How to Set More Realistic Goals

realistic goals

Graduate at the top of the class.

Become a CEO.

Get on the cover of Forbes.

Have the world’s most influential leaders on speed-dial.

Save the world.

Lofty goals consume us, sometimes in healthy ways, sometimes not so much. Goals are everything — they tell us where we’re going and inspire us to do what it takes to get there.

Nevertheless, no matter how beautiful and well-defined our final destination might be, without the rest of the map to guide us there, it’s nothing more than a pretty picture on a piece of paper.

Debunking the Myth

Here’s the biggest misconception about goals: As long as they’re created and the aspiration to achieve them is great enough, they’ll be accomplished.

Wrong. Back of the line.

Making goals isn’t enough. Knowing where you want to be in 20 years is important, obviously, but what about in five years? One year? Next month?

The reason why some aspirations are so popular (especially when related to money or prestige) is that they’re intentionally vague. It’s easy to latch onto something that has no prerequisites explicitly advertised. Thus, everyone wants to be a millionaire but nobody knows how to start.

Individualizing the Universal

The only way to accomplish said-goal is to see how it fits into your own life. You are unique. Odds are, the goal is not.

Take stock of your current career and financial circumstances, talents, and passions, and be brutally honest with yourself. Then you can begin aligning the ambiguous path you’ve been lusting after with your special abilities and interests.

While being honest with yourself is the most humbling part of redefining goals, being fair is definitely the hardest. Once you’ve taken inventory of where you are, remember who you are.

What do you have that your coworkers don’t? You may be in the same place right now in your careers, but your potential is vastly different.

  • Maybe you’re a desk jockey but have a real knack for public speaking
  • A writer who’s always enjoyed logic and math
  • A lab tech who finds great ease in communicating even the most complex ideas with others.

The job you’re doing now isn’t taking advantage of all you have to offer. Don’t be bitter about it, you’ll use these gems soon enough, but for now remember why you’re different.

Fight or Flight

Now think about your current job. Naturally, it would be easier to stay in this position and try to climb the ranks or otherwise fulfill your career goal, but it’s better to realize its stagnation now rather than later.

Is the course being set for you here going to bring you to where you ultimately want to be? Is it at least possible?

If the answer is yes, you should definitely stay where you are for now. Use your unique attributes to further your success in ways only you can.

If another 10 years into your occupation, accounting for likely promotions, has you taking another path entirely from the one that will lead you to your goal, then that might be the best thing for you.

There’s a reason you took this job, and if passion had anything to do with it, there’s something more for you here than a paycheck. It’s worth revisiting your original goal and deciding if you shouldn’t alter it to accommodate the joys of a path you never thought you’d take.

However, if your crystal ball is showing you in another several years no closer to your goal or another you’re happy with, it’s time to divert your path. No amount of money can compensate for the regret you’ll feel of a life spent going nowhere fast.

Breaking it Down

Any goal worth achieving is going to be incredibly challenging. This has no bearing on how possible it is to fulfill, just how many details need to be filled in.

For example, let’s backtrack a few years and say your goal is getting admitted into a top-ranked university. What might that require?

  • A solid GPA
  • Leadership roles
  • Involvement in extracurriculars
  • Volunteerism
  • A high SAT score

So for a teenager, this could sound overwhelming. That’s OK — right now we’re separating ourselves from the goal and objectively considering what it would take for someone (not necessarily you) to accomplish.

Now let’s bring it home. Take the requirements, be they well-known or what you think the goal necessitates, and make a tentative game plan.

How do you improve your GPA? Consider your study habits, your assignment or group selection process, your relationships with teachers and tutors, your other distractions, your learning limitations, etc. Once you have a list of strengths and weaknesses, you can tackle the difficulties currently keeping you from your goal.

The bottom line? If the goal is vague, break it down until it’s overwhelming. When it’s overwhelming, break it down until it’s itemized. When it’s itemized, apply your situation to the list and determine how you can hop those hurdles right into the finish line.

Embracing the Detour

Stark reality: We can’t all graduate from the top of our class, be a CEO or get on the cover of Forbes. These are the catchy sound-bites we look to for inspiration, but even after individualizing them, creating mini-goals or diverting the path, we just might not get there.

You have to accept that. You have to be okay with it. Most importantly, you have to know that wherever your efforts get you to, if not the original goal, it’s somehow better for you in a way you may not realize.

After all, as Soren Kierkegaard said,

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

(Photo by sciencefreak / CC BY)

Sydney Nye is an undergraduate at Stanford University majoring in chemical engineering. She is expected to graduate in 2018.


  1. Guilherme on the 11th August

    I think the detour is very critical,
    I even stopped calling anything on a longer timescale than 3-6 months a goal but a sub vision – in the end we chase outcomes achieved through those goals, the better we recognize that and act accordingly the more energy we can put in moving forward instead of beating ourselves up.

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