C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape letters, and many other literary masterpieces once said that an individual “is never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” Many of us associate goal setting with stressful deadlines, coffee jitters, the subsequent crash, unfulfilled dreams, etc. Maybe the goals we set are never fully accomplished. Life happens. Perhaps the goals are too high, or unfulfilling in how low the bar has been set… Whatever the case, there are many reasons we are intimidated or discouraged by our goal setting practices.
And we have all been there. As a young Marine I remember setting marksmanship goals – ironically the term “marksman” has a negative connotation in the Corps, as it is the lowest of the three ranks in rifle qualification: Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. My intent was to to break into the top rank of Expert, and to finish at the top of my platoon.
Qualification day in boot camp was not a lighthearted day. It was cold, bitterly cold, and still dark as we marched to the range that morning – both the recruits and the drill instructors were held captive by an atmosphere of anxiety – the recruits because failing could mean another month in hell, for the DI’s, well, recruits with loaded weapons was a fairly disturbing portion of their boot camp experience – the balance of power seemed to tip out of their favor for this unsettling period of time, and we all felt the ominous tension of both camps weighing on our backs. My rifle was cold on my cheek, and my heart raced, but I had been trained by the best, and I was the best. I took three deep and controlled breaths to lower my heart rate and calm my nerves. Stockweld… Site picture, alignment, focus…focus… CRACK!!!…
The rifle score announcement was far less formalized than I had imagined it would be. I had imagined the entire company gathering to hear the Company Commander call off the high scores and hand out the medals with ceremonial grandeur. I had visualized him pinning the expert badge to my chest, bristling with a frown and look of disgust that could only mean satisfaction and pride in me, the top shooter – the record breaker – the myth and legend of the Parris Island recruits of past and present… Instead our Senior drill instructor called us to the quarter deck to stand at parade rest and listen to the scores read off of a dirt-smudged piece of paper. My expectations were lowered, but it was okay, maybe I would still get the satisfaction of lording it over my peers as my place in the pack was bumped a few notches up thanks to my weapons prowess… Then I started to doubt – that last series of shots had been pretty difficult – from 500 yards the target was smaller than the iron front site post. The wind had chilled me to the bone and my body shivered almost uncontrollably as I did my utmost to finish the qual with a strong score. But had I? As he read off the names in alphabetical order, I knew I was next, right after Hadley… “Recruit Hannibal”… My hands were cold and damp, and my heart nearly exploded… “Recruit Hannibal – FAIL. Recruit Howard..” Yes, my heart sank, and yes I choked back emotions of fear, dejection, and hate of the DI who hazed me for the failure to even qualify.
My body and mind were hurled into a whirlwind of turmoil as I did pushup after pushup and ran until my legs were jelly. I felt my meager lunch rising to my throat as my “Kill hat” screamed bloody murder two inches from my face… Why did this happen? What did I do to deserve this?
That night as I lay at the position of attention (we had to learn to fall asleep like this for some unfortunate reason) I asked a more important question “What am I going to do?” Although it was a question of despair, the next morning I asked myself the same question with the purpose of organizing my thoughts into a plan. And plan I did – I walked through every breathing moment of the prior day, noting my breathing patterns, positions, the wind adjustments – I singled out everything that may have been a mistake and decided on what I would do differently. If I failed again it they would delay my graduation by another month at least. In case you’re wondering – that is an absolute abomination – horrifying, the thought of it. The next day I passed with flying colors – I was now a glorious marksman of the lowest degree, but it felt like heaven. In the years to come, I could never shake off the desire for that shiny silver expert badge, and the next competition I managed to score into the sharpshooter rank. The next qualification I did it. They pinned that beautiful symbol of Marine Corps excellence on my chest and I felt the waves of accomplishment wash over me as my face lit up with a childish grin. I still had a lot to learn, but I had learned one of the most important lessons life was to throw at me – the pay off of obsession – the drive, diligence, practice, and motivation to achieve a specific goal no matter what it takes.
It is this obsession that carries me through each of my goals, and it is what drives me in my search of knowledge. This is one of the strongest factors that sets apart the novice from the expert – the accomplished from the prodigy – the power to create, cultivate, and sustain your obsession – your goal. Think about it. How often have you studied a single topic diligently for days, weeks, months – or worked on a project for a full day without eating or resting? Have you played guitar until your fingers bled, ran until you puked, sparred until your legs give out underneath you? Do your friends laugh at how much you talk about your goal? Is your spouse exasperated at your obsessing over the project? Does your family worry about your undivided dedication to whatever it is that you have undertaken as an important goal?
My point is not that we need to take our goals to an unhealthy place, but simply that your output will equal your input. You get only what you are willing to put into it. This is a universal law. And the fact of the matter is, every individual who has accomplished something great has done so only by putting in a great amount of dedication – time, practicing, effort, pain, thought, planning, analyzing, testing, recording, researching, whatever it is that is necessary for the success of the goal.
Think about that when you make your next goal. Don’t dread it, but welcome it – think of the rewards of achieving your goal, the satisfaction of a job well done – it reminds me of working out – it can be awful, running until sweat pours out of every pore in your body, drenching and saturating your clothes till it looks like you fell in the pond you ran past… But the satisfaction, at least for me, makes it worth it – I know that this run has made me healthier, that lifting for the last hour has made me stronger, both physically and mentally. If exercise doesn’t do it for you, think of a time when you felt fulfilled – what work did you have to do to accomplish that goal? And more importantly, how did you feel when you did it? It is the joy of fulfillment that brings us back time and time again to set new goals, and blaze new trails. Focus on that, and allow yourself to celebrate every accomplishment, no matter how trivial. Make it a point to stop whatever it is that you are doing to pat yourself on the back, treat yourself and a friend to ice cream, or you and your spouse to dinner.
In conclusion, it is good to obsess in order to accomplish great things, but it is impossible to stay motivated without taking joy in the trip there – the accomplishment of the end goal may be worth it in and of itself, but it is hard to get there without celebrating the milestones in between.