Most creatives and ambitious types know how difficult it can be to keep a normal, healthy self-esteem. Doing something good isn’t enough – you want it to be magnificent! And if it’s not magnificent, you are shit. And so self-esteem gets trapped between unrealised magnificence and unrealistic shittitude. A close cousin of this is the overambitious idea-killer. You have an idea and it’s great. You keep imagining just how great it could be until it is so amazing that it’s impossible to do. The idea blows up like a bubble until it pops.
We know this stuff. We can all quote Voltaire, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” (Or if we’re being really perfectionist, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”) But sometimes it still slips under the radar – and one of its techniques is The Evil Secret Stretch Goal.
You know your explicit aim for a project – for instance, you’re going to write and publish x book for x audience. But there’s also this lurking dream: wouldn’t it be amazing if…? If it became a bestseller… If it won a prize… If it was shortlisted on such-and-such a list… If it was a massive hit with this other, much wider audience… It’s stupid to dismiss that dream, right? Aim big! Reach for the stars! Don’t prune your dreams! And thus is born The Evil Secret Stretch Goal.
The Evil Secret Stretch Goal has two common results. One is that you achieve your original, explicit goal and you’re bitterly disappointed by your lack of success. Good becomes shitty because it’s not magnificent. Achievement becomes failure. The second, more common, and riskier result is that The Evil Secret Stretch Goal sabotages the whole project. The lurking dream can paralyse you, because now it’s a matter of brilliance or bust. It can also warp the original project – for instance, the whole shape of the book goes wrong, because you’re secretly trying to cater for y audience while supposedly writing for x audience, trying to do b at the expense of a. Your SMART goal has become SMRT (if you count the A as Attainable) or even SMAT (if you count the R as Realistic). SMRT, SMAT, SPLAT! (Stretching, Perfectionist, Laborious, Ambitious, Taxing.)
So how do you deal with The Evil Secret Stretch Goal?
1. Make it not secret. Spit it out on paper.
2. Separate it out: what is your original explicit aim, the good outcome? That’s your goal. This lurking dream / not-so-secret-anymore fantasy is a stretch goal, and an evil one at that.
3. Loosen its stranglehold. Throw these questions at it:
- Is it directly in your control? (Winning a prize, for instance, isn’t.)
- Is it possible even if you don’t include it in your aims? (For instance, it turns into a bestseller. No-one writes a bestseller. They write a book that then sells well.)
- Is it statistically likely? Be honest. Look at the actual stats.
- Is the good outcome still good without it?
- Does it compromise the good outcome? (For instance, writing for two audiences simultaneously)
- Can it be approached separately? (For instance, a second edition for the layperson)
4. Reread the cost – in self-esteem and in actual productivity.
5. DITCH IT. It’s a sweet-tasting poison, a siren song dragging you onto the rocks, a bear trap covered in the pretty leaves of believing-in-yourself.