At EduSource, we set goals for ourselves every year to make sure we continue to get better at our jobs. We also set stretch goals—reaching well beyond what we know we can accomplish to see how far we can make it. Maybe I’m the only one who struggles to set stretch goals. But I doubt it. They’re hard—how far do I reach and how many stars am I actually reaching for?

On Sunday, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully launched an unmanned rocket at the Kennedy Space Center that’s headed to the International Space Station. The rocket landed again while the cargo ship continues to the station. It’s a big deal for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the first two attempts ended in explosions (talk about an epic fail). But the accomplishment didn’t strike me as much as something else I read; that Musk’s “goal is ultimately to put humans on Mars.”

Now there’s a stretch goal.

Elon Musk is a genius, that much can’t be denied. The founder of SpaceX and the company that is now PayPal, the owner of Tesla and SolarCity, and a double-digit billionaire, he seems to have some genetic predisposition for success. But it seems to me that another contributor to Musk’s accomplishments is the fact that he has a goal that is literally star-level.

“Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” – Arnold H. Glasow

Clearly my stretch goal is not to put humans on Mars. But Musk’s audacious aim is an example to all of us not only in the characteristics of a stretch goal, but also why they’re important.

 

Characteristics of a stretch goal

Passion-inducing

A stretch goal should be something you’re actually really interested in and care about. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and it will be boring. Boring stretch goals don’t stay goals for long. Maybe space exploration isn’t your passion, but make sure you pick something that is.

Enormous

Don’t think too small. You don’t have to go all the way to outer space, but it’s called a stretch goal for a reason. We’re talking marathons here, not 5Ks. Keep in mind that enormous doesn’t mean monetarily large. In fact, maybe it shouldn’t mean that at all. Making money is great, but money-making as a whole rarely engages the deeper passions of a person. How passionate are you about holding $1,000,000 in your hand? Probably pretty passionate. But why? Not because of the money, but because of what you can do with it, right? So dig deeper than the money and think about the thing you want to do if you had the money. Then do the thing. Don’t make money the goal—it’s only a means to an end.

Difficult

There are enormous goals that aren’t really that difficult, they just take some time. Those are great long-term goals to set for yourself. But don’t confuse those with stretch goals. Stretch goals should be hard. They should require that you exert some actual effort.  They should be things you can’t accomplish with little to no thought or attention. They should engage and exercise your brain, and possibly more brains than just your own.

Why stretch goals are important

Motivation

Having goals is motivating (generally) because you want to accomplish them. Having big goals can have a paralyzing effect if approached the wrong way, because you despair of reaching them before you even try. The beauty of a stretch goal is that while your desire is to reach it, your perspective is different because the goal is so lofty. You are motivated because the act of reaching is beneficial, not just because the thing you’re reaching for is beneficial. In the words of Elon Musk, “if something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”

Direction

The benefit of choosing a stretch-goal that you’re passionate about is that it directs your passion. Smaller goals are helpful, but they also can contribute to what I call “passion-jumping.” It’s easy to lose track of what you really care about and what you really want to do with your life when your goals are scattered all over the place. A stretch goal gives all your other goals an overarching theme. Maybe they’re still all over the place, but now they have a direction they’re bent toward. If my stretch goal is to shoot a rocket into space, I still need to accomplish the small goal of cleaning up the company books in the next six months, but now that smaller goal has meaning in relation to the bigger picture of the rocket launch. Without clean books, the company can’t work toward a big expenditure like a rocket.

The springboard effect

The whole point of stretch goals is that they’re basically impossible, right? I mean, at this moment, what is the rational likelihood that we’re actually going to see humans on Mars in our lifetime? Slim. So why shoot for that? Why not shoot for something a little less grandiose? Well, let’s return to Elon Musk, shall we?

He hasn’t landed humans on Mars, but he’s figured out how to make a rocket that has reusable boosters. No one has ever done that before. And while he’s been working on this Mars conundrum, he’s also developed an idea for a super-fast people transporter that can get from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes. In other words, his stretch goal has become a springboard for a lot of other awesome accomplishments.

The “collateral damage” of a stretch goal is a lot of good ideas. They may not accomplish the final goal, but that doesn’t make them less valuable. This is one time when scope creep is encouraged.

“To achieve anything worthwhile, a person should attempt even those things that may be impossible.” – The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

So go ahead, light the fire. Set a goal that makes you reach so far you may never grasp it. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in the attempt. Your reaching won’t be wasted.

“Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning

Elon Musk’s rocket launched on Sunday at the Kennedy Space Center. This rocket successfully landed again while the cargo ship continues to the International Space Station.