What’s Wrong With a Good, Juicy, Audacious Goal?

photo of LEAFHouse on the National Mall by Amy Gardner

I’ve been wondering lately — why do some people shy away from embracing ambitious goals? What’s the hesitation? I don’t think it comes from a lack of vision, because I’ve worked with some visionary people who still balk at publicly declaring an audacious goal. Is it fear? Lack of trust? Worry about falling short?

I have a wonderful client who shyly asked me to dial back on an energy model that was showing some pretty impressive projected energy savings from relatively straightforward measures. The numbers just looked too good to be true; the savings were "unbelievable." While I do understand the potential gulf between computer analysis and real-life performance, what we were proposing wasn’t rocket science. It should be very achievable, given good attention to construction details and sound building science.

In another instance, Baltimore’s Sustainability Plan process last summer went through rigorous community involvement, the working groups were loaded with rock stars in their respective fields, and the recommendations were so exciting I kept having to pinch myself at the meetings. In the end, what emerged is a comprehensive, workable plan — without a bold vision. I know it’s easy for me to second-guess, but I kept wishing we could have something as cool as Portland ‘s: Everyone can see Mt. Hood and every child can walk to a library. It’s so memorable, vivid, and dense with possibility.

Was it the fear of being held accountable by some stickler member of the general public? What if Baltimore set an ambitious goal and didn’t make it? Would it turn into a political firestorm? Was it not wanting to disappoint people, if the city somehow fell short of a big goal? I always see a bit of red flag when people start talking about getting "realistic." That word feels VERY limiting.

The other day I joined my colleagues for a radio interview about our experiences creating and competing LEAFHouse in the 2007 Solar Decathlon. It was wonderful to relive all the best stories about those two years, especially to be reminded of the importance of setting audacious goals. Very early on, we had a big team meeting with engineering and architecture students, mentors from several disciplines, the three faculty advisors, and alumni from the 2005 solar house team. One of our big touchstones was Kennedy’s speech on September 12, 1962 at Rice University, where he announced that we would be landing a man on the moon within the next decade.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . . ."

At that time, there was no space program, no NASA, no solar panels, no space-age materials; heck, it wasn’t even the space-age yet! Yet, we got to the moon in seven years! As we worked to create LEAFHouse, the project touched over 200 people, so it was essential to have an audacious goal . How’s this: Design, build, and bring to the National Mall an 800 square-foot house, entirely powered by the sun. Raise the funds; recruit the team; set the goals; design and launch a clear, beautiful communications campaign; lobby members of Congress, and then over a period of two weeks, give tours of the house, cook a meal in it, compete in 10 different contests and — oh, by the way — WIN!!

Remember President-elect Obama’s speech at Grant Park on election night last fall? He actually said that there will be setbacks and false starts. And people are already noticing, judging by one of my Facebook friends’ update today: "The audacity of hope part is over, right now I’m hoping for a little more audacity." (That’s the last line from a Bill Maher critique of Obama-to-date.) Still, that’s NO reason to dial back on the boldness. Didn’t T.S. Eliot say, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."

At GOforChange, we will soon be embarking on an eight-month program that will have at its core an AUDACIOUS goal. That goal will be determined collaboratively by the group on this amazing journey. Maybe it will be something like live an abundant, fulfilling, joyful life for one week without using fossil fuels — really. Or, leave your car at home one day a week for three months. Or, don’t buy anything plastic for a whole week. Maybe it will be a contest to see who can lower their home energy bills the most, using a checklist of actions. Or, cook with only locally-sourced foods for a month. I can’t foresee what the goal will be. But, one thing is certain — it WILL be A*U*D*A*C*I*O*U*S .

Then, we will turn it over to the best in us and trust that our actions are moving us towards that goal. We will surrender worry that we might fall short. We will keep a clear vision , resist words like "realistic," and welcome the resources and answers that come to us. We will take that first step, trusting that the next step and the next will be revealed as we need them. You are invited to walk with us. Let me know if you want to join us!

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  1. I think people get stuck too far into the traditional suggestion that goals be “realistic and measurable”. Because they can’t truly envision something big, they focus on small, draw back because they are overwhelmed, and then whittle things down until they are graspable.

    What they are missing is you can have a great BIG wonderful goal that can be broken down into smaller measurable steps. It makes the dream goal doable.

    Julie, sign me up for the challenge; I’m with you. I believe in what you are doing, like I believe my couples can truly be happy.

    Go get ’em!

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