Sunday, February 1, 2009

Backing into your dreams

The most effective goal setting happens in reverse, when you pick what you want and work backwards to see how you can get there. It's easiest to tackle your biggest goals in baby steps, and working back from the finish line helps you step in the right direction. I map things out in writing.

For example, it has been a lifelong dream of mine to meet Bruce Campbell, so I can start by writing that down ("MEET BRUCE CAMPBELL"). I can meet him by luring him out of his palatial Hollywood mansion with the smell of a delicious, fresh-baked pie, so I would write "BAKE A PIE" under "MEET BRUCE CAMPBELL." The logically preceding step would be "LEARN HOW TO BAKE," although I shouldn't forget to include "LEARN BRUCE CAMPBELL'S FAVORITE TYPE OF PIE," and "FIND OUT WHERE BRUCE CAMPBELL LIVES," which should all be listed as steps towards our eventual meeting. I'm done once I have worked my way back to the point I'm at now, which is ignorant of Bruce's address (and pie preferences) and unable to bake (but full of ambition). Then I have a roadmap that I can follow upwards to realize my dreams.

This method also works to encourage parallel thinking and to recognize more than one way to reach a goal. For example, I don't need to bake a pie, as long as I have something that looks like a pie ("BUILD FAKE PIE") along with a way to simulate that new-pie smell ("GENERATE EXCITING SMELLS"). This is great because once I have laid out all of my options I can choose which ones will take the least amount of work for maximum efficiency. I can also work on multiple strategies so that I have backup plans if something doesn't turn out the way it's supposed to ("RENT PIE COSTUME").

However, problems arise at the two extremes of the creativity spectrum: the unimaginative and the insane. Unimaginative people may scoff at my goal of bringing the dead back to life, calling it a crime against God and nature. However, neither of these obstacles are insurmountable. A figurative definition of “dead” allows me to work miracles (CONVINCE NETWORK TO RESUME “ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR” SERIES) or facsimiles thereof (BUY “ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR” DVDS). A little imagination makes it easy to publish that memoir by your cat, as long as you're flexible on the definitions of "memoir," "cat," and "publish."

Far more challenging are the goals that can not (or should not) be attempted. People could waste their entire lives trying to eat braised leprechaun calves, and that's not even a goal that wastes the lives of others. All it takes is one person going about the courtship of Jodie Foster the wrong way to ruin things for everyone.

That's why there is something to be said for having your plans reviewed by a third party. The internet, the yellow pages, or even the line at the unemployment office are all excellent places to find one of the hundreds of thousands of professional coaches out there who will help you develop a plan of action in exchange for money (or in some cases, a hot meal). A coach can align your goals with more realistic and achievable expectations, like helping you realize that turning milk into yogurt can be as personally rewarding as converting mass into energy.

Whether you are working backwards on your own or with assistance, the method helps not only to reach your goal, but for seeing if your goal is worth reaching. Why spend 12 years teaching a cat to play the banjo when it won't even put you on the cover of Cat Fancy magazine? After a thorough examination of your objectives and priorities, you may find that you can set the bar for your goals so low that you accomplish something by doing almost nothing at all ("MEET SOMEONE NAMED BRUCE").