There are two major mistakes people make when evaluating the goals they want to set. The first is that they underestimate what they are capable of. Looking at the future people tend to project much of their present. It can be difficult to imagine being a millionaire when you are currently broke, but looking out at the world there are thousands of examples of people who have done this.
The second error people make when evaluating goals is that they grossly overestimate the ease at which they will accomplish the goal. When I did the initial planning for my interactive goal-setting software I plotted out a lot of features and gave myself six months to accomplish it. I figured it would be hard, but doable. But even with scaling down the project and working much harder than I previously supposed I just managed to finish before my six month deadline. Achieving goals is hard work.
Before I started emphasizing in personal development work I aspired to become an independent game developer. Although I left the scene thirteen months into my first project to start working with personal development, I managed to immerse myself with many online entrepreneurs. These were people who actually completed massive projects and took them to market.
All of these people were die-hard believers in possibility. Many of them sacrificed stable jobs and put a lot on the line to achieve goals other people might see as nearly impossible. They didn’t make the first mistake of doubting their potential.
But believing in your potential isn’t enough. A strong culture in this community pervaded against the positivity rhetoric of a lot of self-help authors, because it didn’t face reality. The truth was most new developers didn’t need more optimism, they needed less. The idea was resounding – success was possible, many developers were making an honest living doing what they loved, but it was damn hard to get there. More than most people initially thought.
A rule I heard early on in the community was that a good estimate for how long it will take to have a finished product is to make a rough estimate and then double that and add a few months. Looking back at my own software project compared with initial predictions it is surprising how accurate that statement is. Being overly optimistic about how much work was required could render
The Optimists Dilemma
On one hand people are achieving extraordinary degrees of success and the potential for incredible things is with all of us. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to fully comprehend the amount of effort required to achieve these extraordinary goals. How do you integrate these conflicting ideas?
To answer this dilemma, let’s look at the problem a different way. Let’s say you were taken to play a giant, unending game. The game is completely open to your interpretation and you can do whatever you want in it. Tasks in this game vary from the incredibly mundane and the incredibly challenging. The purpose of the game is whatever you decide and you can explore any level of difficulty. How would you play the game? What if the game was your life?
Somehow most of us have bought into the illusion completely avoiding challenges and stress in the game of life is ideal. But lacking these difficult challenges life dries up. Without goals and obstacles to overcome life becomes mundane. Tiny problems get grossly exaggerated just to create a little bit of meaning and few people feel really fulfilled.
The reason you set a goal isn’t to get the end result. Because of hedonic adaption, the tendency to adapt to new standards of life, setting goals is a pretty lousy way just to feel good later. It requires a huge upfront energy and time expense and the sense of achievement will only last for a short time.
The reason you set a goal is because what setting a goal does in your present moment. Setting a goal creates a feeling of motivation, challenge and passion in the present. The objective of the game Risk might be to conquer all territories on the map, but the reason you play is because the challenge of the interaction is enjoyable. Goals are important because they can help enhance the game of life not just because they let you amass more intrinsically meaningless tokens.
A lot of people might look at an entrepreneurial opportunity and hearing the voices of the crowd talking about the difficulty might be persuaded not to try. This person then settles for a lesser challenge, a lesser purpose and a lower quality of experience. Challenge and fulfillment go hand in hand.
Another person might look at the same opportunity and remember some motivational speaker telling her to go for it and to believe in herself. When she actually approaches the challenge, she turns away when faced with the true reality. Ignoring the magnitude of the challenge ahead is just delaying an eventual and more painful realization later. You can’t overcome a challenge by ignoring it, but you shouldn’t avoid challenges because of their difficulty.
Fulfillment and success aren’t things to strive towards, but qualities you can imbue in your current experience. Moving towards your goals and pushing against challenges are key elements to doing this. A mediocre quality of life doesn’t come from too many challenges but in facing too few.