It’s Time to Set an Impossible Goal

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Written by Kate McGunagle

What are you dreaming about these days? And what are you dreaming about–impossibly? 

I only heard of the notion of “impossible goals” recently, which is strange. As a perfectionist, I’m very familiar with the fantasy of reaching for the moon and, once arriving there, not being satisfied. Yet there’s a difference between perfectionist fantasy and impossible goals–the former is often caught up in notions of self-worth, perpetuated by a cycle of “never good enough” thought patterning. This is a cycle familiar to high-achieving individuals (but you don’t have to be ambitious to fall prey to perfectionist thinking!), one I’ve seen often in the education work I’ve done over the last decade. Such a cycle can be crippling, no matter what your definitions of success, achievement, or “perfection” are, because it prioritizes the endgame. And it probably doesn’t make you feel any better about yourself!

Here’s an example: Once I get into Princeton, I’ll finally prove that I’m good enough. 

And another: Once I start a multi-billion dollar company, I’ll show the world and my parents and everyone who loves me that I’m capable.

Impossible goals, on the other hand, are a paradox. They allow you to articulate dreams that feel unattainable (but actually, most likely, are very much in your reach). They can be a healthy way of identifying a beautiful dream–provided you think they’re impossible for the right reasons. If you think a goal is impossible because you aren’t good enough, that’s perfectionist thinking again! But if you think a goal is impossible because you’d have to make a lot of changes, acquire a new skill set, challenge yourself, and so much more in order to attain it–those are all very good reasons for something to feel impossible. Why? Because that kind of impossible goal emphasizes the process it takes to get to an endgame, not the other way around.

Here’s an example: I’m setting an impossible goal of getting into an Ivy League college, because I’m excited about the person I’d have to become in order to do that.

And another: My goal of becoming an expert at origami is impossible because every time I try to make an origami swan, it looks like a dying cow, and I’d need to put in so many hours to become skilled.

I like the idea of impossible goals because it stresses curiosity. I’ve helped many students in recent years craft college application essays, which increasingly ask applicants to discuss their character, qualities, and unique perspectives of the world. So many colleges place a premium on curiosity, and many of my students have ended up writing essays that stress their intellectual appetites. Why is curiosity so awesome? For colleges, it demonstrates students who will likely make the most of their time on campus and go out into the world following graduation brimming with the knowledge they need to positively impact their communities. But curiosity is amazing because it cultivates a lifetime learning mindset. A curious mind is most likely to seek out what it’s capable of, and get endlessly excited when it learns that it’s capable of so much.

For all the students out there, I pose a question (one you might have already seen in a college application, or one you will see someday): what are you curious about? Who are you curious about becoming? These are the big questions nobody is likely making you ask right now. They’re the ones I wish I had asked more when I was a student. But their answers are likely to get you started (and focused on) an illuminating (and impossible) journey.

References: The endlessly inspiring work of Kara Loewentheil; the Atlantic’s podcast “How to Build a Happy Life”

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