Get D.U.M.B.! The Value of Unattainable Goals

With the year winding down, many people are turning their eyes towards the future. January 1st looms, and the new year always holds the promise of a fresh start, another go-round and another try at the golden ring.

It’s a time for taking stock, filing away the lessons of our successes and failures over the last 12 months and pinning down our hopes and dreams for the 12 months to come. Some people make resolutions, feeling in the renewal of the yearly cycle the power to remake themselves to a better plan: thinner, healthier, more focused, wealthier, smarter… happier.

Others set goals. “By this time next year, I will have done x.” Lots of people will tell you that the key to setting smart goals is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Heck, I’ve said that the key to goal-setting is setting S.M.A.R.T. goals. Those are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound; “lose 10 pounds by the end of February” rather than “lose weight”, for example.

There’s a lot to be said for that approach, of course. The idea behind S.M.A.R.T. goals is that it gives you something concrete and realistic to work towards, and the brain seems to like that sort of thing. Vague goals give the tricksy brain too much wiggle room: “Hey, I lost weight. Only 2 pounds, but cool! I guess that means I can order an extra double-caramel fudge-nut brownie vanilla sundae surprise tonight!” Unreasonable goals simply set us up for failure, and the tricksy brain will take advantage of that, too: “Awww, I gained 2 pounds. I’m never going to lose 400 pounds this week. I might as well order an extra double-caramel fudge-nut brownie vanilla sundae surprise tonight….”

The Power of D.U.M.B. Goals

There’s nothing wrong and almost everything right with S.M.A.R.T. goals. You should set a bunch of reasonable goals for yourself and throw yourself into them with all your might. Absolutely.

But…

I think there’s a place in our life for D.U.M.B. goals, too. Dangerously Unattainable, Monstrously Big goals. Goals that not only set us up for failure but virtually guarantee it. Great big audacious goals that make our friends think we’re crazy and our enemies think we’re… well, they think we’re crazy too.

I’m not talking about make-believe goals, here – goals we have no intention of pursuing. Like “Marry Angelina Jolie” (it will happen!) or “Take over IBM and turn it into chain of shoe stores”. I’m talking about goals that fulfill our wildest dreams, goals that are maybe a little too big for us but not completely unattainable. The kind of goals that you have an outside chance of reaching, the kind where you can point to someone not all that different from yourself and say “Why her and not me?”

More importantly, I’m talking about real goals, goals you will throw yourself into, with every intention of reaching them even though the odds are against you. Goals like:

  • Triple my income.
  • Start a million-dollar company and show a profit by the end of the year.
  • Invent something everyone needs and nobody’s ever made.
  • Start a website and get 100,00 visitors a day by June.

If you follow the logic of S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting, D.U.M.B. goals are a very bad idea. They aren’t A – Attainable. They’re Dangerously Unattainable, Damn-near Unattainable, Deliciously Unattainable. You’d have to be an idiot to set D.U.M.B. goals – you’re just setting yourself up for failure, and failure, it is implied, is a Bad Thing Indeed.

But I wonder. Has anyone ever reached success without failing along the way? Haven’t the biggest successes had – or at least risked – the biggest failures? Here’s one, off the top of my head: in the early ‘80s, a young Bill Gates stole an operating system and walked into IBM’s offices and told them to buy it from him. I mean, really – some punk kid tried to sell an operating system to the world’s leading computer manufacturers! That’s D.U.M.B.!

Here’s the thing: failing is good for you. OK, not every failure – failing to stop at a 4-way intersection when there’s a semi truck with its breaks out bearing down on the cross street probably isn’t good for you. But in most things, it is failure that teaches us the lessons we need to succeed.

The emotional cost of failing to attain our goals is great, I won’t deny that. But what is the psychic cost of failing against the psychic cost of not setting goals beyond our abilities out of fear and lack of confidence in ourselves? That is, what is the value in not trying because we fear, before the first step is taken, that we’ll fail?

Indeed, what are we setting ourselves up for by playing it S.M.A.R.T.? A life of coloring inside the lines, of keeping all our ducks in a row so that someone else can have the pleasure of picking them off in the shooting gallery?

I’m not telling you to abandon S.M.A.R.T. goals. Frankly, if you want to get something done, S.M.A.R.T. is the way to go. But make sure you also play D.U.M.B. once in a while. Set your tidy attainable goals and then set a couple more beside them, a couple of goals three or four or 20 or 2,000 steps out of your reach. Go for the gold, shoot for the stars, cliché for the cliché!

This year, the smart money is on D.U.M.B. goals.

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