My lecture at Princeton had just ended with smiles and enthusiastic questions.
At the same time, I knew that most students would go out and promptly do the opposite of what I preached. Most of them would be putting in 80-hour weeks as high-paid coffee fetchers unless I showed that the principles from class could actually be applied.
Hence the challenge.
I was offering a round-trip ticket anywhere in the world to anyone who could complete an undefined “challenge” in the most impressive fashion possible. Results plus style. I told them to meet me after class if interested, and here they were, nearly 20 out of 60 students.
The task was designed to test their comfort zones while forcing them to use some of the tactics I teach. It was simplicity itself: contact three seemingly impossible-to-reach people â€” J Lo., Warren Buffett, Bill Clinton, J.D. Salinger, I don’t care â€” and get at least one to reply to three questionsâ€¦
Of 20 students, all frothing at the mouth to win a free spin across the globe, how many completed it?
Exactlyâ€¦ none. Not a one.
Bigger Goals = Less Competition
There were many excuses: “It’s not that easy to get someone toâ€¦”, “I have a big paper due, andâ€¦,” “I would love to, but there’s no way I canâ€¦” There was but one real reason, however, repeated over and over again in different words: it was a difficult challenge, perhaps impossible, and the other students would out-do them. Since all of them overestimated the competition, no one even showed up.
According to the default-win rules I had set, if someone had sent me no more than an illegible one-paragraph response, I would have been obligated to give them the prize. This result both fascinated and depressed me.
The following year, the outcome was quite different.
I told this cautionary tale and six out of 17 finished the challenge in less than 48 hours. Was the second class better? No. In fact, there were more capable students in the first class, but they did nothing. Firepower up the wazoo and no trigger finger.
The second group just embraced what I told them before they started, which wasâ€¦
Doing the Unrealistic is Easier Than Doing the Realistic
From contacting billionaires [here’s how one reader did it] to rubbing elbows with celebritiesâ€”the second group of students did bothâ€”it’s as easy as believing it can be done.
It’s lonely at the top. 99% of the world is convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre middle-ground. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming. It is easier to raise $10,000,000 than it is $1,000,000. It is easier to pick up the one perfect 10 in the bar than the five 8s.
If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.
Unreasonable and unrealistic goals are easier to achieve for yet another reason.
Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.
If the potential payoff is mediocre or average, so is your effort. I’ll run through walls to get a catamaran trip through the Greek islands, but I might not change my brand of cereal for a weekend trip through Columbus, Ohio. If I choose the latter because it is “realistic,” I won’t have the enthusiasm to jump even the smallest hurdle to accomplish it. With beautiful, crystal-clear Greek waters and delicious wine on the brain, I’m prepared to do battle for a dream that is worth dreaming. Even though their difficulty of achievement on a scale of 1-10 appears to be a 2 and a 10 respectively, Columbus is more likely to fall through.
The fishing is best where the fewest go, and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit homeruns while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.