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Carl Beuke Ph.D.
Carl Beuke Ph.D.

The Limits of Ambition

Five steps to achievable goals

Jumper (Peak District, UK)

Jumper (Peak District, UK) - (C) Matt Bayliss 2006

Watching the climber, you could tell that he was doing this against his better judgement. He inched his way up the rock face, trembling, tense, gripping tightly. Every couple of metres he would stop and fumble for several minutes, finding a nut or cam to place in a crevice or a sling to place over a protrusion. He then clipped a quickdraw caribiner onto the gear, and his climbing rope through the caribiner for safety, before he continued to climb up above this most recent piece of protection. He was never really sure, though, whether he had placed the gear right, because he had only been shown the mechanics of placing gear that morning.

Over eight metres above the ground, and around a metre above his last piece of protection, he fell. The force of his fall dislodged the cam, and then the next piece of gear, and then the next, and then he hit the ground with a thud.

A group of my friends saw this climber fall and the ambulance take him away, but I don't know how he fared in hospital. At best, it would have been a long and painful recovery process.

In the workplace, people sometimes make similar mistakes to that climber, and at times the result is a collision with reality that can be nearly as painful. People seek roles that are far beyond their current levels of experience and skill, and sometimes they get them. The result can be failure and a difficult ‘managing out' process.

Ambition, achievement striving, and risk-taking are highly valued by our society, but they can come with a dark side. High achievers typically believe in setting themselves ambitious goals and working hard to achieve them (see How Do High Achievers Really Think?), but how do you know when you're pushing things too far?

There are two ways that overambition can bite. The first is skipping steps. The climber mentioned at the start of this article falls into that category. No doubt if he had completed appropriate training and developed his gear placement skills through large amounts of deliberate practice, within a few months he would have been able to scale the rock face in safety, which would have been an exhilarating rather than tragic experience. Focusing on the basics first is one of the keys to success.

The second type of overambition is setting unattainable or highly improbable goals (occasional claims that anything is possible notwithstanding). If I were to set myself the goal of becoming an All Black (i.e. a player in our national rugby team), the odds of success would be functionally equivalent to zero. While ‘skipping steps' often entails risk, the most common problem with setting unattainable goals is the opportunity cost - that is, while you are working towards this goal that you will never achieve, you are missing out on the opportunity to do something else at which you might be more likely to succeed, or which you might enjoy more.

Jumper (Peak District, UK)

Jumper (Peak District, UK) - (C) Carl Beuke 2006

So how do you set a realistic goal? Here are some essential questions to ask yourself.

1. Why do you want this?

It can be hard, but it's essential to reflect honestly on why you want to achieve a goal. Your reasons for wanting to achieve the goal are what will keep you going when times get tough. It's also worth asking yourself what other ways might there be of satisfying the underlying motivations behind your goal. For example, maybe you want to study medicine in order ‘to help people stay healthy', but your level of academic interest and past performance suggests this might be unrealistic and/or involve some undesirable tradeoffs. You could consider setting a goal of acceptance into one of the allied health professions (e.g. radiology or speech therapy) to achieve the same ends by different means. If your reason for wanting to tightrope walk across Niagra falls is to ‘get famous', you could consider making a funny youtube video with you and your dog wearing a silly hat instead, thus reducing the risk of a plunge to your death.

2. What's the base rate of achieving the goal?

The base rate of success is the percentage of ‘qualified applicants' who seek to achieve a goal, who succeed. You can calculate the base rate of success by taking the number of people that succeed in attaining the goal, and dividing that by the number of people that try to attain it. For example, New Zealand's squad for the 2011 Rugby World Cup contained 30 men (15 of whom take the field at the start of a game), and there are roughly 750,000 New Zealand males between 15 and 39 years of age. If you assume that every New Zealand male in this age group would like to be an All Black (most people do), you can calculate the ‘base rate' of becoming an All Black at around 0.004%, or 1 in 25 000. So, to become an All Black I would need to become a better rugby player than 24 999 other young (or young-ish) men, which sounds pretty difficult (because it is). Similarly, in the US many young men aspire to earn a money playing professional sport, but this is often highly unrealistic. For example, statistics show that of high school basketball players, only one in 3,400 go on to play professionally.

On the other hand, the success rate at long-term weight loss is around 20%, which is still pretty difficult but is well within the realms of the possible.

Maybe you are trying to achieve something that no-one else has succeeded at before (good for you). It's worth investigating how many people may have tried before you, and the reasons they failed.

3. What are the factors that increase the likelihood of success?

Find out what leads to success at the goal you are seeking to achieve - you're going to need to know anyway. How many of these factors work in your favour, and how many can you control?

Consider how you compare against these success factors in the light of the base rate of success. For example, you might be tall, well co-ordinated and dedicated to training, but are you taller, better co-ordinated and more dedicated to training than 3,399 other high school basketball players? People have a tendency to ignore the base rate of success and just focus on the success factors when estimating how likely they are to succeed at a given task.

4. What will the cost be of reaching the goal?

Make an informed estimate of what it would take to achieve your goal (e.g. the time and money required). Achieving any worthwhile goal requires tradeoffs and sacrifice, most often the sacrifice of time available to do something else. You are more likely to achieve your goal if you are realistic about this from the outset.

Bear in mind that it's easy to underestimate the costs of reaching a goal (e.g. most people underestimate the time required to complete a given task by over 50%).

Compare the costs of reaching to goal with your reasons for wanting to achieve it. Which weighs the heavier?

5. What's the cost of failure?

What happens if you don't reach your goal? A more positive way of asking this question is, "What's my contingency plan?"

For example, most medical schools have very low acceptance rates. However, applicants who 'just miss out' have a range of other career options which may prove to be equally or more satisfying, depending on their interests (e.g. research, science writing, teaching, or other health professions like pharmacy or dentistry). On the other hand, the cost of just missing out on a professional athletic career could be very high if you haven't planned an alternative to fall back on. The consequences of an overly ambitious or poorly planned hiking expedition could be fatal.

The compelling story test

When you understand why you want to achieve your goal, what the base rate of success is, what the key success factors are, the cost of reaching the goal and the cost of failure, you are in a good position to make an informed decision about whether this goal is realistic for you. Do the answers to these questions add up to a compelling story? Can you convince others that you have a realistic chance of achieving the goal? Can you convince yourself?

Aim high, but don't forget to aim.

p.s. What are your experiences with goal setting? Have you set any goals that you later regretted or realised were unrealistic? Leave a comment if you'd like to share your experiences.

About the Author
Carl Beuke Ph.D.

Carl Beuke, Ph.D., is a psychologist working in management and leadership. He works with the New Zealand Prisons Service and Ministry for the Environment, among others.

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