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In Defence of Small Victories

Posted by on January 22, 2007

I am a sucker for a good rags to riches story. I always have been.  I love seeing the underdog succeed.  I am absolutely inspired by stories of people who overcome big odds and silence the critics and doubters to achieve great things.  My favorite movie by a long short is Rocky (although Warrior is pretty good…) and yes I did cheer for Tim Tebow this year.

My love of the underdog, for those people who dream big, fight with all their hearts, and somehow overcome, motivates me to seek big goals and dreams of my own.  To this end I’ve read all of the standard “dream big” books (Magic of Thinking Big, Think and Grow Rich, everything Tony Robbins has ever written, among many others…).  I don’t know why I have such a fascination with this subject.  Perhaps it is because I am the grandson of a poor immigrant who fought his way to carve out a life of comfort for his family in a new country.  Whatever it is I’ve always wanted to have a victory story of my own, and I’m working every day to achieve that.

In 2011 I thought that it would be “dream big” year for me.  I took a different approach to my goals than I normally do.  I tried to focus on a “big 5″ – that is, only five goals (big goals) that would very meaningful to me if I achieved them.  Everything else in my life would be secondary to these large (and stretching) goals, and I would dedicate my focus and daily attention on them only.  These goals covered not just financial, but also relationships and contribution to others as well.

The general premise behind this idea is sound.  Focusing only on the big things that you want should, in theory, cause you to take concerted daily action toward these lofty ideals.  The acute focus on these goals will drive you, and the compelling nature of what you want should be enough to pull you forward when you encounter challenges or discouragement along the way.

At the end of 2011 I did an inventory of my year and the things I accomplished.  From all objective standards I had a great year.  I made more income than I ever had.  I helped build another business with my wife and established a consistent passive income stream for my family. I went on multiple exotic trips.  I had meaningful experiences with my wife and family.  I contributed to others in the community and specifically went out of my way to help others.

But I ended the year feeling somewhat disappointed.  This confused me, as my life had definitely progressed in positive ways in 2011.  In reviewing the year, and analyzing my feelings, I realized a couple of things:

  • The goals I set were lofty and compelling.  However, they lacked definable clarity.  They were general in nature and better described as “ideals” which covered five areas of my life (fitness, family relationships, contribution to others, financial freedom and career achievement).  As a result, it was impossible to know “when”  or even “if” the goals were accomplished.
  • Since the goals were not specific I never got to experience the “feeling” that is associated with accomplishing something (even though I was achieving results).  I realized that I had taken for granted how important this feeling actually was.  When I fully analyzed the year I also realized that there were many days were I was discouraged and although I had lofty ideals pulling me forward I rarely acknowledged the “small victories” along the way and I didn’t register the associated positive feelings with these small victories.
  • I also realized that not acknowledging small victories caused me many times to experience self-doubt and fear when thinking about my ability to achieve my lofty ideals.  There were many times that I silently wondered whether my goals were too high, and whether I have what it takes to achieve them. Therefore it was hard to develop significant momentum throughout the year.
  • Also, there were many days that I never really felt that I was making any progress at all toward my goals.  I would work hard each day, but since my goals were general in nature I had a very difficult time feeling any sense of progress.

This method of self-analysis resulted in a major discovery:  Progress and achievement, at least for some people, is influenced by individual emotional states as much as it is by knowledge, skill or concerted effort.  

I am a believer in big goals and big dreams.  I always will be – but for some people (I would say me included) a natural emotional state is to engage a healthy dose of subconscious self-doubt when it comes to our actual ability to take on the impossible and win.  There are many people who are exceptions to this.  They believe in themselves, no matter how daunting the obstacle may be.  Most self-help books profile these individuals in exhaustive detail.  But for those of us who experience fear and self-doubt we have a hard time identifying with these types.

I realized that  for those of us who fear and doubt it is critical to control the emotional game, and build momentum, when attempting to achieve a lofty goal.  As a result, when I sat down at the beginning of the year to plan out 2012 I took a new approach:

  • I started out to write my massive goals (and they were lofty as always) but this year I made them specific and quantifiable (so that I would specifically know when and if I achieved them).
  • I didn’t just stop at the big goals – I then let the pen go and I wrote specific quantifiable goals that would be necessary to achieve my massive goals.
  • By the time I was done this I had written about 80 goals for the year.  To make it fun I added an additional 20 specific, quantifiable goals that would generally enhance my life (goals relating to travel, fun, music, exercise, contribution to others).
  • I finished with 100 clearly defined specific goals – some massive, other quite small.  Since this exercise I have looked at this list everyday and as of today (January 21, 2012) I have accomplished 6 of them.

In the three short weeks since this exercise I am amazed at the distinction in how I am feeling.  A couple observations:

  • The process of tracking these goals (and reviewing them everyday) has really engaged my mind to become clear about what I want.  I am more motivated to structure my time efficiently so that I am making daily progress.
  • Each time I achieve a goal I take a yellow highlighter and cross it off the list.  I realized that I love this process. Each time I do this I experience a small victory.  This small victory makes me feel great.  It gives me confidence and it is highly addictive.  I want to cross off more and more of these.  I feel like a kid.
  • I’ve managed to turn achievement into a game.  This is making it much more enjoyable.  Last year felt like a grind – constantly pushing forward to achieve my ideals.  So far this year feels like a game.  There is a huge emotional difference.
  • Each time I achieve a goal my confidence grows.  As my confidence grows my momentum grows. As my momentum grows my belief in my ability to tackle the massive goals also grows and I am also more acutely engaged in my attempts.

I believe this will be a fun year of achievement and I am excited to report on the progress at the end of the year.  If it goes well (which I think it will) I may have stumbled on a method that will become the norm for me going forward.

So for those of you dreaming big here is my advice: Keep dreaming big.  The world is truly blessed by individuals who dream big and have the courage to take action on their dreams.  However, set up the game to win emotionally.  Set, track and acknowledge small victories.  These will give you momentum, confidence and enjoyment.

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