In the past year, six books by well-known authors were published on the subject of goal setting. This is perhaps not too surprising because setting goals is a popular business topic and a popular focus for self-help books. What caught my eye is the clever way Fortune Magazine contrasted three that advised to “think big” and three that advised to “start small.” These are not necessarily mutually exclusive – it is possible to have a big long term goal and to set up a path of incremental goals. But the clever way they contrasted the six books inspired me to contrast the two approaches, even though they are not direct contrasts.
The first three books are:
- Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impactthe World by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.
- The Little Book of Thinking Big: Aim Higher andGo Further Than You Ever Thought Possible by Richard Newton.
- Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, YourMessage by Tara Mohr.
The second three books are:
- Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline Arnold.
- The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein, and Robert Cialdini.
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.
Here are the key differences that contrast the two approaches. In Bold, Diamandis recommends that we ambitiously target a huge problem with a large impact and/or for a wide population. It would be hard to set small goals to get from here to the moon. Newton tells us to ignore the little diversions that fill up a normal life so that you can truly focus on the grand challenge of your life. Ignoring the little things requires avoiding the incremental to some extent. Mohr’s recommendation is more about one’s attitude, recommending that her readers put forth the air of confidence and greatness in all of their dealings. To pull this off, it would be necessary to do it all the time, which would mean never having a visage of uncertain confidence. So in all three cases, “Thinking Big” is really the antithesis of “Starting Small.”
Now let’s turn the tables and look at the other three. Arnold’s recommendations share some similarity with the progressive extremism I shared here. Instead of “eating healthy” just give up cookies at first. Work on the rest once you have the cookies out. For this to work, it is best not to think of the end goal too much or it will seem overwhelming. Lots of temptations to give up after cookies. So thinking small requires ignoring the big. Martin et al’s recommendations are similar, which is not surprising if you are familiar with the wide body of behavioral research published by Robert Cialdini. They tell us that if you design to trigger unconscious behaviors, no one will even know you are there are can’t take steps to counter your objectives. By definition, none of these can be big, or even medium sized. Finally, McKeown recommends that we learn to value small things so we don’t need to pursue big goals in the first place. Again, directly in conflict with big goals.
So which of these approaches is better? Does it depend on who you are? Your personality? Your talents? Your abilities? Your motivation? For today, I will leave that up to you. Perhaps later, I will fill in some of these blanks.