When General Electric pioneered the SMART goal framework, they taught goals should be realistic. And they were dead wrong.
Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes is an ultramarathoner who has run more than 350 miles nonstop. Crazy? Maybe. But listen to what he said to Outside magazine:
Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure.
The wisdom in his words? You’re not going to find satisfaction inside your comfort zone. You need a risky goal. Here’s why.
Risky Goals Engage Our Heart
What if I told you riskier goals are more likely to be accomplished? Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But goal researchers have documented a strong, direct relationship between the difficulty of our goals and the likelihood we’ll achieve them.
Why? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that riskier goals also had a strong, direct relationship with our motivation, creativity, and satisfaction.
That makes sense, doesn’t it? In the words of TV personality Penn Jilette: “People don’t brag about going up a grassy slope. They brag about going up Everest.” Something about a challenge stirs our hearts. It taps into our intrinsic motivation. And once we want something, we’re way more likely to persistently pursue it.
Risky Goals Lead to Better Outcomes
Japan had a problem. Traveling by rail from Tokyo to Osaka once took more than six hours. It slowed business and executives wanted the time cut. So they decided to cut it in half. Doesn’t sound very realistic, does it? This goal gave rise to the bullet train, which revolutionized Japanese transit.
Importantly, engineers didn’t quite halve the time. They missed their goal. But they certainly outperformed where a “reasonable” goal would have led them. As goal theorists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham conclude after exploring the results of four hundred studies, “The performance of participants with the highest goals was over 250% higher than those with the easiest goals.”
It is possible to go too far. A risky goal should stir in us fear, uncertainty, and some measure of doubt. A delusional goal sparks frustration, discouragement, and incredulity. But the right amount of risk is a friend. It calls us to rise to the challenge.
And then, the challenge changes us.
Risky Goals Improve Our Confidence
When I was growing up, I loved being outdoors. I enjoyed soccer, basketball, and long walks. Then, I hit a growth spurt, and my legs grew so quickly that even walking was painful. Soon, I couldn’t run a single mile. I decided I “just wasn’t an athlete” and gave myself to other pastimes.
Years later, my work team decided to run a Ragnar—an 185-mile team relay race. Saying yes would mean signing up to run 16 miles over the course of 24 hours, including one leg of the race more than eight miles long and another in the dead of night. Naturally, I said yes.
We trained. We raced. We finished. And when I told Thom, one of my training partners, about my former doubt in myself, he looked me in the eye and said, simply, “You’re an athlete.” I couldn’t help but agree with him.
Running the Ragnar caused a simple truth to sink into my bones: I can do hard things. It’s a truth that ushers me forward into a better future.
We all have limiting beliefs about ourselves, about who we are and what we’re (not) capable of. Risky goals have the potential to help us tell new stories about ourselves. They’re evidence for the liberating truths we’re trying to adopt.
This year, don’t play it safe. Push beyond your limits. Watch how it drives you forward, leads you to better places, and transforms the way you think about yourself.
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