Keep Your Big Goals to Yourself

It’s more fun that way.

There are two kinds of big goals: Selfish and unselfish. You should probably have both.

The selfish ones you’ve probably had since you were nine. It could be a fancy car, a big house, or a trip around the world.

Let’s go nuts with this: You want to buy the Empire State Building. It costs a billion dollars. What happens if you proclaim your goal at every chance you get? People will do one of three things. They will either commend you for your goal and cheer you on, laugh at you, or shrug and move on with their day.

The cheerleaders will show you respect. They’ll applaud you for tackling such a big challenge. Ironically, this praise before the achievement will make you feel like you own the Empire State Building already, and if you continue to receive and feed on it on a regularly basis, it’ll actually kill your drive to make your dream really happen.

Scientists call this a “social reality.” “Your brain mistakes the talking for the doing,” Derek Sivers explains in a TED talk, and considers the talking good enough. In a study, students who proclaimed their goal of studying did less actual studying but felt better about their progress than their quiet-keeping counterparts.

The haters, on the other hand, will become enemies you can set out to prove wrong. While those laughing at your goal might provide actual fuel to work, their inspiration will come at a high price: You’ll become angry, and angry people can’t think straight.

Worst of all, your newfound zeal will most likely be based on a false narrative. Despite making an offhand comment, the hater probably isn’t really a hater. Like the people who shrug their shoulders, they just don’t care at all — and you’re fighting a ghost.

The real question, then, is would you still want to buy the Empire State Building if you couldn’t tell anyone that you own it? Because if not, that’s a stupid goal to have, even for a selfish one, where the bar is already low.

Accountability can be helpful, but not for a distant, lifelong dream. Only you can conjure the perseverance for that from the depths of your heart. Think of all that pressure from weekly check-ins for a finish line that’ll take years to reach. Regardless of whether those check-ins are well-meaning or not, they’ll amount to decades of passive-aggressive energy, and should you actually make it, the best you can hope for is, “Oh, you finally bought it. Good for you!”

Okay, but what about your unselfish goals? Well, you should figure them out. They’re the best ones to have. The dynamics, however, are similar. In fact, they might be worse.

When you’re trying to build a school, you’ll likely get a lot more compliments than sneer, and so you’ll feel even more like a big shot without doing anything. If you’ve ever donated ten bucks, then vaguely remembered you donated something at the end of the year, and promptly felt like a philanthropist, you know what I mean.

It’s fine to acquire all the help you can get for a charitable goal, but make sure the help is focused on helping — donating rice, shipping the goods, volunteering on weekends — not lulling you into complacency via premature praise.

I’ve been following Leo Babauta from Zenhabits over the years. In 2019, he said he wants to “change 100 million lives through his uncertainty training.” If Leo counts every reader of his blog, which are already in the millions, that might be feasible. But if he means the paid program with, three years later, I’m guessing not more than a few thousand customers, that flag he planted looks a bit odd there, sitting on his hill.

It’s an honorable goal, but, like everybody, Leo has changed his mind many times over the years. He used to write a blog called mnmlist, but he quit. He used to run the Sea Change Program, but he quit. That’s perfectly fine! We all do it! In fact, Leo does it less often than other big bloggers. But if he changes his mind five years into the journey, it’ll not only look like he failed to his audience (that part is acceptable), but worse, he’ll feel as if he actually failed.

“Well, I guess five million is good too.” Can you imagine saying that and actually feeling disappointed? It sounds crazy, but it happens. It is sad how depressing an extraordinary achievement can sound if you’ve set the bar at “impossible.”

OR, you could, you know, not tell a single soul about it. No matter what your goal is. Selfish. Unselfish. Silly. Come on! Be really selfish. Keep the dream only for yourself. See how long it’ll last, and if it does until you achieve it, you will enjoy the moment. I can see the headlines now: “Mystery Buyer Silently Snatches Empire State – Rumors of Batman Abound.”

A quiet smile is worth a million pats on the back and a million more of fist-shaking opponents. Learn to make new realities without much fanfare. Find the contentment you seek not in the trophy you’ll attain but in the journey you’ll have taken. As long as you take the right steps, you’ll discover that contentment on even the muddiest of roads — and even if you make your entire pilgrimage in silence.