Don’t set goals based on what you think you can achieve

From Principles, by Ray Dalio:

Don’t rule out a goal due to a superficial assessment of its attainability. Once you commit to a goal, it might take lots of thinking and many revisions to your plan over a considerable time period in order to finalize the design and do the tasks to achieve it. So you need to set goals without yet assessing whether or not you can achieve them.

This requires some faith that you really can achieve virtually anything, even if you don’t know how you will do it at that moment. Initially you have to have faith that this is true, but after following this process and succeeding at achieving your goals, you will gain confidence.

Every time I set goals, I don’t yet have any idea how I am going to achieve them because I haven’t yet gone through the process of thinking through them. But I have learned that I can achieve them if I think creatively and work hard.

I also know that I can “cheat.” Unlike in school, in life you don’t have to come up with all the right answers. You can ask the people around you for help—or even ask them to do the things you don’t do well. There is almost no reason not to succeed if you take the attitude of 1) total flexibility — good answers can come from anyone or anywhere and 2) total accountability — regardless of where the good answers come from, it’s your job to find them.

It’s been my experience that if I commit to bringing creativity, flexibility, and determination to the pursuit of my goals, I will figure out some way to get them. And as I don’t limit my goals to what seems attainable at the moment I set them, the goals I set tend to be higher than they would otherwise be. Since trying to achieve high goals makes me stronger, I become increasingly capable of achieving more. Great expectations create great capabilities, in other words.

(1) Cf. Think big.
(2) Thank you Guy Cohen for tip.

7 thoughts on “Don’t set goals based on what you think you can achieve

  1. Very interesting. I would add one more necessary pre-condition to making this approach successful: a culture where it’s better to hit 90% of an ambitious goal than 100% of an attainable one.

  2. Agree. I also think that it’s much easier to think about ambitious goals in a three year time frame than a one year or half year time frame. If you ask “Where do I want to be three years from now?”, that tells you a lot about what you need to be doing in the next year.

  3. At the end of the day the only thing that matters is what you actually achieve, not what you achieve relative to your aspiration. (Everyone forgets the aspiration after the fact.) The only question people care about is “Did you achieve something meaningful?”.

    Ray is saying that you’ll achieve more with an ambitious goal than with an unambitious goal. In my experience, the most common reason people don’t achieve great things is lack of ambition and asking the right questions, rather than being ambitious, asking the right questions, but not succeeding.

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