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Why setting realistic goals never gets you as far as you could go

Nov 20, 2023

Choice of the matter

*Warning – movie spoiler alert!*

I find it hugely frustrating when I’ve stayed up late to watch a film and it finishes with me thinking: ‘What a waste of time that was. I wish I’d not bothered and gone to bed earlier!’ Not so with Nyad – a biographical drama about the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who at the age of 60, decided to commit to achieving her life-long dream. Nyad’s dream was an open ocean 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida, without a shark cage. In 1978, she had attempted this swim at the age of 28 years old, with a shark cage, but at around 76 miles and after swimming for 42 hours, Nyad was pulled from the water due to strong swells which were taking her off course.

Celebrating her 60th Birthday, Nyad refused for this to signal a time to slow down. When she told her best friend Bonnie Stoll of her desire to attempt the epic journey again, Stoll thought her friend was mad.

“Imagine doing something you know no one else can do,” Nyad said. Quite the cross to bear but Diana knew that she had that swim in her- that she could do it, and after each failed attempt, you could see that it wasn’t that she wouldn’t give up, it was that she couldn’t give up. The ambition, drive, grit and determination were so ingrained. There is a narrative throughout Nyad’s story stemming from her teenage years, which seems to explain her motivation, and this adds to the pure power of the journey she took herself on.

The quality of your life is a reflection of the quality of all your past choices, including how you choose to think about things you didn’t choose to happen. At this moment you are exactly where you want to be based on your values, except for any lighthouses that you might encounter, which in Winning Edge terms, means a situation that you have no power or influence over. 33 years after her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, Nyad had obviously reflected that she wanted to conquer what had previously eluded her– a bold choice but one entirely based on her values.

On her Birthday in August 1979, on what was to be Diana’s last “competitive” swim for almost three decades, she set a distance swimming world record over open water – 102 miles from an island in the Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida. For this swim, a shark cage was used, and she achieved the journey in just over 27 hours. But, Nyad stopped there, no more marathon swimming. Experts believed that Nyad had what it took to do the so far unconquered Cuba to Florida swim, that she had both the physical ability and most importantly, in my opinion, the crucial factor in success, that Diana Nyad had the positive mental stamina to be able to complete that swim. Sports psychology studies have shown that in ‘extreme’ marathon-type activities, to have strong belief in yourself is more important than the physical energy of youth. But Diana Nyad had hung up her goggles, seemingly for good…

Realistic vs stretching

During a recent Winning Edge LIVE event, I asked the attendees to watch Nyad before returning for part 2 of the course. They had a month to make the time to watch a film which for me, is such a great example of living by Winning Edge principles. If I’m honest, I think I drove everyone nuts how many times I mentioned the movie! I intended to talk about it on the first day of the course, but detecting my passion for the film, I was asked not to go into any detail, so they could all enjoy it, and we could then discuss it when we reconvened. I nearly burst wanting to talk about so many parts of the film which illustrate Winning Edge concepts!

One such theme on the course is around goal setting. At The Winning Edge, we don’t talk about SMART goals. The reason being is that we don’t believe goals should be realistic. Why? High achievers do not set realistic goals, they set goals which whilst achievable, are stretching. They don’t think about limits, they think about exceeding. If you set a goal based on whether you believe it to be realistic or not, your subconscious will go looking in the luggage of your life for evidence of your ability to achieve it, or indeed, if it has been achieved by anyone else before. If Diana Nyad at the age of 60 had given any thought as to whether anyone had previously crossed the Florida Straits without the use of a protective shark cage, and that this should influence her decision, she might have decided against her goal. Having watched the film though, Diana Nyad didn’t entertain the idea of ‘realistic’…!

Here’s a question you should never ask yourself before setting a goal: How? Something you need is absolute faith that you can do it; and if you can’t find that, then pick an easier goal and get over yourself. Strong belief triggers the mind to find the how. The how is the journey from where you are to where you want to be.

To believe…

You may have heard the story of George Dantzig. As a student, he was studying statistics at the University of California in Berkeley. His lecturer Jerzy Neyman, had always put the homework for that week on the board before the lecture. Dantzig arrived late, saw the problems, and noted them down, assuming them to be the homework assignment. According to Dantzig, they "seemed to be a little harder than usual", but a few days later, later than he might normally hand in his homework, he handed in completed solutions for both problems, still believing they were an assignment that was overdue. Six weeks later, Neyman excitedly told Dantzig that the 'homework' he had solved were two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics. Having arrived late to the lecture, Dantzig had missed hearing Neyman tell students that as he was going away for two weeks, there wouldn’t be any homework but for their education and interest, he’d put two so far, unsolved statistic problems on the board. Over time, the story has almost become an urban myth but is testimony to the power of positive thinking– when you believe something is possible, strong belief triggers the mind to find the how.

Rather than to question if something is possible, believe that it is, and your brain will get to work figuring out the how. An open and resourceful mindset will spot the possibilities and the opportunities as they present themselves to you. If you programme your brain with limits, it’s like a self-imposed glass ceiling.

One of my top five core values is personal growth and Diana Nyad is certainly an inspiration to me when it comes to setting stretching goals.

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