With the book tour just about wrapped up, it’s great to be sitting at my own desk in my own house writing a blog post again.
The tour has been amazing. So many roads, people, stories, hotels and cities, and so many delicious meals (especially once I hit the west coast). There are still a few events left, including Charlotte, Raleigh, and my hometown of Asheville this Thursday, but these and the remaining dates in Raleigh and Atlanta (maybe) are short drives away. The hard part — all 11,000 miles of it in my Hyundai Elantra — is over. The goal, achieved.
Yes, this self-supported book tour was like any other goal. It started as a speck of an idea that hit me on a run one day, a ridiculous and unrealistic idea. Then the day of intense, excited research to answer the “Is this possible?” question — knowing that no matter what the facts were, I’d somehow bend them into the shape of “Yes.” Finally, going public with it and creating the accountability. At which point it became real … then the rest was just details.
I’ve got plans for a book tour wrap-up post with photos, links, stories, maybe even a recording of my talk … but this is not that post.
My talk each night focused on three topics: running, the plant-based diet, and setting big freaking scary goals. Far more than the other two topics, the ones I thought were a safe bet, it was the talk of goals that people really cared about.
And so with this post I want to share, in a nutshell, what I said about goals while on tour. It’s exactly what I’ve done with just about every goal I’ve accomplished, from qualifying for Boston to the 100-miler to the book tour itself. The steps are obvious, I think, but important enough that they’re worth hearing from as many angles as you can.
1. Think really big.
If I may, an excerpt from Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, which perfectly sums up “thinking big”:
Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming …
If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is, too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.
Unreasonable and unrealistic goals are easier to achieve for yet another reason. Having an unreasonably large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel. If the potential payoff is mediocre or average, so is your effort.
The fishing is best where the fewest go, and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits.
My example: After I set the goal of qualifying for Boston (starting from a marathon time of 4:53, an hour and forty-three minutes too slow), it took me almost four years to run a second marathon. My shins would not cooperate, and shin splints became stress fractures became abandoned training plans. During this time, a physical therapist friend took a look at my legs and told me, essentially, “Matt, you’re just not built for running marathons. Pick a different sport or get used to being injured and frustrated.”
Had my goal been simply to run another marathon and improve on my 4:53, I’m 100 percent certain I would have quit here, with three years of failure to show for it. But the Boston goal was so much bigger than that, my mental picture of success so much more inspiring than simply a second medal, that quitting never crossed my mind.
2. Ask: Does action flow from it?
It should. From the minute you set that big goal, you had better be buzzing with enthusiasm and itching to start. If the excitement doesn’t keep you up at night because you can’t stop thinking about it when you’re lying in bed, then this goal isn’t it.
I can admit that it’s possible the goal is too big — if the goal is beyond crazy and you believe on the deepest level that you simply will not be able to make it happen, you won’t be motivated to do anything. More likely, though, it’s not big enough, and something more “unrealistic” is what you need to get that kick in the pants.
3. Give yourself time.
Simply put: We overestimate what we can achieve in a year and massively underestimate what we can achieve in a decade.
Again, from my experience:
Every single marathon I trained for after I set the Boston goal, I told myself at the outset that this would be the one where I ran a 3:10 and qualified. And for seven years before I was right, I was wrong. I had overestimated what I could achieve in a short time, and as a result, it took me longer to get to Boston than it should have. It would have been smarter to set a course that would take 2 or 3 years, with intermediate goals along the way, than to tell myself each time that “this one is it.”
On the flip side, had you told me 10 years ago when I first set that Boston goal that within a decade I would not just qualify for Boston but also run a 100-miler, I’d have told you that was impossible because nobody can run 100 miles. I had no idea that anyone even ran more than 26.2.
Give yourself time. How you grow and what you learn will compound, and in a few years you’ll get to a point that’s hard or impossible to imagine now.
4. Create massive accountability.
Once you’ve set your crazy goal, the single best thing you can do is take an action, right away. This gets it out of your head and into the physical world, before it can evaporate when the stresses of everyday life do what they’re best at.
If your first action is one that involves other people, so much the better.
Start a blog and write about it. This is the single best thing I did for my personal growth and my ability to achieve goals. At mile 22 of my Boston-qualifying race, I felt the same feelings I had every time before, where the wheels are starting to come off and it becomes more painful to keep pushing than to ease back and face the realization that today is not your day. The difference was that this time, quitting was more painful, because people were watching. So I kept going, and discovered that I had more than I had ever accessed before.
But don’t just start a blog. Also tell your family. And your friends. And Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and everything else. Best of all, get a partner who is equally motivated to go after an equally unrealistic goal, and promise to hold each other accountable each and every day.
If you want to take the island, burn the boats.
*Yes, I know that Derek Sivers said in a TED talk that announcing your goal makes you less likely to achieve it, because it satisfies some part of your personality that thinks announcing it is the same as actually doing it. But I’m not talking about just announcing it — key here is involving other people, deeply and on a day-to-day basis (a blog is great for this), who will take an active and relentless role in reminding you when you’re not doing what you promised them you would.
5. Get to work.
Obvious, I hope. I put this here only because too many people (and I’ve been guilty of it) have the idea that, by visualizing their goal and repeating incantations in their head and “acting as if,” they’ll make magic happen. I’m not saying these things aren’t valuable tools, but if they don’t lead to actual work being done, then they’re not any good.
So what’s my goal?
People asked me this during the Q&A after my talks. A lot.
And my answer is that I don’t have one right now — honestly, this book tour was it. As soon as I finished my 100-miler, the tour was all I could think about, and actually being on tour consumed every last bit of mindspace I have.
I used to tell people (and myself) that you should have your next goal ready before you accomplish your first. This way, I said, you’d prevent yourself from slipping into a rut.
I don’t believe this anymore. I’ve learned that when I force a goal, when I set one just because I should and it doesn’t give my butterflies and doesn’t keep me up at night, then I don’t care enough about it to make it happen.
So now I wait for that inspiration to hit, as I’m sure it will once I come down off this most recent high.
Breaking 3 hours in the marathon would be pretty exciting to me. The Badwater 135 is more exciting, but longer-term and more of a burden for my family.
In time, another speck of an idea will come. Then the day of frantic research and bending the facts to convince myself that I can do it. Then the accountability.
But this is beside the point. My hope is that you’ll take this post as “permission” to think about a goal that’s more unrealistic than what you’ve allowed yourself to think about before, and then go make it happen.
Trust me — the fear of failure thing is overrated. When people see that you’re serious — that you’re going to do it no matter what – well, that’s a lot different from watching you try once, fail, and then give up. You’ll find, if you stick with it, that your failures (and there probably will be some, but just call them “feedback”) won’t entertain your friends, they’ll inspire them.
PS — For some inspiration, see my friend Doug’s announcement of his new goal.