If you're working to become better, live healthier, or hoping to make a change, then phrases like “go big or go home” or “stretch yourself” often get tossed around by well–meaning friends, family, and co–workers.
But when is it a good idea to set high expectations for yourself? And when can big goals shoot you in the foot?
Perhaps most importantly, how can you balance the ambition to become better with the goal of remaining happy?
The Power of High Expectations
A few months ago, NPR ran a story that explained how the expectations of teachers can dramatically alter the performance of their students. The story started by covering a famous research study conducted by a Harvard professor named Robert Rosenthal.
In this study, a group of 18 elementary school teachers gave their students a special test that Rosenthal put together. The test predicted which children were primed for a boost in IQ over the next few years.
The catch, of course, was that it was not a special test at all. It was just a general IQ test with a fancy sounding name, but the teachers didn't know this. Once the results came back, Rosenthal picked a random group of students from each classroom and told the teachers that these students were “bloomers” that were predicted to blossom into brilliant students.
In reality, there was nothing different about these students from their peers.
A few months later, the students were given another IQ test. The results were astounding. Students who were labeled as “bloomers” (even though they were simply average students to begin with) scored significantly higher on IQ tests than their peers.
Why did this happen?
Researchers have discovered that the improvement was due to the different way that the teachers treated the students that they expected to succeed. Compared to the other children in the class, the “bloomers” were given more feedback, allowed more time for answering questions, and generally received more smiles, nods, and gestures of approval from their teachers.
In other words, when a teacher treated a student as if they were destined to become smart (even if they were average to start with), the student became smart.
What This Means for You
The school study mentioned above reveals the power that high expectations can have on our lives.
But what if you're not lucky enough to be randomly chosen for the “bloomer” group? Are you destined for mediocrity?
As it turns out, there were two other interesting findings in the study. The first is that all of the students in the classrooms improved, the bloomer group just improved more. So while the support of others helps propel you towards success, you can still make it on your own.
The second finding of note is that the high expectations of the teacher made a big difference for young students, but not for older ones. The high expectations of teachers had no significant effect on students in older grades.
In other words, as you age, the expectations that others have for you become less important and the expectations that you have for yourself become more important. Since there aren't many grade schoolers reading this blog, I'm guessing that this is the group that you fall into.
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When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What Frankl is saying is that you can choose greatness for your life. Reaching your full potential is not something that happens by mere chance, but rather is the result of marching towards a destination that is beyond what you would typically try to achieve.
Most people settle for very average goals because it's “reasonable.” The problem with this is that it creates a lot of competition for things that aren't really worth fighting over. In other words, everyone is battling to achieve mediocre results.
If you shoot for something totally out of the ordinary, however, you'll find very few people doing the same thing.
As a result, there is a certain magic to choosing very difficult goals. If you can get the ball rolling on them, then they are often quite easy to achieve.
That said, not every goal you set should be unreasonable.
Which Goals Should be Unreasonable?
I frequently talk about the power of small wins and daily habits, so you might be confused to hear me talk about how wonderful big, unreasonable goals can be.
Don't worry, I haven't jumped ship on small habits.
Most of the time you should focus on building repeatable, daily habits. This is especially true if you're trying to do something new. In my opinion, focusing on proving a stronger identity to yourself always lays the groundwork for achieving better results later on. Setting extreme performance goals rarely works as well as focusing on building the identity of a winner.
So when is it a good idea to choose unreasonable goals?
When you need permission to do something.
What an Unreasonable Goal Looks Like
Let me share a fun example from my own life.
My girlfriend loves animals, so I wanted to do something fun that centered around that. A normal goal would involve some type of zoo experience or a petting zoo.
Instead of doing that, however, I decided to try something bold. I called around to see if anyone would let us feed the animals and get a private tour.
I ended up convincing a guy at an animal sanctuary to show us around. We had a private tour of the cat house and reptile house, and we fed a 600–pound white tiger named Niko.
Now you may or may not think this is a cool experience, but the point is that asking permission to do something totally unreasonable is often more possible than you think because you're not competing with anyone else.
If you want to build a new identity for yourself, then you should start small. But if you have a goal that requires approval from someone else, then you should try something bold because the competition is basically non–existent.
Even though I'm telling you not to choose big goals when it comes to performance or appearance, I know you still might be feeling like you should. (“I want to earn $10,000 more this year!” or “I want to lose 50 pounds this year!”)
I'm going to continue to preach the power of good habits, but if you're set on reaching for a big performance goal, then there is one thing you need to know…
To Fail is Not a Failure
I view fulfillment as a combination of achievement and appreciation.
When pursuing any goal, no matter how big or small, remember to appreciate how far you have come.
The first thing that many of us do when we fail to reach the high goals that we set for ourselves, is to feel depressed because we have failed. I struggle with this just as much as anyone else.
The truth, of course, is that even if we never reach our high goals, we are much better off than we were before. This is exactly what Victor Frankl was talking about in the video above.
It’s very hard to fail completely, if you aim high enough. But it is very easy to feel like a failure, even if you are much better than you were at the start.
The balance that you need is a combination of appreciation and achievement. When you reach for high goals, you can’t be depressed when you only make it halfway for this is often farther than you would have made it if you had set your sights lower to begin with.
If you're going to go for bold goals and you want to remain happy, then you can’t have a success or failure outlook. Do your best to become your best and be grateful for what you achieve along the way.
Our Community Expects Great Things From You
If you don't think that anyone expects great things of you, then I'm here to tell you that I do.
I want nothing more than for our community to be filled with people who are setting their sights on goals that matter, battling to raise the bar, and enjoying the life that they are creating for themselves.
We don't care where you're starting from. We don't care how far you think you are from the unreasonable goals you have for yourself.
If you're a member of this community, then it doesn't matter where you're coming from because you're not staying there. You're becoming something better.