Choosing the Right Goal

Top 10 in Rio

I was once told that while cooking is an art, baking is science. 

This came as advice from a friend to help me realize that why I don’t always need to measure things out in the kitchen when I’m throwing dinner on the frying pan, I should offer some care to the proportion of flour and sugar when baking a cake. I love cooking, but am learning to be better at the rigidity of baking… But my cooking struggle may be a blessing. I would argue most things I cook are healthier than most things I attempt to bake.

Regardless, goal setting is like cooking for me. It’s different every time and involves a lot of “by feel” decisions. Throwing the same set of rigid guidelines to everyone is nearly certain to not work for some. We need to find what works for us, individually. Then as individuals, we need to continue to tweak our process.  

For this reason, I don’t attempt to offer insight on how to carry out a goal. I think such knowledge takes a lot of personal experience. If you are looking for this kind of help I might advise reflecting on achievements you are proud of, and guess at why you were able to succeed. I only offer a tip on how to know if you have a good goal

If the goal gives you anxiety, it’s probably too lofty. If the goal doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning, it might not be grand enough. 

This is my simple gut-check. My goal-test method was developed during college while working with sports psychologist Craig Manning. I entered college with a poor perception of goalsetting, and he helped me see that it can be a very enabling process.

In high school, I had a coach who taught me that “It’s better to aim for the stars and miss than aim for the gutter and hit.” I owe Coach Buhrley for this enabling mindset that propelled my running career from high school. And I loved that someone just gave me the stamp to set whatever goal I wanted. But nearing the end of high school, through my LDS church mission, and into college, I gradually began to develop bitterness towards goal setting.

I viewed the process as a carrot on a string. I put something out there I want, then I chase it endlessly. I rarely get the carrot because the carrot is so lofty, but others write off the failed effort with a passing ‘at least you got further than you would have without it.’ The process lost its luster after when I realized I only get the carrot when I get a lucky break, and goal setting motivation slowly died.  You can only fake me so many times.

Craig Manning helped me take the time to find goals that are exciting and goals that I can realistically achieve. He helped me select the exciting, close stars before shooting for the big stars. If the goal gets you excited and doesn’t make your eyes go wide, he said, then you have the right goal.

I have utilized this gut check on many goals since. When preparing for the Olympics I wanted to set the goal to get a medal. That was a fun dream. But the reality was that when I thought about writing that goal on my bathroom mirror (my process), I would get really nervous. I struggled for some time but eventually became excited about shooting to finish in the top 10. The top 10 goal didn’t make me nervous, and it empowered me in some sense. Plus, top 3 is still within top 10, so my goal included some podium spots and didn’t set a ceiling on my performance.

Had I just set the goal of a top 3 finish (because that was the star I really wanted to hit), I would have really struggled with 10 miles to go in Rio as I watched the leaders pull away. But with my goal as a top 10 finish, my then current position of 15th wasn’t so far off. I could wrap my mind around what I would have to do to move up to where I wanted to be. My goal was realistic, and it enabled me. My advice is to trust your gut as a gauge of realistic goals.

When I crossed the line in 6th, I was excited. The media jested at how I was the most excited 6th place finisher they had ever seen at the Olympics. I guess most athletes that are close goal for medal or bust. But I was happy! I had just had the best race of my life, and I achieved my goal.

By: Jared Ward

Instagram: @jwardy21