Why You Should Set Unrealistic Goals

Never underestimate the power of setting goals and visualizing them. I’ve always set quite out-of-this-world, unrealistic goals for myself.

And most of them didn’t involve extreme caution, planning or even thinking. And sometimes planning everything out isn’t as important as we think. Here are a few examples of the goals I’ve had in the past:

  • Study at the best university in the world
  • Become a 3-time Olympic champion
  • Get a really cool and rewarding job

My ultra-unrealistic goals have now changed, but I’ll focus on these three goals from the past in this article, as it helps to give perspective. Out of these goals, I’ve achieved only one, and I’ve stopped pursuing the first two. And I’m really happy that I’m not pursuing these goals anymore.

Things I thought would matter, don’t matter anymore. Meaning my values and perspectives on life, and basically, everything else has changed.

So, did I just give up on these two first goals? No – at least not in my opinion. Yes, I know I didn’t achieve these goals. Should I just cry and think that I’m a loser who never achieves my goals? Also no.

U gonna cry?? Shoutout to all South Park fans!

There’s a golden path in between, which I’ve learned to embrace, and I want you to as well.

The real reason I’m not pursuing these goals is the change in my values, as mentioned. And adopting a new set of values is perfectly fine. When you set unrealistic goals for yourself when you’re 15-18 years old, you don’t really have much perspective on life and you can’t foresee how your life will play out.

I had these goals in the back of my mind constantly, and I was moving towards them. These goals led me to graduate from one of the top universities in the world and achieve a pretty high level in rowing.

I don’t say this to brag, but to display how your unrealistic goals can help you achieve something that can still be very rewarding. I’m really happy that I graduated from the school I did, and I’m really happy that I dedicated a lot of my life to rowing, even though I didn’t win the Olympics.

These two unrealistic goals helped me to get so much further in life than I ever thought I could when I was younger.

3-time Olympic champion, yeah right.

I don’t know how I had the courage to set myself this crazy unrealistic goal of becoming a 3-time Olympic champion – like one-time would be easy? What was I thinking?

Looking back, I wasn’t thinking really, when setting the goal. Maybe I was thinking, but at least I wasn’t overthinking the facts of how I’d achieve this, as otherwise, I would’ve probably given up pretty early.

I’m happy I set this goal for myself, as it led me to strive only for the best, and isn’t this something we should all do, no matter which field we’re in?

I’m happy I set this goal for myself, as it led me to strive only for the best, and isn’t this something we should all do, no matter which field we’re in?

Of course, as I grew, I started realizing what it actually takes to win the Olympics just once (not to talk about what it takes to win it 3 times). But I still never thought “oh I’m never going to win the Olympics, I should just quit now”.

Values can change

At some point, I realized rowing had given me so much will-power and motivation to succeed in other areas of life as well, so I continued to do it, even when I knew I wouldn’t become a three-time Olympic champion.

It’s safe to say at some point I fell out of love with rowing, and I slowly started to realize that it’s not actually what I want to dedicate my life to. Due to a long distance relationship and being away from my closest friends for almost 4 years, I started to value different things in life.

The fact that I didn’t win the Olympics wasn’t because I was lazy or slacking during workouts. It was because my values in life changed, and it’s okay if you change your goals along the way. You can’t possibly know, especially at 15 years old, what you want to do as a grown-up.

Thankfully, I was able to look back, embrace the journey and still be happy with my athletic performance. Embracing the journey is something we so often forget, as we’re so focused on the goal itself.

Planning your life with similar major goals can seem pointless at first, but it’s not, and I’ll tell you in a second why it’s worth setting unrealistic goals.

Your habits define your success (or failure)

I didn’t just wake up one day and think “OK, I’m going to win the Olympics now”.

I woke up on a dark autumn morning when it was raining, and I decided to go for a 10K run in the forest before school. I created habits which moved me closer to my goal and followed them day-by-day. When others went home after school, I went to practice. When others were enjoying their summer or winter breaks, I worked out twice a day.

Actual footage of me waking up early on a cold autumn morning, contemplating my life decisions and my ultimate goals.

Goals are achieved by building habits which eventually lead you to achieve that goal. To achieve, you need to consider what you’re doing every day – what’s the habit you have that will help you reach your goal eventually. For me, it used to be working out consistently.

It’s often the case that the winning and losing teams share the same goal – they just had different habits. That’s why one is winning and the other is losing. The difference lies in their habits.

I believe that you can set unrealistic goals if you create habits in real life that are going to get you closer to your unrealistic goal. With the right habits, in the best-case scenario, you’ll achieve your unrealistic goal.

More likely though, you’ll re-evaluate your ultimate goal – as happened to me: I re-evaluated my goals along the way – graduating from the university and landing an awesome job became my ultimate goal eventually.

In the worst case scenario, you’ll achieve a level or a few below your unrealistic goal.

For example, I didn’t win the Olympics but we got a silver in the NCAAs (essentially US universities’ championships, which is pretty high-level rowing). And I was freaking happy about it, because I embraced the journey.

Get to know yourself

Also, setting unrealistic goals makes you work really hard to achieve them, so hard that your definition of “hard work” changes, and you finally see what you’re capable of. You get to know your limits.

For example, I found out that I could study for 8 hours during the night and then immediately survive a really hard 2-hour work out at 6am. I was capable of it – for one day. It’s definitely not healthy, don’t try it at home. It should not become a habit.

I believe that if you can create the right habit which feels natural, you’re already halfway to achieving your goal. For me, it felt natural to go for a run through slush, to row in 30+ degrees or the pouring rain, to ski a marathon etc. It was just part of my routine preparing me for the end goal, and I (mostly) enjoyed it.  

However, when you google “setting unrealistic goals” you’ll see a lot of articles about why you shouldn’t set unrealistic goals, and these articles do have a fair point.

By setting unrealistic goals we often set ourselves up for disappointment, as we often cannot achieve them. And it can be discouraging.

Setting realistic goals still matters, too.

I don’t only set unrealistic goals, as it probably wouldn’t get me very far.

Here are some of the realistic goals I set myself for last year (2018):

  • Read at least 5 books on (dividend) investing
  • Get started with dividend investing
  • Incorporate a company
  • Do the final stretch and get that MBA!

I achieved all of the goals on this list, even exceeded them. But this list isn’t complete, and I can confess that I didn’t achieve 3 goals which I wanted to (out of 15). And I still don’t think I’ve failed, as my life goes on and I still have a chance to achieve them.

It’s important to be determined and focused on your goals, but it’s definitely not healthy to beat yourself up for not achieving them.

Long term vs short term goals

To make sure I achieve most of my goals, I usually break them up into two types – long term and short term goals.

Long term goals are usually really high-level goals, such as winning the Olympics, and short term goals are little milestones that get me closer to achieving the ultimate goal, such as getting an A for an essay.

Sometimes, breaking short term goals into weekly goals is necessary. In the list above, these are all short or moderate-term goals. I like to keep my ultimate, unrealistic goals in a separate list.

Let’s say your long term goal is to graduate from university. This is probably a goal most of us have had at some point in our lives. When you start at your university, there’s really no point thinking about this goal on a daily basis.

It’s good to remind yourself why you’re there (such as ‘I can’t become a doctor if I don’t have this degree’), but you shouldn’t constantly be thinking about your ultimate goal.

The stuff you should focus on to graduate, is passing your midterms and final exams (called moderate term goals).

To break it down even more, you should think about that essay that you have to submit in a week (short term goal).

And the smallest bit – you should prepare for that meeting you have for a group presentation tomorrow (very specific short term goal).

These last ones are closely tied to your habits – these are the smallest bits you need to do, to achieve the ultimate goal you’ve set. Without completing these small things and creating a habit of completing them continuously, you won’t achieve the moderate term goal of passing the exams, not to mention the long-term goal of graduating university.

Write them down and share them with your friends!

Several studies have proven that when we write things down, we’re more likely to do them and remember them. And that’s why I write down almost all of my goals.

According to Dr. Gail Matthews, you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goals and dreams by just writing them down regularly.

I’ve written down my goals almost every year since 2009, and I know it works. Even though I haven’t always accomplished everything I wanted to, I’ve still accomplished most of the goals that I wrote down.

Goal Setting Pyramid. Source: Kyleen Sherwood

Some goals I wrote down in high school, in 2009 (I found these from my rowing training diary – basically a notebook where I wrote down every practice I ever did):

  • Don’t drop out from school
  • Qualify for world junior rowing championships
  • Stop hating the ergometer
  • Don’t overeat when you get the chance

These are quite funny to read now, 10 years later, but I’m happy I set them. I can see that the things that mattered to me back then don’t matter at all right now. And just to mention – I was never close to falling out of school, so I’m not sure why this was even a goal on its own.

And also, I didn’t stop hating the ergometer. But other than that I was able to achieve all of them, according to my 2010 year review (I wonder how I measured the overeating goal…).

Share your unrealistic goals with your significant other

Since last year, my husband and I share our goals with each other, and this is really effective! We constantly encourage and remind each other of our goals, stuff like “hey, you shouldn’t eat that ice-cream as you need to lose the kilos you promised!”

In fact, more than 70% of people who shared their goals with a friend (or friends) achieved them. And only 35% of those who didn’t share them achieved them.

This year we filled in a worksheet together, answering the relevant questions. The person who created the worksheet intended it as a 2-day retreat for couples, where you set your goals for the year.

We didn’t have a retreat, but I highly recommend you try it out, as it really helps you set strong goals for the year and share your goals with your significant other.

Visualizing your goals is an important step before you can achieve them. You can check out my last post about visualization here.

Are goals which we haven’t achieved failures?

No. To dream big and set unrealistic goals, you need courage. When setting the unrealistic goal, you need to be capable of believing that you can actually achieve this unrealistic goal. Otherwise, you never will, and you’ll most likely not achieve these little successes on the way to this goal.

A lot of people are so afraid of failure that they never set unrealistic goals. Therefore, if you’ve dared to tell your friends, that you’ll be the next Olympic champion or the next unicorn startup founder, you’re already far closer to achieving the goal than those who don’t even set unrealistic goals because they’re too afraid to fail.

If you’ve dared to tell your friends, that you’ll be the next Olympic champion or the next unicorn startup founder, you’re already far closer to achieving the goal than those who don’t even set unrealistic goals because they’re too afraid to fail.

Failure is essential to success

Failure is inevitably part of every success story, and that’s why we shouldn’t be afraid of failing. I’ve failed countless times, starting from my failures and burnouts in rowing to choosing the wrong major at university.

But I never let it bring me down or think that these failures limit my capabilities. They just make me better at admitting my failures and moving on.

For you high-achievers reading this, here are a couple of fun facts:

  • Richard Branson tried to beat Coca-Cola by bringing ‘Virgin Cola’ to the market – needless to say, that ended in failure
  • Brian Chesky (the founder of Airbnb) couldn’t get an investment of 150K USD
  • And Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team

Most successful people have failed several times, this shouldn’t come as news.

“You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure, or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that’s where you will find success.”

Thomas J. Watson.

I haven’t figured out why we’re so afraid of making mistakes and failing. If we’d be more accepting of our own and other people’s failures, we’d have so much more innovation, support and other necessary things in this world.

By setting goals and fulfilling them I’ve learned that my capabilities don’t have limits – it took me a long time to learn this. I genuinely believe that with the right habits, determination, and hard work, I can do anything, and so can you.

There are definitely areas which I’d rather not go into (for example astrophysics, statistical mathematics etc.), but they’re also not relevant in my life at this point, so I don’t stress about the fact that I’ll never be a good astrophysicist. I have no desire to become one.

In the end, the way you deal with your failures defines your success. You either learn from them and move on or you play the victim card for the rest of your life, and think the world, or ‘society’, or ‘the patriarchy’ or seven thousand other factors hurt you.

We’ve all had failures, and for me, they’re the best learning points to change something in my life.

Conclusions:

Setting unrealistic goals can often end up in failure, I’m not denying that. But it would be worse if we wouldn’t be setting unrealistic goals, as we wouldn’t really progress anywhere if everyone was afraid of failing. I never won the Olympics, and I don’t consider myself a failure.

It’s not worth beating yourself up for not achieving your unrealistic goals. Such behavior won’t get you further. Think of everything you learned along the way. You can even write down your learnings if that will show you that you didn’t fail.

To fail and stand up again – this is where success and courage lies.

“Why not now? There’s really nothing holding me back, other than people’s opinions, which is not a real thing.”

Flynn McGarry

Further reading on this:

Henriette Anne Klauser – Write it Down, Make it Happen: Knowing What You Want and Getting It.

Caroline Adams Miller – Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide.

Scott Adams – How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of my Life.

John C. Maxwell – Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success.

Related article:

What are some of the most insane goals you’ve set for yourself? Have you achieved them? If not, what did you learn about yourself?

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