How I (try to) think about goals

They don't have to be all-or-nothing

In our Friday discussion thread, a longtime member I know only as “Ordinary Bob” shared a great story of something that happened to him on a run recently in his hometown of Tampa, Fla.

One morning he was out for his regular daily run, slogging through the coastal Florida heat and humidity, when he spotted a man running up beside him on the grassy median. When he passed, Bob jokingly asked him, “trying to make this old guy look bad?”

The man slowed down, and he and Bob got to talking about the heat, and well let me just quote him directly:

“… We lamented the heat, the balance between speed, distance, and pain. He asked my name. I asked his name. It was Meb Keflezighi. I asked for a selfie with him. He indulged me. We then parted ways. The rest of my run didn’t feel as hot.”

If you’re not familiar with him, Keflezighi is a 46-year-old Eritrean-born distance runner who’s become nothing less than a legend in recent years, after winning the silver medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics and both the New York and Boston Marathons in the years after.

He’s known equally as much for his kindness and generosity with every runner he meets, as Bob can attest to (and added in Friday’s thread) — “I couldn’t figure out why this guy slowed to chat with me, and why he’d offer words of encouragement. But he’s a champion on the race course and off.”

That got me thinking more about Meb and book of his I own, and why I’ve always been drawn to him and his approach to running (and life in general). I pulled his most recent book, 26 Marathons, off my bookshelf and was reminded why — and found something really interesting inside.

When I read nonfiction books like this one, I tend to jump around in them like a butterfly from flower to flower; I’m looking for things that pique my interest right away, and not so much following a narrative from beginning to end.

So as I was browsing through 26 Marathons, I stumbled across a chapter in which Meb lays out the criteria for what makes a good goal. If you’re an experienced runner and a fan of his, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of these, but they’re worth recalling again:

  • It requires you to increase or improve upon what you’re currently capable of

  • It can be quantified or otherwise stated so that you know if you’ve reached it.

  • It requires intermediate steps so that you know how you’re progressing toward it.

  • It has a date by which you hope to achieve it.

  • It is personally meaningful to you.

The last item on that list, Meb adds, is the most important. We’ll persist through obstacles and setbacks only when a goal really means something to us on a deep level.

So all we need to do is figure out what we want, turn that into a goal, and just go for it… simple enough, right?

‘Giving you reasons to be the best you’

Actually, no. There’s something Meb explains later in the book — in chapter 17, on his experience running in the 2012 London Olympics — that demonstrates how he thinks about his own goals in a way I’m not sure I’d ever heard before.

As great as he is, Meb doesn’t simply set himself a huge, lofty goal — like, say, winning the Boston Marathon — and just go for it. What he does, he adds, is more strategic and thoughtful, a mental technique that allows him to go into tasks with a series of goals.

Here’s how it works:

“Start with your dream outcome as your A goal. Then create a series of cascading backup goals that will also motivate you. When doing the task, try your absolute best to reach that dream goal. If it becomes obvious you won’t reach that goal that day, refocus on reaching your B goal. As necessary, continue to move through your goals so you keep working hard toward the best possible outcome rather than giving up.”

For a runner, Meb adds, how this would work in practice would be to focus first on, say, running your personal best in a 5K. If, in the 2nd mile, you realize it just won’t happen today, you might give up — but what’s better is shifting your goal to improving on your last 5K time. “You can see how this series of goals will keep giving you reasons to be the best you,” he writes, instead of giving you an excuse to simply give up and drop out.

What I love — and find fascinating — is the shift in our mental approach this leads to. We don’t have to look at goals as binary, as if “success” or “failure” are the only possible outcomes. We can shift our goals to match our abilities on a particular day — like a pitcher in baseball, some days we have our best stuff and some days we don’t — and focus our energy on our own effort to try to achieve them, rather than outcomes we can’t control.

There’s a story Meb tells about his childhood in Eritrea that perhaps illustrates the concept even better:

“As a child I had chores such as fetching water or firewood. In the barren areas of Eritrea, it was often difficult to find all that we needed for daily life. I always set out with the goal of fulfilling my mother’s request, such as getting a full basket of firewood. But that wasn’t always possible. Sometimes I could find only enough to fill the bucket three-quarters full, or half full. I still worked as hard as I could to forage the next-best amount. Sometimes I couldn’t find any wood. Then I would switch to finding cow, oxen, or donkey dung for heating fuel. My mother knew that whatever I returned home with, I had given 110 percent but wasn’t always able to do what I had set out to do.”

The truth is, not all of us can win the Boston or the New York Marathon — or the Pulitzer Prize, or an Academy Award, or the CEO job, etc. In fact, only a vanishingly small number of us ever will reach those heights.

But each of us really can improve our skills and abilities in the arena that speaks to our hearts, and we can get better at the thing that truly lights us up and makes us feel fully alive. All we need to do, I think Meb is telling us, is to think about it in a different way.

Enough of me rambling on, though — what do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Your friend,

— Terrell

Leave a comment