Be Bold, Presumptuous and Stop Caring About What Others Think

A reader recently referred me to this project to break into the top 250 table tennis players in the UK in one year.

What happened? He failed. In his own words:

“The challenge ended a week ago and I am still nowhere near the top 250. I wasn’t even good enough to get an official ranking. Worse it was the most public failure ever – I told everyone I met what I was doing and posted it all over the internet. And now everyone has seen me fail!”

As someone who does ambitious, and some would say, arrogant, projects, I sympathize. Any learning goal suffers under the problem that you also lack meta-knowledge about the goal before you start. The only way to get that knowledge is to try.

But then I got this tweet from a reader when I mentioned the project:

Is it presumptuous to think you can get into an elite level for a sport in only a year’s worth of training? Of course. Is it arrogant to think you can outdo people who have been training for decades? Definitely.

But who cares?

I hate the attitude that we’re not allowed to set ambitious goals, just because they might be unrealistic or “offend” people that worked very hard.

Sam, our table-tennis-expert attemptee, says he was “naive” and failed to realize how difficult the goal would be. Doing an ambitious, public challenge has a lot of risks. That’s one of the reasons I usually spend almost as much time researching my year-long projects as I spend actually doing them.

But even if you plan excessively and try to account for every variable, you’re still going to make mistakes. I would say my challenges were both largely successful, but even with the intense planning I did there were still things I wish I had done differently:

  • I wish I had hired official graders instead of self-grading for the MIT Challenge. The relatively objective nature of the content along with solution sets and grading rubricks made me dismiss this idea as too costly/timely in the research phase. But now I realize that it would have added greater legitimacy to the project.
  • During the year without English, I did do one standardized exam: the HSK for Chinese. However, I wish I had done them in all four languages, since it would have been easier to specify exactly what level was reached in the period of time.

But such problems, obvious in hindsight, weren’t clear ahead of time. Perhaps the audacity of trying to break into the top 250 for an Olympic sport should have been clear from the beginning. But then what about Joshua Foer, who didn’t just enter the elite, but got the first place in the US Memory Championship with only a year of training?

In fact, its just as easy to suffer under the opposite problem: setting goals which are too easy. I shied away from making any specific claims as to what level of fluency Vat and I would reach during our stay in each country. But that also meant we didn’t prepare for any formalized assessment other than my HSK test. Here the problem wasn’t too much boldness, but too little.

When the only thing at stake is your pride and a little bit of time, I say it’s better to make errors of boldness than of caution. I’d rather try a bit too hard and fail, than wonder about what I might have been able to do if I had really tried.

  • Mark Cancellieri

    “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
    – Niccolò Machiavelli (The Prince)

  • Cedric

    It certainly helped that Foer had Ed Cooke and K. Anders Ericsson at his side.

  • Marvin

    This article makes a critical point. If you’re going to step up to the plate, you may as well swing for the fences. Had you never signed up to join the team, what would you have done with that free time? You would have spent that time watching parks and rec, pointing and criticizing other peoples larger than life goals, and talking about goals that you’re going to set later instead of actually doing them now.

    Three years ago I set a goal to run a marathon at a 7:04 minute mile pace and qualify for the Boston Marathon. I’ve run 6 marathons and failed 6 times, but gotten closer each time. I’m not going to quit until I achieve this goal. In the meantime I’m in great shape. If I weren’t engaged in marathon training, I would have spent that time at the bar with my friends. Sam if you enjoy ping pong, you should keep playing. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

  • Rebekkah

    ‘…better to make errors of boldness than of caution.’ Exactly.

  • Ruth C.

    This blog made me think about what I have been concentrating on. Putting myself out there. Mainly online. Like now. I’ve inferred from “feedback” and round about remarks that I may be annoying people. But it seems that they can not just ask me to stop. Maybe I am paranoid, but I don’t think that’s it. That sounds like something someone who doesn’t know me would say. I started this whole thing to practice writing comments. I was accused by a banker of babbling. I was kicked out four times once by an old lady, twice, at least, by Tony Y. I certainly don’t mean to troll or flame anyone. I told some guy he’s cute and some female called me “bitch.” It was apparent that she was referring to me. Well, I hope I managed to make a good impression.

  • sam

    I think Joshua Foer’s story may be a bit of a red herring. If memory serves, his European tutors sort of implied that he could win the U.S. championship when he started, which at the time I took to mean that maybe the level of U.S. memory competition is low. None of which is to say that you shouldn’t aim for lofty goals, just his success might seem more exemplary than it actually is.

  • Kari

    Agreed. Regret of not trying is a pain in the ass. Much bigger than trying and failing.

    There is always the possibility of ‘it’ happening. Always. You don’t know what can line up for you as you go about your year (or month, or week, or day), so it would be foolish to not try – even if people tell you that you shouldn’t.

  • Konrad

    Wholeheartedly agree but I think I would have blurred out the name of the guy who tweeted that.

  • Andromeda

    If you read Foer’s book, his achievement is still impressive, and instead of citing his use of top-level mentors as a criticism, perhaps it is instead a lesson. If we’re aiming high, one of the first things we can do is amass the best resources, including experts, to help us build a more efficient path. There are so many amazing things the average person really can do given enough time (learn a foreign language, run a marathon, write a novel or memoir) and often the biggest challenge isn’t just doing it but learning how to advance one’s skills more quickly. We are all mortal and can only fit so much in a lifetime, but more if we approach things purposefully (and often, boldly).

  • L

    This is true. I think that having a relatively arbitrary goal, however, is especially bad when it is bold–one needs a specific one that they can lay out a plan for…if 250 is just a random number you pick from the start and you realize you’ll only have a half-hour to train each day, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

    Unless you’re me, and you applaud failing (to a degree) at most everything you do. It takes guts to fail. But (in my experience) it always yields the most progress (if one learns from their mistakes). So long as you “Fail going 100%” and analyze why you’ve messed up, you’ll certainly learn a lot more than if you hit every target. Indeed, many Mnemonists train at speeds where they get <30% of the content correct, forcing them to adapt to faster speeds and make quicker, sharper visualizations.

  • Wayne

    Great advice.

    The most common regret amongst older people is usually that they didn’t have a go at things when they were young and had the chance. I am learning a language in my 50’s and I have friends who say how they wish they could learn it as well but when I quiz them on it it is usually they are fearful that other people will think they are dumb because they will make lots of mistakes.

    It’s sad because their life becomes their own prison. The biggest limits on our lives are usually the ones we impose on ourselves before we even get a chance to fail at something.

    I say good on him for having a crack (and likewise yourself Scott in your various projects). Maybe he might keep going and make the top 250 in another 5 years – and that would be an even sweeter feeling.

    But even if he doesn’t, he knows a lot more about himself and the world today than he did 12 months ago, and that’s more than a lot of people can say.

  • erwin

    Let’s not overestimate succes.

    Failure also demonstrates how to not reach a goal.
    Just try again (if you have recovered enough).

    Critics : show some respect or shut up.

  • Pena

    I think it’s a good idea for him to get a chance sometimes people never knows how skill abilities they have got.
    Please make sure you didn’t mention the wrong one and he’d be much happy

  • Scott Young


    You’re right, I wasn’t thinking. I’ve omitted it now.


  • Sandra

    I agree with this post Scott.
    I too, find it weird that people who have trained for a long time get uncomfortable when someone sets a crazy goal to be at professional level in a short time. Don’t worry, that person isn’t trying to discredit your long term efforts! That person is just trying a personal challenge. And who’s to say how long it should take to train from a joe Shmoe to a pro? Everyone is different. And it’s not about how many years in training, it’s about the DRIVE, DEDICATION and HARD WORK.

  • Andres Angulo

    Scott you can still mayor in medicine in 2 years and hire official graders take a look at this guys channel on youtube, he publishes like crazy.

  • Sheri

    There is definitely something admirable in trying against all odds. This story reminded me of Eddie the Eagle:

    In 1990 the Olympic Committee instituted a rule to keep out competitors like Eddie. I think that’s a shame.

  • Jessica

    In my opinion, if the tweeter was bold enough to make the comment on a public site, then he doesn’t care about others seeing it; rather, his intent was for lots of people to read his post.

    Why “protect” his identity when he publicly made a jab at someone’s sincere efforts?

  • Scott Young


    Because I want to talk about ideas, not shame people for publicly stating an opinion I disagree with.


  • Mia

    I don’t like how people split up the result of these kind of projects in failure and no-failure:
    The guy wanted to be a better table tennis player. After one year of hard training, I assume he is a better player then the first day of his trial.
    Scott wanted learn a few languages. As one can see in the videos, he did that.

    No, the table tennis guy is not in between the top 250 and Scotts Spanish still has imperfections, but the two of them got out there, tried to get better at something and actually got better at it.

    Maybe they did not reach the desired level of ability but despite that, I don’t see any failure at all.

  • msully

    For an interesting perspective on this issue see David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene.”

  • Donovan

    Never underestimate the power and vital importance of humility.

    Making bold, audacious claims is a clear sign of someone who lacks any kind of wisdom or true ‘teachability’.

    People like Tim Ferriss popularized this idea that expert skills and knowledge can somehow be ‘deconstructed’ and learned rapidly (e.g. becoming a professional chef, attaining language fluency, becoming a professional sportsman and so on in short time).

    It’s ludicrous and it all comes back to how completely artificial ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’ have become in the Information Age we live in.

    We expect everything – including skills that take a lifetime of hard work and perseverance – to be at our fingertips and able to be mastered if we come up with the correct (I hate this word) hack.

    You can’t hack skills that take experts and professionals decades to learn. Tell any professional chef who’s been in the industry for 20 or 30 years that some guy named Tim Ferriss worked out how to deconstruct and hack his profession and I’m sure he’ll choke on whatever he’s eating.

    This guy’s claim to contend with Olympians in such a short time wasn’t insulting or offensive. It was just plain silly.

  • Patricia

    Donovan, your point about being humble really made me think. To my mind, the kind of humility you describe is the willingness to recognize the depths of another person’s expertise, contrasted with your own relative ignorance. It’s about knowing what you don’t know yet. That’s useful (and respectful). I agree, it makes one teachable. Without it, you can’t achieve meaningful expertise in much of anything.

    On the other hand, setting an audacious goal is different from making an audacious claim. Audacity is a spur to achievement. I’d argue that even realism is unnecessary in *setting* a goal, as long as you’re philosophical about falling a bit short. Humility—when it comes to setting goals, humility is a downright hindrance.

    I also think grand goals encourage a kind of external focus, because they have a high risk of failure. They make you say to yourself, “well, I may not get into the Olympics, but I sure will get good at table tennis. I LOVE table tennis.” In a way, the smaller, more realistic your goal, the more likely you are to let your success or failure outweigh your gain in knowledge and experience.

    Maybe it boils down to this: trying big is admirable; talking big is bad manners.

  • Absolutely Tara

    Wow. There’s so much to think about here. I would like to think that I would go for the bold goal that is above what I can achieve, but is that true in reality? I don’t know. But there’s something in me that feels like the only thing holding us back is our ability to believe it of ourselves, and that we could actually achieve SO MUCH MORE if we believed we could… no complete thought, just a stirring of ponderings.

    Thanks for sharing another thoughtful and inspiring post.


  • Peter

    “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it” – George Bernard Shaw

  • CGC

    You should also address how to manage the emotions that go along with such grand failure. This is the key!

  • CGC

    You should also address how to manage the emotions that go along with such grand failure. This is the key!

  • Avril Carly

    Well, for starters, we could begin by not viewing it as a failure. He set a big goal, went for it, and became better in that skill. Nothing much else.

  • Avril Carly

    Well, for starters, we could begin by not viewing it as a failure. He set a big goal, went for it, and became better in that skill. Nothing much else.

  • omnification

    I agree

  • omnification

    I agree