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The Psychology of Ambitious Goals & How to Set Them

Let’s talk about ambitious goals. We’ll look closely at our own psychology to understand why we must set them, and get you working towards your own.

The key takeaway of this article is that you’re capable of much more you can imagine right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my experience mastering different subjects and undertaking various projects, it’s that we always reach places we couldn’t imagine when we started out. Really take that to heart and apply it to everything you do, and you’ll already be ahead of the curve.

Know that, by necessity, ambitious goals seem way beyond your current capabilities, scare the wits out of you, and seem impossible to achieve. If your goals tick those boxes, you’re being ambitious. If not, you need to aim higher. You’re sabotaging your own potential.

Let’s begin by discussing why we should set ambitious goals.

Why Set Ambitious Goals?

You Overestimate The Next Year and Underestimate the Next 5 Years

Look at your past achievements and you’ll realise that initially you made less progress than you expected, but then surprisingly rapid progress followed.

It’s a well-known maxim in the self-help field that when considering our trajectory towards a goal, we overestimate what we’ll achieve in one year, but underestimate what we’ll achieve in five years.

This is a great first reason to set ambitious goals: short-term we’ll achieve disappointingly little; long-term we’ll achieve surprisingly much. So let’s think long and shoot high.

You Wildly Underestimate Your Capabilities

When you set goals, you’re in the present. So if you choose the ordinary, unambitious approach to goal-setting, your estimations are all based on your current life and self, your self-image, your skills, your know-how.

Not only do you see your struggling, incompetent self now, you see it in two years tackling the very same issues you are now. Except, by definition, that future you is not you! It’s the you with those two years of experience behind it, and it’ll look and feel very different to your current self. It’s working from a much higher baseline.

What’s more, we tend to struggle to project into the future. One month is manageable, six months too. One year is a little fuzzy. Two years is distant, five years is surreal, ten years is non-existent. Beyond ten years, forget it.

And the more our goals relate to our immediate needs, like the need to make money, the more short-sighted we are.

For these reason, our goals usually cover the next year or two, at most. They are based on our current self-image, so inevitably fall short of our potential, as we’ll see.

All this means we won’t be able to tap into the power of accumulation, or compound interest, or exponential results.

Results Accumulate

You must understand that skills and success do not build linearly.

In linear thinking, the outcome is directly proportional to the time elapsed. It grows at the same rate no matter how much time has elapsed.

For example, if you think foreign-language skills accumulate linearly, you’ll believe that the first year of study produces the same jump in level as the second, and the third, and the fourth. It’s a dull, predictable, shallow straight line.

Think linearly, and you fail to take into account exponential accumulation, which is how growth in the realm of skills and success really works.

Sure, as you start out, you feel like there’s no progress. The learning is slow, and the project is tedious and laden with setbacks. You try and try and try, with no discernible effect.

But here’s what happens. As soon as you make progress, your new starting point is higher. You have more skills and experience to draw on. You can focus on what’s working and cut out what isn’t. You make more connections between the parts. You work more efficiently and creatively. You’re expending the same effort but at a higher level.

What happens is that results begin to accumulate: the more results you get, the more you’re able to produce in the same amount of time. It grows more quickly with time, in proportion to your current level.

All this means that results are exponential, not linear. They follow an explosive hockey-stick curve, a rocket that shoots off into the sky and never comes down.

So when it comes to goal-setting, realise that what seems ambitious now will seem natural and inevitable months and years down the line. Right now, it seems like a mountain; at some point, it will seem like a tiny bump on the horizon.

Tap Into Exponential Growth

By setting ambitious goals, you’re working under the paradigm of exponential growth. You acknowledge that right now the goal may seem impossible, beyond your capabilities, yet also that you aren’t really best placed to judge your potential, and that trusting in this invisible but reliable exponential growth is the best way.

If you set a small, puny goal, you’re trying to control too much. You’re not enabling exponential growth to take over. By focusing on your current knowledge, skills and capabilities, you’ll inadvertently hamstring your own growth.

Expectations Create Actions, Which Create Your Results

The initial goal defines all your subsequent action. If you set ambitious goals, it means your expectations are higher. The bridge between your current level and future level is greater. This forces you to take greater action with greater focus, which inevitably takes you higher.

For example, if your goal when learning a language is to learn how to order a coffee and ask for directions, this goal defines all your actions. They’ll look very different to those you’d take to become truly proficient at the language. You’ll limit yourself to learning basic vocabulary, a few set phrases and their typical responses, and you’ll expose yourself to input appropriate to that level.

Lo and behold, all you learn to do is order a coffee and ask directions. You’re simply not open to anything else. Your lens is narrow, so inevitably your learning will be narrow too. And your results will be mediocre in the grand scheme of language learning.

On the other hand, if you set a goal to be able to have deep conversations about a range of topics with native speakers, whether or not you believe that is possible right now, your actions will look very different.

Instead of learning 50 words, you’ll learn 5000. Instead of learning set phrases, you learn how the language is structured and how to produce all kinds of sentences. Instead of basic input, you’ll work to understand natives talking at full speed.

You’ve chosen to ascend a tall mountain, and all your actions and preparations must be up to the task, otherwise you’ll never get close. Your results will then match this superior level of practice and preparation.

I hope you’re convinced that setting ambitious goals is the way to go if you want to kick ass. Now let’s discuss how to set them.

How to Set Ambitious Goals

It should be easy to set ambitious goals, right? It seems all we have to do is be ambitious, after all. Yet the art of goal-setting is subtle, and setting the goal is just the beginning. Your goals require continual nursing and feeding. Get this wrong, and you’ll soon forget about them and go back to your usual mindset and habits.

Let’s look at a process you can follow for setting ambitious goals in any pursuit.

  • Write down a mediocre target: first of all, I want you to be clear about your unambitious goals. We all have these floating around in our mind. These are short-term targets that don’t scare us and seem easily achievable. Usually we imagine we can reach them in six to twelve months. You aren’t going to use these: their purpose is merely to show you the difference between mediocrity and ambition.
  • Write down your ideal goal: now, I know you have ambitious goals too, but perhaps you never seriously entertain them. When you imagine these goals, they seem to be the ultimate fruition of your potential, the maximum you’re capable of, distant, surreal, yet inspiring. They also scare the life out of you. Ambitious goals must scare you! If you don’t have any, think of an ambitious target that you’d love to reach and that scares you. I want you to write these down, separate from your mediocre targets.
  • Set a time target: with ambitious goals, we’re apt to underestimate exponential growth, and think it’ll take 15 years when in reality it’ll take five. On the other hand, we’re apt to underestimate the goal itself, and believe it will take one year. Though I can’t give you a specific time target, I’ll say that if your goal scares you, you won’t reach it in a year or two. Think at least five years ahead for this one. Perhaps use a life milestone to help.
  • Repeat for all your pursuits: now, do the same for everything you’re trying to improve in your life. By the end of the process, you should have a list of goals that scare you and you have no idea how you’ll reach, but for which you have a definite date for completion. Yipee!
  • Look at them every day for the rest of the year: as I said, setting the goals is only the beginning. You must take action towards them over years, perhaps even decades. We’ll cover action in future articles, but for now, make sure you keep reminding yourself of them by reading this list every day for the rest of the year.

Ambitious Goals: Examples from My Twenties

I’ve always been ambitious and am used to setting goals that seem way beyond my current abilities. I think these principles have always underlay my thinking and guided my goal-setting. I’ve consistently set goals that are ambitious and scare me, knowing I’d eventually break through.

Let me share a few of my recent successful pursuits and projects so you have concrete examples of how this works. I’ve deliberately chosen pursuits outside of formal education because it’s way more challenging to set goals yourself and reach them under your own initiative.

Spanish

When I started learning Spanish in 2018, I knew almost nothing. Yet, since Spanish is the native language of my girlfriend and her family, I always knew I wanted to reach a high level.

During one of my first formal language classes, back when I was a beginner, we happened to touch on the subject of goals. Out of nowhere, the words “I want to reach C2 level eventually” slipped out of my mouth, in front of the whole class. If you don’t know what this means, at C2 your level is close to that of an educated native speaker.

As soon as I said that, I regretted it. Talk about setting yourself up for a fall. How would I, a person who has never reached any significant level in a foreign language, ever reach C2 level in Spanish? I really wanted to reach it, but it seemed impossible to me.

Roll on to May 2023, five years and thousands of hours of practice later. I sat the official Spanish C2 exam and passed with flying colours.

Chinese

My success with Spanish inspired me to tackle one of the hardest languages of all: Mandarin Chinese.

When I first became interested in this language, I was shocked by its complexity. Even though I have a maths degree, the symbols were overwhelming, unlike anything I’d ever seen. Learning those, let alone speaking this alien tongue, was a daunting prospect.

As I made my way to my first ever Chinese class on a rainy night in January 2020, I knew that I wanted to be fluent, and I knew it would take a long time. It scared me and I was unsure of the how-to, yet deep down inside, I trusted in the power of exponential results and of my own persistence.

Four and a half years on, though I’m not fluent yet, I’m very close. I’ve reached mid-high intermediate level, can hold conversations, read texts so long as I have a dictionary, and recognise over 2000 characters.

Deep Psychology

The same story applies to the Deep Psychology website and podcast. When I started this project in 2021, I was both excited and terrified. I knew I wanted to make a living from it, but I had no idea how to build an audience large enough to make that happen. Building a website scared me. Writing articles scared me. Appearing on Google search terrified me.

Fast forward three years, and now I run public classes, publish podcast episodes regularly, and get thousands of visitors every week. All the goals that seemed so grand and unattainable now look puny. The law of exponential results has taken over.

Ambitious Goals: The Takeaway

Aim high, embrace the fear, work hard, be doggedly persistent, and keep going for months and years, trusting in the process. Eventually, you’ll experience exponential gains and reach places you never even imagined.

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