Why “Unrealistic” Goals Matter

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In 1990, a young man named Geoffrey Canada, returned home to Harlem on a mission.  His goal – to “end the cycle of poverty in Harlem by transforming all aspects of children’s lives”.  Most would say it was an unrealistic goal rooted in naivete and bravado.  But Mr. Canada, a man who had defied all the odds since early childhood, continued undeterred by his doubters.

He began his work by joining a well respected non-profit organization that offered a variety of programs for children and their families.  Canada felt it was not enough.  It was too “safe” of an approach to bring about the kind of sweeping change he desired. He reasoned that he could not reach his goal by addressing only a few “problem areas” at a time.  Canada’s vision was to create an all encompassing program that targeted all areas.  His proposed solution led to the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone project.  The project initially identified a specific 24-block area in Harlem where Canada and his team would create unparalleled programming and support services to include educational, social and medical services.  This web of services would create a safety net so tightly woven that children in the neighborhood could not slip through.  Today, this program targets a 100-block area and is on track to serve over 10,000 children by 2011.

Canada’s initial goal for the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) Project was just as bold and brazen as the creation of the project itself.   The HCZ project defined success when 100% of the children in their designated area attended college.  100%?!  Defintely not realistic.  His vision was so intrepid and so “out there” that few believed it could be accomplished.

Canada expanded his 100% promise beyond college admissions and included it as a benchmark for all services offered.  The 100% promise became an unwavering principle that would drive everything that was done within the program.

What did his “unrealistic goal” lead to? The New York Times recently referred to the Harlem Children’s Zone as “one of the most ambitious social-service experiments of our time.” New York Times editor, Paul Tough, was so inspired by the program that he wrote a best selling book about the endeavour called, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America”.

The HCZ team’s dedication and determination led to a windfall of funding sources to help make Canada’s vision a reality.  The budget for the HCZ Project for fiscal year 2010 is over $48 million, costing an average of $5,000 per child.  In addition, President Obama recently approved a nationwide intiative to replicate the program in cities across the country.

And what about that 100% promise?  Here are some of the results to date.

  • In spring 2009, 100% of third-graders at HCZ elementary schools scored at or above grade level in the statewide math tests.
  • 100% of pre-kindergarteners were at grade level for the seventh consecutive year
  • 87% of HCZ 8th graders were at or above grade level on the statewide math exam in 2009.
  • 90% of high school students in HCZ after-school programs went on to college.
  • 197 students were accepted into college for the 2009-2010 year, representing 90% of all HCZ high-school seniors.

New Year Resolutions

If you’re in goal setting mode for the New Year consider the Harlem Children’s Zone story before beginning the process.  Ponder Geoffrey Canada’s unwillingness to compromise or settle.  Sometimes it pays to reach for what you truly want even if it appears unreachable. I’m a big fan of goals that stretch and inspire a person to action.  If a goal scares you just a bit I say great!  True goals, in my mind, should hit at the core of your very being. They should bring life to your dreams and cut through all the layers of resistance or ego based nonsense.  And if you’re lucky enough to give service to those kinds of goals then congratulations are in order.

So why are “unrealistic goals” a better bet?  Here are two less than obvious reasons that are worth a look.

Reason #1

It’s difficult to hold onto dreams.  Most of us are inclined to focus our energies on more practical matters. We struggle with making sense out of the tense duality that exists between holding onto our dreams and dealing with the practical realities we face on a daily basis.  Our dreams often take a back seat to more pressing matters.

And here’s where the irony of the situation comes into play.  Playing it safe is risky business!

It can, in fact, produce the exact opposite effect you intend.  Since most people focus on the safer route they place themsleves in similar situations as the majority of their peers.  When you and I do this we compete with the masses.  If we look for jobs in all the obvious places, define service offerings that are indistinguishable from others, or choose marketing channels that are saturated and over crowded we create far more challenging situations for ourselves.  The competition becomes fiercest the more “realistic” our goals become.  And because the competition is greater, we spend the majority of our time and energy on goals that produce nominal results.

If you’re concerned that setting “unrealistic” goals are a recipe for distaster, know that goal setting doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.  There is a balance you can achieve.  Surprisingly, setting lofty goals can bring about very practical outcomes.  As you work towards achieving your “unrealistic” goal you will no doubt create invaluable experiences and build new skills that will make you more marketable in the near future.  In fact, the more you reach for the unbelievable the more you place yourself in remarkable situations that are impossible to replicate.  These are experiences that will make you unique and will open up more opportunity.  

Reason #2

The second reason why I believe “unrealistic goals” are easier to achieve has to do with the excitement and energy they provide.  You and I are more willing to ride the peaks and vallies that inevitably arise when we work towards our goals if they are in line with our true passions and desires.  If a goal speaks to the core of who you are then you will not give up.  You will find a way even if the end result looks a bit different from what you initially set out to accomplish.  This is a distinguishing factor and a competitive advantage that cannot be ignored.

Yes, practical goals are important and being realistic has its place.  But your ultimate goal shouldn’t be sacrificed in the process.  I believe you should be “smart” when setting a target but be wary of being “realistic” because it puts too many limits on what is possible.

A goal needs to challenge and test the limits of possibility.  The practical aspects should be centered on the plan you create to ultimately achieve your goal, not on the goal itself.

Geoffrey Canada set a remarkable goal, he positioned himself for success by venturing into territory no one had ventured into before, and then he defined a sound and comprehensive plan with unwavering principles that achieved remarkable results.

I have no doubt you and I can do the same.


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