I once stood upon a tall guard tower situated along the Great Wall of China, barely catching my breath with sweat dripping into my eyes, almost falling apart from the heat and the exertion it took to make it that far. Looking out from the window at the vastness all around, counting the great snaking lines of stone in both directions stretching as far as the eyes can see, I remember thinking, How on earth did someone build this thing?
How indeed? The Wall itself stretches over 3,000 man-made miles, from the China Sea port of Shanhaiguan all the way west into Gansu province. It is one of the world’s most impressive architectural feats known to history, and it holds one of the greatest myths as the only man-made structure to be visible from space (this has since been debunked but who’s counting?). Such a grand undertaking, but you can bet it didn’t start out that way.
No dream, if it is big enough, should not scare the dreamer witless. If you are not scared of your dreams then perhaps you are not dreaming big enough. But if we all ran away at the boogeyman hiding within our heart of hearts then a great crowd would be paddling away in the kiddie pool while no one cannonballs into the deep end, and the Great Wall would simply be a Great Fence.
Visions are built one step at a time, and those steps, conveniently, are given a great acronym – SMART. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely – these handy steps remind us to re-frame the end goal, to break it down into smaller steps so you aren’t trying to jump across the ocean in one leap, instead you are creating stepping stones along the way to help you cross. Making SMART goals can help make any grand vision achievable, just ask Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who I’m sure employed these same tactics to motivate his laborers into achieving his Great Wall dreams (that or the whip, another tried and true method).
SMART goals are efficient, they are like the middlemen who keep you striving forwards for your dreams but in smaller, more manageable steps. By breaking things down, you can focus on the task at hand rather than stare at the great unscalable vastness that may be the Bigger Picture. By avoiding this overwhelming encounter you can also avoid by default running into Resistance, Bigger Picture’s right hand man who’s always more than happy to tell you: You’re right this idea is crazy, it’s never going to work. Abort, abort!
But just how SMART do SMART goals need to be? Are we talking about AP classes and Honour Role? Or will street smarts and the occasional B average suffice? I had made my own SMART goals, and as time passed and work and priorities shifted I made SMART goals out of those original SMART goals. Then as those habits, too, changed I partitioned off even more, making my goals smaller and smaller until eventually I reached a plateau where I threw up my hands and waved my white flag in defeat. I was asking for something from myself, and when I couldn’t deliver, it was much easier to throw in the towel than to re-look over what was not working and work with the problem.
What did this look like IRL? I had set a SMART goal for myself to write three pages per day, then eventually as I got used to this and (after developing superhuman habits) I bumped it up to five pages per day, a transition that left my ego purring as my fingers darted across the keyboard like leprechauns hunting for gold on overdrive (oh look at me, my inner voice crowed, I’m a writer). Needless to say the happy story didn’t end there. Eventually life’s twists and turns changed its course and I was no longer writing at the same pace. Like an engine dying a slow death I watched my progress, once flying by at mach speeds, ground itself down into the pace of a genteel man on a walker. My old SMART goals were failing me, but I was so attached to them I refused to recognize its dying breath.
Here’s the thing: SMART goals are only SMART if they fulfill their criteria. When they’re not, it’s time to take to the ol’ chopping block and cut that SMART goal into pieces, picking out the ones that are still working for you and toss out the ones that aren’t. Trying to stick to my old goals of three pages per day was no longer realistic, and furthermore, it wasn’t being met. Rather than reformulating, I tried to keep hitting the square nail into the round peg, and by turning up short each time I only succeeded in grounding down my own motivation instead.
Where I was wrong was thinking that SMART goals always stay the same. That by setting them out, they are the new standard. What I have since learned is that setting a SMART goal that works for you in the reality of the moment is much more important. A small step is still a step forward if it is taken in the right direction. Getting yourself lost in your own expectations and walking around in circles actually gets you further less. It is important to break your goals down into smaller steps, but remember to be flexible if you need to be, and to take time to be happy and to be grateful with your progress. This whole process is a journey, and there are no finish lines we can truly predict.
When Emperor Qin Shi Huang first laid out his vision around 220 B.C. of a unified China, one with a single wall system extending ten thousand li to protect the country from invaders, it was a vision that did not corroborate immediately with reality. The magnificent wall he envisioned began as a pile of earth and stone, resembling not so much a Wall than a Not-So-Great Fence. But that didn’t stop Emperor Qin, and with time that pile of rammed earth and stone turned into brick, eventually becoming the recognizable wonder it is today. It may have taken thousands of years to reach this point, but in the end, looking at the irreplaceable gift that is offered to the world today, who is going to say the time and effort wasn’t worth it?
Author’s Note: Please remember to Share, Like and Subscribe, it would really help to spread the word and get some ideas out there to more people. Looking forward to hearing from you in the comments below! See you next Wednesday.