5 ‘Easy’ Steps for Making Your Unrealistic Goal a Reality

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.



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  1. This is an awesome summary of goal setting and dreaming big! Thanks, Matt.

  2. I loved hearing you speak at Fleet Feet in Nashville! Thank you for including us on your book tour!

  3. Congrats on being done with the book tour! Glad you got some great food over here on the West Coast especially in Oregon, I’m sure 😉

    What would you recommend for people who are looking to set a new time goal in running but don’t know exactly what we are capable of?

  4. Excellent advice, Matt!

  5. Matt, it was so awesome to meet you in Chicago in October. That was just an awesome way to finish up my PR marathon experience here! 🙂 so glad the book tour has gone so well for you, too.

    This post? Awesome. Just fantastic. I think I’m going to have to start linking to this almost as often as the ‘burned boats’ entry 🙂 This was a fantastic read and one that, I think, will ultimately set many people over the edge and force them to essentially get over themselves and whatever ill or preconceived notion they have that’s preventing that from getting started in the first place, from taking the first few steps toward eventually achieving [insert big bad scary but awesome thing here].

    Personally, I hadn’t really thought much about what my big and scary and OMG goal is for running recently, just because I’ve been so fixated on goin sub-3:20, but I think this sealed the deal for me. New big and scary goal? After sub-3:20? Sub-3.

    Yea, I said that.

    Not now, not in my next marathon, or even the one after that, but eventually. It’s so totally on.

    Thanks again for lighting a fire under me 😉 I’ll be sharing the hell outta this entry. & huge congrats and kudos to Doug for goin for the big 1-0-0… excited to see his progress over the next few months!

  6. Well done on writing your book and finishing most of the tour – a great achievement on top of the 100 miler.
    I have an idea for your next goal – what about coming to Europe to run the Grand Raid des Pyrenees 80 or 160Km (might as well do the 160Km as you’ve already done 100 miles!)? You can come and stay in my holiday house next door! http://www.famillebaulf.com. Without setting a massive goal I would never have moved here on my own with my children and set up home in a country which speaks a different language to my mother tongue. No problems now, everyone bilingual and would never go back. You are absolutely right – set the goals high.
    The GRP’s a great race (www.grandraidpyrenees.com), fantastic scenery, ambiance and support. A bit tricky being “no meat” here in France but it’s getting much much easier and vegetables abound in the markets so if you make your own or grow your own you’re fine!
    Keep up the posts – it makes a difference.

  7. What a great post! My husband and I are in the middle of working out one of his “unrealistic” dreams and this is a great push to keep on going!
    As for goal setting, when we’ve completed major parts of his dream, it’s been necessary to step back and take a breather. A little rest has always helped get the creative juices flowing again and given us the ability to set new goals and continue to dream bigger.

  8. While raising my daughter my biggest goal running-wise was just to be able to get a decent run in every day and stay in shape (not gain weight).

    Congrats on your tour and making it back safe.

  9. Mine was to BQ. People like you helped me realize that it’s totally possible. I just BQed this weekend at the Richmond Marathon and the biggest help for me was to let go of the mentality that it wasn’t possible. Once I let go of the limits in my head, I could push myself physically and make it a reality. Cut 8.5 minutes from last year’s PR and now I’ll be Boston-bound in 2015. 😀

  10. This was my favorite part of your talk during your tour too (I saw you at Nourish in Scottsdale, AZ) and really hit home with me. Thanks again for posting this and inspiring me (and I’m sure countless others), to reach for and attain seemingly unrealistic goals. I can’t stop thinking about running my first full marathon…SOON!

  11. Thank you Matt!!!!! Very encouraging!!!

  12. Great message!
    Dream big and then make it happen.
    I love the great ideas that happen during a run, I also agree about blogging about it. It has helped me to stay focused and hold myself accountable, plus it’s fun!

  13. I always find it strange that people that don’t have goals will all of a sudden think you have failed at a “unrealistic goal”, especially when you have got 90% there. I have several goals that I would be really happy with if I only achieved 90% of them.

  14. Awesome post, and totally true. I year ago, I hadn’t yet run a 5K. But I decided that I wanted to run a half marathon, then I decided I want to run Boston. 10 days ago, I finished my first marathon on my trek to Boston, and I will get my first sub 4 hour marathon in March, and so on and so on until I qualify for and finish the Boston marathon. I’ve achieved other smaller goals along the way, and will continue to set new more bite-size goals on my path. But Boston is my goal. My friends, family, and blog readers all know it. And the support I feel from all those sources continues to fuel me. Well that support and a whole lot of plants fuel me.

    I really appreciate this blog/site. Thanks for such an amazing resource. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

  15. Awesome post! I love the part about how if the goal doesn’t keep you up at night with butterflies, it’s not big or exciting enough! I’m in the middle of achieving my goal of living in Italy for three months (I head back to the states in January!) and I’m already thinking about goals to focus on then. But I’m finding that I having a little bit of a hard time focusing on the moments now as well as balancing prepping for the next phases in my life, goals wise. Any thoughts on that?

  16. Awesome post! I just set some new ‘unrealistic” goals. Complete the RW holiday streak when I haven’t run in forever, finally get to 10:00 minute mile running, I can’t get lower than 11:11 My first sprint triathalon in May, and my first half marathon in October. It’ll be a year of unrealistic goal crushing, and I”m scared and excited!

  17. I loved this post. Thank you!

  18. AVL_Paddler says:

    Ended up on this page accidentally due to a completely unrelated google search while trying to think of a word. Took one look at the picture and said, “I know where that spot is…it’s here in Asheville on the French Broad. I paddle there.” Then looked down and saw the writer was from Asheville too – too small a world!!!! What are the odds?

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