The Importance of Thinking (Ridiculously) Big

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“You can be anything you want to be.”

“You can do anything you want, if you just put your mind to it.”

“Work hard, and you can accomplish anything.”

If you had said these things to me a few years ago—if you had told me how important it is to “think big”—I probably would’ve chuckled at you and walked away, refusing to acknowledge your delusional comments.

I mean, take me, for example. I’m 5’9″, chubby (but working on it!), and a good 12 or so years into my 30s. I also have an egregiously short inseam and limited aerobic capacity.

Consequently, I’m probably never going to be a world-class sprinter. Or an Olympic swimmer. Or a professional basketball player. Or a college hockey player (as I wanted to be when I was younger). Or a marathoner.

Or many other things.

So, in response to exceptionally optimistic statements like, “You can be whatever you want to be!” I say, “That’s just stupid!”

Or is it?

Why Thinking (Ridiculously) Big is So Important

Over the past few years, I’ve come to think a little differently about the idea of “thinking big.”

Why have I changed my mind (and why do I think you should, too)?

Largely, because I think that placing limitations on ourselves keeps us from pursuing things we’re truly passionate about or things we think have the potential to really matter, either to ourselves or to others (or both). We say things like:

I really want to lose weight, but losing 100 pounds would be way too hard. So why should I even try? (Tell that to my good friend, Anastasia, who, over the past few years, set goals for herself, lost over 100 lbs., and ran two half marathons.)

I really want to start my own business, but I’ve never done it before. So I might as well just keep working for someone else. (Tell that to my dad, who became an entrepreneur when he was in his late 30s and turned his little, one-man operation into a very successful, multi-employee enterprise.)

I really want to get good grades, but there’s no way I could ever be an A student and get into graduate school. So why even study? (Tell that to several of my former students who started their college careers earning below-average grades, but who changed their work ethic, dramatically increased their knowledge of psychology, and eventually got into excellent graduate programs.)

I really want to play guitar in a band, but I’m not good enough. So why even practice? (I dare you to tell that to me.)

We come up with all sorts of excuses for why we can’t do it. And we convince ourselves that there’s no way we could ever reach these huge goals. So we don’t even try.

I see this a lot in my college students. For instance, many are afraid of challenging themselves and taking a really hard class, because they’re concerned about ruining their perfect GPAs. So they figure out what classes or teachers are “easy” and sign up for those instead.

As another example, I routinely teach a class on the psychology of passion. During the semester, I ask my students to read about the science of passion and to consider how they might be able to pursue their own passions.

Many of them clearly have hobbies they’re passionate about—yoga, personal training, writing, horse riding, music, and others.

But when I ask them to think about how they could possibly turn these hobbies into career opportunities (which many of them admit they would like to do), they stop short.

They respond with quiet skepticism or even outright guffaws: “I could never do that” or “I’d like to, but it would be too hard” or “I don’t think that’s a possibility” or “It’s just not practical” or “I couldn’t make any money doing that.”

They view it as an insurmountable goal, one that’s just too risky to pursue, one that’s just too big too achieve.

And so they brush off the idea before they even give it a try.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals—Otherwise Known As BHAGs

Now, to a large extent, they have a point: Big goals do seem scary, they do seem risky, and, at times, they do seem insurmountable.

In fact, that’s why Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their classic book, Built to Last, referred to these types of goals as Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs (pronounced “BEE-hags”).

(Well-known business person Jack Welch has referred to these as “stretch” goals. But I’m going to use the term BHAGs instead, simply because it’s more fun to say. Go ahead—you know you want to say it: BEEEEE-haaaaags.)

So, let’s deconstruct BHAGs for a minute.

First, these goals are big, or really important to us (and often to others, too).

These goals are also hairy, or quite difficult to achieve.

And finally, these goals are audacious, or risky.

Geez, no wonder most people are afraid to go after BHAGs. It’s daunting to think about chasing something that’s so important to us, working really hard to achieve it, but then missing the mark.

No one likes the feeling of failing!

But let’s take a look at why Collins and Porras (and many others) have suggested that setting and pursuing BHAGs is vital to achieving success (however each of us defines that term).

Why Are BHAGs Effective?

There are at least three primary reasons.

1. BHAGs energize us.

I could, for instance, set a goal of losing either 10 lbs. or 40 lbs. over the next 3 months. Certainly, the 10-lb. goal would be much easier to accomplish, but the excitement I feel when I think about losing 40 lbs. really motivates me.

Likewise, a student could pick a few graduate programs that might be easy to get into but don’t really excite her that much. Or she could “aim high” and apply to schools that seem nearly out of reach but that would be really awesome to attend.

In each of these cases, the more exciting option is likely the one that’s going to get us moving the most. In addition, if a goal is really exciting (because it’s really important to us), we’re more likely to keep trying if we don’t get it the first—or second or third or even fourth—time around.

But just how “exciting” do BHAGs need to be?

Collins has suggested that BHAGs are ideal when we have a 40% (or so) chance of failing. We’re motivated because we have to work hard not to fail, and we’re motivated because we know that success is still a possibility if we really put our minds to it.

2. BHAGs provide laser-like focus.

Because they are important to us and create a sense of urgency, we tend to focus on what we need to do to accomplish them. Unimportant endeavors—which, if you’re like me, frequently consume much more of our valuable time than they should—ultimately take a back seat. We focus on what matters, and we largely discard the rest. (For a refresher on how to use the “80/20 principle” to identify the most important activities in your life, see here or here.)

3. BHAGs are often easier to accomplish.

When I was younger, someone told me that the prettiest girl always gets the fewest invites to the prom. This is because everyone is afraid to approach her. Given, though, that she’s getting fewer invites than others, you’re actually more likely to get a “yes” from her than from someone else.

Author and self-experimenter Tim Ferriss discussed a similar notion in his New York Times best-selling book, The 4-Hour Work Week:

“It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre . . . The collective insecurity of the world [actually] makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.”

So, at least conceptually, it seems like setting and pursuing BHAGs might be a really good idea. But what does the research say?

BHAGs: Good for Motivation, Good for Satisfaction

In fact, a large body of psychological research supports the idea that BHAGs tend to be better than smaller goals for a variety of reasons.

For example, over the past 40 years, psychologists Gary Latham and Ed Locke have studied goal setting and found that challenging goals tend to increase motivation and performance relative to more easily attained goals. (For a great summary of this research, see here.)

Moreover, setting ambitious goals tends to increase satisfaction. In a series of studies, Cho and Johar found that people who set higher goals and achieved them were ultimately more satisfied with the outcome than people who set lower goals and achieved them.

Because BHAGs are, by definition, really valuable to us, we are more likely to feel satisfied as we pursue and ultimately achieve them.

And if you think about it, that makes sense: We’re probably not going to be real satisfied if we aim low and hit the mark. We’ll probably be left wondering how much more we could’ve accomplished if we had set our sights a little higher.

So, What BHAGs Are You Going to Chase?

There you have it—a few reasons why thinking (ridiculously) big and pursuing BHAGs is actually a very good way to move closer to the lives we want.

Yes, pursuing BHAGs is scary and may produce disappointment along the way. In fact, there’s even the possibility that we may not achieve the huge goals we set for ourselves.

But it’s also important to remember this: The journey we experience as we pursue our own BHAGs is bound to be incredibly rewarding in its own right. As legendary business person Jack Welch has noted:

“We have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible; and even when we don’t quite make it, we inevitably wind up doing much better than we would have done.”

By thinking (ridiculously) big and pursuing goals that, at the outset, seem scary, risky, and nearly insurmountable, we in fact motivate ourselves to achieve outcomes that we might otherwise never achieve.

So, I guess the only question left to answer is: What BHAGs are you going to chase?

To get the ball rolling, I want to set (and openly state) my personal BHAGs:

1. Get down to 200 lbs. by the time my wife and I celebrate our 10th anniversary next year (on July 22, 2016).

2. Be in a band that plays its first show by the end of 2015.

3. Dramatically increase readership to my blog (at least 1,000 views per day) and use it to leverage other professional or business opportunities (writing, speaking engagements, etc.).

If you’re so inclined—and I challenge you to do so—think of some BHAGs you’d like to pursue and leave them in the Comments section below. Let’s get the BHAG ball rolling and see what we can achieve together.

In my next blog post, I plan to write more specifically about the steps you can take to make sure your goal-setting process produces positive outcomes.

In the mean time, let me leave you with this quote:

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3 thoughts on “The Importance of Thinking (Ridiculously) Big”

  1. Maybe as long as you are happy in your profession, you can be passionate about something else, such as a hobby, etc. I don’t know that we necessarily have to be passionate about our profession as long as we are happy in it. Just a thought. JS

  2. I really enjoy this post!
    My BHAGs are:
    > Getting into communication for Spring Semester
    >Getting down down to 144 by next May 18, 2016
    >Also preparing to enlist in the National Guards by next Summer as well

    I am super Motivated &Excited 🙂

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