I went to the pool.

Last summer, at 5 y.o., he was afraid of swimming. He could get himself out of the pool and had a good stroke, but swimming any serious distance was out of the question (and this is after almost a thousand dollars on swimming lessons…yay).

We set a goal of him swimming a length of the pool (50m). All summer long we encouraged him (there was even a Lego incentive in place…), but fear and stubbornness dominated the conversation; he was having none of it. He’d swim as long as he could hold his breath and then give up. Near the end of the summer, he didn’t even want to go to the pool because he knew we’d ask him to try again.

This summer, he got the same goal, which he promptly rated “impossible”. But something strange happened after that. There was clearly some battle brewing deep within, because he didn’t say anything else for a week. When he asked me one night if we could go to the pool, I was smart enough to just say, “Sure.”

When we got there, his only agenda item was to practice swimming.

The look on his face as he prepared to push off the side for the first time was a brilliant mixture of excitement and determination. He hadn’t even started, and I would have bet my net worth he was going to crush this goal.

His first efforts weren’t that great – his stroke is worse than last summer, and he couldn’t make it very far. But his mindset is now totally different. He’s focusing on what he’s doing right and what he can do to improve, rather than what he’s doing wrong and how distant is his goal. After each attempt, he kept wanting to try “one more time”. When it was time to go home, he was really sad because he wanted to keep practicing. I had to promise we’d come back the next day to get him to leave.

On our next visit to the pool, he made it halfway across. He also started jumping off the diving board into water (apparently) “as deep as the ocean” to swim to the side. He is a changed man.

So after just two days swimming, no one in Vegas is taking bets he won’t achieve the goal. Some optimists are even betting he’ll hit his “impossible”, end-of-August-timed goal this week.

How to Win the Battle

The biggest barrier to achieving a goal often isn’t the difficulty of the goal itself – it’s the fear, apathy, and desire to surrender you must conquer before you ever start.

If you can somehow win that battle, you’re halfway to your goal. That doesn’t make a ton of sense, but who ever said people were rational anyway?

If we were ants, or robots, we’d need a much more methodical and comprehensive plan to achieve our goals. But since we’re creatures of passion, we just need a spark, and it can come in any way: visualize your success, get encouragement from friends, listen to peppy music, flex in the mirror. In fact, oddest of all, we can create a bold spirit from thin air. We can simply declare, “I have a bold spirit and I’m going to crush this goal!” (or your dialect’s equivalent) and it actually happens. That is weird, but let’s play with the hand we’ve been dealt, fellow humans.

There are a thousand ways to set and measure goals. But if you want a hint on the best way to actually achieve them, remember the words and spirit of a little tailor from long ago. Boldly ventured is half won!

 

Picture courtesy of Brian Diehm

 

5 thoughts on “The Key to Achieving Goals

  1. Thanks for sharing. Agreed. The other part of the fear aspect is the fear of judgment from one’s peers, family, etc. This fear of failure is probably one of the biggest deterrents.

  2. That’s awesome that your son is hitting his impossible goal so quickly!!! I definitely need to set some more impossible goals in my life to stretch myself. I feel like at times I pick easy to attain goals because I know I’ll reach them and won’t fail. It sounds like it’s time to step up and take after my son 🙂

    • Many thanks! He’s as surprised as I am, and he’s learned something really valuable through this process.

      There is definitely an art and science to setting goals. If you look at them with only passion and excitement, they may not be realistic at all and you could be set for failure. But if you view them only as some robotic, linear output, it ignores the human element that can move mountains.

  3. Fascinating insight. I’ve noticed this phenomenon with my own goals but could never quite articulate it other than to say that sometimes I just wasn’t ready. It’s funny how you can try and try and try and use all the best methods like SMART goals, but then suddenly things just click and you have no idea why now. Thanks for the explanation! Oh and I love the idea of setting goals for your kids. I can’t wait to give it a go once they’re older/born.

    • Hi Eliza – I’m with you – sometimes with no new inputs, I’m suddenly able to accomplish something I’ve failed at many times before. There’s definitely an intangible magic at work.

      The coolest thing about the goals for the kids is they sometimes seem to enjoy the process too, and you get an early insight into their personality and behavior. My eldest is a procrastinator, and my DNA is to blame, but my youngest would put many a professional project manager to shame. It’s fun to compare and contrast.

      Thanks for the note and for stopping by!