For most of my life, I never gave much thought to my life’s path, successes or processes for getting from one place to the next. On the contrary, I have given a lot of thought, reflection and recognition to my shortcomings and failures. Owing in large part to my propensity for being driven and further motivated by my failures, almost to a fanatical extent, I was obsessed, even consumed by them. The simple notion of potential failure made me that much more fanatical to ensure that I would not fall short of my goal.
In the event that I did fail, a barrage of questions would consume me. What did I do wrong? How could I do things differently? How could I be more efficient? Bigger? Faster? Better?
What I wasn’t aware of, is that the same methodology and approach that I had in learning from my failures were being applied to determining my future endeavors and goals. I was methodical, calculated, organized, analytical and systematic. I just didn’t realize it.
It wasn’t until a long road trip with a friend that had convinced me to teach him to BASE jump, that I was punched in the face with a simple question he posed
“How do you set and achieve goals?”
I was flabbergasted. How could a twenty-three-year-old high-school graduate well on his way to completing his helicopter private pilot license be asking me this? More troubling was that I didn’t have an answer for him. Not immediately at least.
I had to think about it for a while and only after five or six hours of frustrating dialogue did I manage to pull together some things that not only helped him understand a process but also helped me realize the process that had been running in my mind’s background like an unseen computer application.
Here are a few of the things that we talked about.
Make Success Something Tangible
I once asked my son what opportunity looked like.
“A door,” he said. I thought that was a pretty good answer, but I challenged him a bit more. I asked him if he’s ever seen such a door and whether or not he recognized the opportunity behind it. He replied that he hadn’t and I posited that we never really know what opportunity looks like, that is perhaps after it has already passed.
Now think about the same situation but with success in the place of opportunity.
How do we know what success looks like? More specifically, how do we know what success looks like unless we have something to compare it to? Especially if it is a personal, invented goal (diet, fitness, skill, etc.), how do you gauge your success? If you don’t know what your goal looks like, how do you know what the completion of the goal will look like?
So give your goals a face, something that once achieved, it can be recognized. This process is simple, yet methodical, calculated and systematic, like a well-run science experiment or clinical research. This doesn’t mean that you have to wear a lab coat, but you do need to be enthusiastic, disciplined, dedicated and probably a little creative.
Make a List
Lists help you to keep moving forward, focused and accountable, they help you keep track of your progress or, lack thereof, and they help keep you motivated.
However, understand that if you are stagnant or struggling, your list can also be a source of stress, simply existing to overwhelm you. If you have a really big list of goals, you may feel stressed because you don’t know where to start or that you may never finish. Keep the list concise, but thorough. Keep the carrot within reach.
Once you have an idea of something you want to do or accomplish, refine the list to help it to become more clearly defined and realistic. Look at your goal, timeline, resources and level of dedication to determine if you have or can gain certain skills, access, training, or ability to help achieve the end state as well as all other subordinate goals and tasks.
It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant the goals seem, they are goals and they are your goals. Don’t let outside influences or factors sway you from tackling your dreams.
Break the goal down into steps, subordinate goals and tasks. This helps keep things in perspective, can reduce the tendency to become overwhelmed, can help you understand what it is really going to take to achieve your goal. Most importantly, it serves as a meter for progress toward overall success. If you start to find yourself getting overwhelmed, pump the brakes, recognize what’s going on, where you are at and where you are going. Regroup and get back in the fight.
You have to celebrate your successes, learn from your mistakes and the best way to achieve that is to understand where you are making progress and where you aren’t. Take note on your list when you start towards a goal and when you achieve it. If you’re stagnant, think about factors that are contributing to this stagnation and think of ways to mitigate it. If you’re crushing things, focus on what is helping you and exploit it.
Be introspective, retrospective, honest with yourself and your progress. If you determine that some of your habits or actions are counterproductive to optimal progress and success, then drop them and focus on what does work. The path to success is a constant evolution of accountability, action, reflection, modification and action. The path to success happens step by step.
Don’t Look at the Big Picture
Remember how you eat an elephant. One bite at a time.
What I mean by this is, just because you have a goal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are just going to go out and slay that goal in one fell swoop. Take it one step at a time. Nothing I have ever accomplished was really that difficult. Of course, everything is relative. Deadlifting four-hundred pounds is freaking hard. But not if you work and chip away at it.
Ranger Indoctrination Program, or R.I.P. (now R.A.S.P. - Ranger Assessment and Selection Program) wasn’t really that hard for me. It sucked and I’d rather not have to do it again, but for me, it wasn’t that hard. I took things one day at a time, kept my focus sharp on what was in front of me, didn’t feel sorry for myself (ok, maybe a little…), helped out my buddies as much as possible and relied on their help as little as possible.
The next thing I knew, it was over and the real challenge began; that of keeping the privilege I had worked so hard to attain. It was a big goal that I broke down into little goals.
Get through today. Get through this night at Cole Range. Get through the next night at Cole Range. Get through the next night at Cole Range. Get my hands off this hot ass asphalt basketball court. Get my scroll.
I completed those goals one at a time and moved on to the next goal. That’s it. That’s how it’s done. It’s really that simple.
Another element on the path to success is remembering that nothing lasts forever and that this too shall pass. This goes for both failure and success. Whether it’s the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, it is only temporary. Understand that and use it to your advantage. If you’re in a low, understand it’s only temporary and begin crawling out. If you’re on a high, realize that the sine wave will eventually turn downward. Prepare for it and mitigate it. Aim to land in the valley, not the trough.
Stay on Task, Hold Yourself Accountable
Get people around you involved. Ask them to hold you accountable. This is especially true if you live a busy life and/or get easily sidetracked. Sometimes it’s hard to fit ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. Sometimes, something has to give. It’s ok to prioritize things. Just make sure if you get sidelined, you keep it temporary then get back in the fight.
Get Over the Fact That You Might Fail
Go do something you suck at and get better at it. Learn from what went right and what went wrong. Ask yourself, how did you finally succeed? What does it feel like to fail? Now that you know, use that feeling to succeed next time. Also, know that failure isn’t the end and it shouldn’t be feared, it’s the beginning of future success. What can you take from this and move forward to success?
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Jocko Willink the first few times I heard him, but he is growing on me like genital warts. After listening to several of his podcasts, Jocko said something resonated with me. I think the original topic was talking about jiu-jitsu, but it can (and arguably should) be applied to anything in life.
“You either win, or you learn,” he said. And “if you’re not learning, you’re losing.”
The idea is that there is far more to learn from losing than there is from winning. This is because we possibly didn’t struggle as much, didn’t have to deal with and overcome great adversity, or just didn’t get that painful punch-to-the-stomach gut check that wakes us up from time to time. We often do not ask ourselves why we won, but we always wonder why we lost.
Don’t Allow Yourself to Become Victimized by Circumstances
It’s easy to make excuses for why we fall short of our goals or why we fail. It may be just me, but it seems like our society is fast becoming zero-consequence, one in which you can fail repeatedly without shouldering the onus of responsibility.
“It’s not your fault. It’s ok to fail.”
No, it’s not! This may sound contradictory to everything I just wrote, but it’s not. Let me explain.
There is a somewhat ubiquitous quote about insanity that goes something like this:
“Insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I agree. And there is a simple way to avoid this pitfall.
Be analytical. What is causing you to fail? If it, is in fact, something else, then do something about it. If it turns out that your failure is due to your refusal to make changes to overcome the issues, then it’s your fault for failure and that’s not ok. Don’t blame something else when you have just as much influence over your failure (and success) as outside factors and influences. Don’t allow yourself to become victimized. Become the victor, not the victim.
Goals Change, Change With Them
I had a goal to get my masters degree and teach high school kids. I planned to teach history, but really I wanted to teach about life. As the program wore on, I realized that I didn’t need a degree to be validated or be successful.
Through this program, I came to realize that I appreciate and enjoy learning and growing more than gaining a piece of paper that says I achieved something. I may continue in the program in the off chance that I may learn more about something interesting, or I may just redirect my focus to something else. Either way, I know I want to continue to grow and learn.
So I am making a new list. One that looks more like a tree. I will still move forward and I will still achieve one small goal at a time. It just may not take me where I thought I was going. I’m not a fan of change, but it’s inevitable, and that means I need to change with the change.
I’ll leave this rant with a few of my favorite quotes that seem pretty applicable for the topic. I won’t say anything more about them. Read them and let your own life and experiences determine their meaning and applicability.
“At any point in life, we are all on the same starting blocks. How are you going to run your life? Are you going to play it safe? Or are you going to choose to sail the seas of consequence?” - David Lee Roth
“One DayorDay One. You decide.” - Paulo Coelho
“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” - Chinese Proverb
Zach Carbo is a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and a sponsored SOFLETE athlete, living life to the beat of his own drummer in the PNW. Follow him on Instagram: @livngthehighlife