Question from a reader -
Hi! Interested to hear your thoughts about this: where do you draw the line between impossible and huge-effort-possible goals?
First, I'll be honest. I don't have a perfect neat answer for this that's epiphany generating... I'm going to try to work through it on paper, and I appreciate feedback from everyone in the comments if you have related ideas.
Let's get started. First and foremost, I can't say this enough - study history! If you don't study history, you don't know what's possible. Period. You need to study history if you want to know what's possible.
Here's some good people to brush up on. Now, most people's reaction is, "I couldn't do that! He did so much!" But trace their steps, these men often came from humble origins and suffered much. Don't say "Wow." Ask, "How?" How did they do it?
Here's a few people I admire, there's lots more, but this is a good starting point.
You'll see something in common with people I admire - they raised successful families and accomplished in multiple domains. There's plenty of people with great military, commercial, or governing accomplishments who had unsuccessful families - that doesn't make any sense to me personally (though I do admire some of those people's accomplishments). I study great artists and authors, though it's rare that they had successful families too. Charles Darwin would be an example of someone who was a good scientist, writer, and had a successful family, and I admire him a lot. I admire da Vinci a lot and study him too, but no kids. This is just by my own ethics, sooner or later I'll write a post on why I think kids are very good and important. If you're looking to make other contributions to the world without having kids, well that's not my way, but I guess that's okay too.
I am a big believer in mobility. Whenever I don't know what to work on, I try to increase my mobility. That means getting good habits, knowledge, becoming more comfortable traveling and shifting gears, and building up resources and resourcefulness. If you don't have huge goals yet, start building mobility and wealth and skill and knowledge. Later you'll find something important to you, and be glad you've done so.
I think it's important to have tangible milestones. One of my goals is to become the greatest strategist of our generation. But, honestly, I still don't know exactly what that would look like. And this is going to take me 15, 20, 25 more years. In the meantime, I've got goals to write and publish my first five books, most of which are related or tangential to strategy. I also write on strategy and read strategy and history regularly. One thing I should do at some point is make a list of all the key governance and strategy documents ever written, and go through the ones I haven't read yet. Things like that - tangible, smaller, doable goals while pursuing the big goal.
This is related to what I wrote in "Steps to Achievement" - now, Steps to Achievement was unfortunately a flawed post. It was too long and too dry. The people who read said it was amazing and they got a lot out of it, but I failed to entertain and captivate people enough with it. Still, if you're serious about figuring out how to set goals and achieve, work your way through it. You can get through in 20 minutes or so, and I think there's something very valuable in there - it goes through all the costs and requirements of setting and achieving a goal. Here's an excerpt about the "Identify" stage, which is what we're talking about:
Identify - the first stage to accomplishing a goal is to identify a goal. I believe this is one of the hardest stages, due to the subjective nature of it. There is no right answer. There are other potential pitfalls – people who are fatalistic (“things are already decided”), nihilistic (“nothing matters”), or believe they can’t achieve will have problems with this stage. Additionally, people in this community might have another problem. People who have identities based on being intelligent tend to not want to confront goals they can fail at. The article, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the Inverse Power of Praise” describes a study based on praising kids for innate ability (intelligence) vs. effort.
Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” … Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.
Potential Pitfalls in the “Identify” stage: Fatalism, nihilism, low self esteem, fear of failure, or identity being wrapped up in success/intelligence can dissuade people from setting goals. Also, just plain not seeing the value in setting goals.
Costs: This stage is one of the most expensive intellectually and emotionally – this is where you are choosing to dedicate your time at the expense of other things. It’s a subjective judgment with an high opportunity cost, almost by definition.
Requirements: Introspection about what you want to achieve, patience, working and re-working at goals, and taking the time to describe and elaborate what success would look like.
Timeline: Varies, but I find the loose threads of identifying goals can take a year, two years, or more to start to come together. After actively planning and beginning to identify goals, coming to a really great definition can happen fairly quickly (10 to 30 minutes, for fairly straightforward goals) or can easily take one to three months to flesh a goal out.
Where's the line between impossible and huge effort barely possible goals? It's hard to find.
Here's what I think:
1. Read history
2. Build mobility
3. Have tangible smaller milestones
Then think a lot. Also, read about people who over-stretched themselves and lost because of it. Read about Alexander the Great, who died and whose empire dissolved (Alexander impresses me a lot less than most people). Read about Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who unified Japan but then lost. Read about Septimus Severus, the Roman Emperor who did things almost entirely correctly, but made a few big mistakes and was largely entirely destroyed 50 years after his death. Read about any number of people whose would-be accomplishments came crashing down because they over-expanded and tried to do too much in one lifetime, or didn't spend enough time raising up their family, or whatever else the cause may be.
What's possible? I think a lot, a lot more than most people realize. We've got tools millions of times more powerful than the ancients did. I do not have to be as skilled as Thomas Jefferson to accomplish along the same lines - I can arrive anywhere on Earth in 24 hours for $2000; previously a journey around the world would be by ship, take a life's savings, take many months, and often be fatal. You can send free messages to almost anyone on the planet by email, use Skype to talk across continents for free. Wikipedia overviews all of the world's knowledge, and you can find summaries of almost every book ever written.
What's possible? A lot. A whole lot. In the meantime, I'd say start studying history, building mobility while you're still unsure what you wish to achieve, and starting setting and accomplishing smaller milestones. Think and meditate on what's possible - I think it's more than anyone realizes. In the meantime, read about people who have achieved, work on tangible things, and build your mobility.