By Tom Peterson
This morning’s headline: Solar-powered plane completes round-the-world journey
Do you have an ambitious goal for your life? Does your cause have one? If you do and you faithfully pursue it, it will change your life, or that of your organization. Most do-good organizations don’t have an audacious goal. Instead, they do good. Which is good, I mean truly, that’s good. But they may be missing an opportunity to make a difference on a much greater scale.
A rallying point to do the impossible
After four decades of build-up, by 1980 the United States and the Soviet Union each had roughly 25,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other. Clearly the world would not survive a nuclear exchange, yet thousands of new weapons were still being stockpiled.
A conventional war between the superpowers would almost certainly escalate into a nuclear war that would annihilate civilization.
Political scientist and activist Randall Forsberg decided to do something bold. She pushed to reduce the nuclear arsenals to lessen the risk. Her four-page “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race” pointed out that in half an hour a fraction of the weapons “can destroy all the cities in the northern hemisphere.” Yet 20,000 more nuclear warheads were planned. This escalation, she wrote, would “increase hairtrigger readiness for a massive nuclear exchange.”
The goal of the Nuclear Freeze campaign was bold and simple: don’t build any more nuclear weapons. The effort mobilized people across the nation. Massive public demonstrations of support for the freeze took place around the country, including one in Central Park with as many as one million people. Twelve states and 275 cities endorsed the effort, and 70 percent of Americans supported it. In 1983 Democrats in the House of Representatives passed legislation calling for a freeze and in 1984 made it part of their party platform. Similar responses were happening in Europe and elsewhere.
In 1984 hawkish President Reagan suggested his openness to nuclear abolition. The global massive outcry became a leading factor that in 1986 led Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to agree to begin to reduce nuclear arsenals. The out-of-control proliferation of weapons was slowed by a simple, clarion call.
A bold goal inspires us to accomplish something great. It reminds us why we should give our most even on days we don’t feel like it. Behind great accomplishments are people who deliberately and persistently pursued a singular big goal. “If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.”
Aligning around a focal point
An effort aligned with an ambitious goal can accomplish the impossible. In 1961 President Kennedy announced a goal of sending astronauts to the moon. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
Today we’ve gotten used to people being in space (space stations have orbited the earth since the seventies). But in 1961 a moon trip was a dizzying notion. NASA would have to be transformed, infrastructure would have to be built, 400,000 people would be employed, and (in today’s dollars) $100 billion would be spent. Thousands of problems would have to be solved. The effort would, in Kennedy’s words, “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Eight years later the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. Ambitious goal achieved. Check.
Your bold goal resolves to make a dream come true. You don’t know how. There’s no step-by-step plan. But you determine to make it happen. The goal’s power lies in its ability to focus and align your thoughts and actions over time. Without one, even good organizations with talented leaders and staff are doomed to wander in the land of mediocrity. They may be doing good work but a great opportunity is lost.
Having an audacious goal doesn’t mean you’ll know how you’ll reach it. Not by a long shot. No one in 1961 knew how to send people to the moon. It’s a statement of intent, an organizing point. Everyone is focused, asking, “How do I help us get there? What must we do next?”
A few other things about ambitious goals:
- Ambitious goals take a village to reach. Unless you’re writing a novel, your goal will likely take many people to reach. This mere act of joining forces for a great cause will transform your organization.
- It has to be believable. A goal focuses your energy on a picture, as well as you can imagine it, of what you want the future to be like. But it’s got to be achievable. Bill Foege who has spent a lifetime pursuing bold global health goals said that an important ingredient of eradicating smallpox “was simply the belief that it could be done. In fact, in retrospect, the belief that it could be done seems like the most important factor in the global eradication effort.”
- Most ambitious goals are part of a historic continuum. Malala Yousafzai struggles for the right of children to have education. For that effort, she is the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Her goal is to ensure that every girl in the world has access to 12 years of free, safe, quality primary and secondary education by 2030. She didn’t invent the priority of educating girls. In fact, she benefitted from others who sought to make sure she had an education. Our goals build on centuries of accomplishments of those who have gone before us.
- Your goal is connected to other goals. Even if the scope of your bold goal isn’t global it will likely contribute to other greater goals. Citizens in the state of Uttar Pradesh recently set a world record of planting almost 50 million trees in 24 hours. This effort was part of India’s larger goal of increasing its forested land from 192 million acres to 235 million acres by 2030. And that goal is one more step toward an even greater goal of restoring more than 800 million acres of forests world-wide. This is part of an even larger goal of reducing carbon emissions, and this is part of the ultimate big hairy audacious goal of saving humanity’s ability to live on the planet — by as soon as possible!
- Ambitious goals are about filling in gaps. The Y2Y vision is a 2,000-mile interconnected system of wildlands that will stretch from the Yukon to Yellowstone to ensure the survival of animals such as caribou and grizzly bears. And the East Coast Greenway is a 3,000-mile bike trail that will run off-road from Maine to Key West, Florida. Both efforts are literally about filling in gaps from point to point in our landscape. And both find local partners to help fill in local gaps. While not always so literal, the giant gap between where you are presently and your ambitious goal can be broken down into many smaller gaps. Each one will be filled in through persistence and creative energy.
- Innovation takes front and center. Don’t worry that a singular focus will squelch creativity. Because to achieve bold goals creativity and innovation are more important than ever, they’re just focused. By going into uncharted territory you’ll need all the creativity you can muster. Because of the Child Survival Campaign’s focus, the global child mortality rate dropped from 18 percent in 1960 to 4 percent in 2015. This happened because hundreds of organizations and every single country in the world adopted the goal, and the sub goals of the Child Survival campaign. But each country and region faced unique challenges that required their own solutions. And when a handful or thousands of people work together over time toward a clear objective, the odds of breakthroughs go up exponentially. New doors appear. And ultimately the goal is reached.
- Reaching the goal will be messy. No great accomplishment was achieved without stumbles along the way. Some worse than others. People died building the Panama Canal, trying to sail around the world (including Magellan himself), and freeing India from colonial rule. There’s no easy, smooth path. You hit dead ends and have to back up and try another way. Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” There are never enough resources. So shortcuts, mistakes and sometimes even disasters are made along the way. You do what you think is best at the time and it may or may not advance the program. Either way you’ll learn something and then take another step.
- Ambitious goals will transform. An organization that heads down this road will never be the same. The same goes for personal goals. If you’re committed to doing something really great, it will take time. It will stretch you. And it will change your life. Your ambitious goal may not be global. It may be local, like making sure all vets in your state have housing, bringing a dead neighborhood back to life or radically increasing high school graduation rates. You may not be sending someone to the moon, but you set and reach an ambitious goal. Your life and your community’s life will be transformed. And you’ll make a greater difference in the world.
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