“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Putting a man on the moon looked impossible, certainly when you consider that the US wanted to do it first and they wanted to return the man to earth safely. The feat is even more impressive when you realise that for nearly 50 years we haven’t managed to do it again. It was the power of the goal that made it possible. It was insane and, most importantly, awe-inspiring.
As human being we like goals. They give us purpose, a focus to channel our energies towards. When we set a goal we invest ourselves into the target as though we’d already accomplished it. Our goals enable us to accomplish things we never could have achieved without them.
When JFK set the near impossible SMART objective of getting to the moon first, and then getting back safely, he turned the US space program into one of the highest performing organisations we will ever know. He enabled NASA to establish and drive Project Apollo with a clear purpose and drive. He made the goal so incredible that it inspired and enabled the previously impossible to happen. He showed everyone the importance of having a clearly defined, awe-inspiring goal.
It is worth acknowledging that setting a goal isn’t enough. As anyone who has set a new year’s resolution can attest, goals alone don’t get the job done. It’s what comes next which is important. How do you turn the goal into meaningful action? How do you form new habits which enable you to achieve the goal? How do you keep going forward when it is easier to stop or go back? This is tough, and is why you want awe-inspiring goals, not ordinary goals.
Ordinary goals (often defined using the SMART approach) rarely inspire. They are often achievable, but do we care. Every few years I lose about 5 pounds over a couple of months to get myself back to an acceptable weight. I can know I can do it. It’s a clear, SMART goal. However, I only do it every few years because I struggle to be motivated. Why bother? But give me the goal of running a marathon and I’ll lose more than that amount of weight and would train daily for 6 months. Running a marathon is an awe-inspiring goal for most of us.
The secret to an awe-inspiring goal is that it must do as it says – inspire awe in us! It needs to make your mouth water. You need to want it so badly that you’ll go through the pain required to get there, and deal with the real fear of failure along the way. The goal needs to motivate not just in the immediate term, but the long term. The goal has to be awe-inspiring in the following ways:
- Near impossible, but not impossible: You need to believe the goal is possible. If the goal is too extreme, you’ll never get out of bed. There’s no point as it isn’t going to happen. To push yourself towards your target there has be enough there for you to believe. For example, if JFK had set the moon landing goal a few years before then the outcome would likely have been very different. The soviets would not yet have had put a man into space; the belief that you could get to the moon and back would have been laughed at. Yet in 1961, with the soviets showing that space could be conquered, it was just about believable.
- Worth the price: The goal has to be worth the pain. Too often many of us decide we want to get fit, but never do so because we’re not willing to pay the price. For this reason you must set the goal in such a way that it is worth the price. I remember my grandmother couldn’t give up smoking. Nothing could deter her; she had been smoking for 60 years. Then a doctor told her she wouldn’t see her great grandchild if she continued to smoke. She gave up that day. JFK understood the cost when he set the moon goal. His goal clearly stated that they had to get a man to the moon ‘first’ and returned ‘safely’. Without those two points would it have been worth price? Would NASA have pushed so hard if the reward was likely to be second place, or if it was acceptable to leave a man on the moon?
- Clear: It is important not to confuse goals with visionary statements. For example, ‘make the world a better place’, ‘do no wrong’, ‘be the best’, ‘change the way the world thinks about X’ are all visionary type statements but are not clear enough for proper goal setting. The goal must provide a focus and clear end point. Giving a team a goal of building an amazing product isn’t good enough. There is too much confusion. However, to tell them to build a product which is the number one seller at Christmas next year will give them greater clarity and purpose.
Awe-inspiring goals are important. If you want people to step up and be top performers you have to set these goals. This is how top sports professionals do it. They set their awe-inspiring goals of winning it all. They do need to then break the goal down into mini goals, define a winning strategy, form habits which help them perform and go through all manner of pain to achieve their dreams, but all of that would be ten times harder without the awe-inspiring goal to get them through it. Close to fifty years ago we put a man on the moon because we dared to set an awe-inspiring goal. Let’s remember and use that.