Why We Need to Set our Goals High

TAKEAWAY: Set your goals pretentiously high, because even in failure you can achieve great things.

Don’t aim too, high, we’re told. What if you fail?

So what if I do?

Talk to any successful inventor or technological innovator, and she’ll tell you how many times she fell flat on her face before achieving that breakthrough discovery. But does the same logic hold true with an artistic pursuit?

Yes. This wisdom was shared with me by one of the creatives I interviewed on my 35-state cross-country road trip this summer, in which I interviewed dozens of artists and creators. In Philadelphia, I was welcomed into the home of Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning novelist Michael Swanwick. You can spend a few minutes with him in a video I produced (at the bottom of this blog post). His humor comes through in the video, but the story I’m about to share did not make the video.

Michael spent years pursuing one ambition — to write a science-fiction novel. After several years he achieved that goal, and had his first book published with a respected publisher of paperback originals. But he said there was another unknown writer in his field by the name of William Gibson, whose ambition was a bit broader.

Gibson, Michael told me, wanted to “rewrite the syntax of science fiction so that you’d never be able to write the old way again.” The result of Gibson’s experiment was “Neuromancer.” Gibson didn’t rewrite the syntax of his genre, Michael said, but he did write one of the most influential and impressive science fiction works ever published.

“It’s hard when you’re unpublished to aim that high,” Michael said, “but that’s the best thing you can do for yourself. Aim as high as you can. Be as pretentious as you can. Try to rewrite world literature. And the greater your ambition, the better your failure.”

As I pushed on from Michael’s house, about twenty-five more interviews and states ahead of me, these words lingered in my head. The artists I met consistently opened themselves to me, sharing their personal goals, often largely unstated to the larger world. Some of the goals seemed a bit outlandish. Some of them seemed, to the left side of my brain, ridiculously unattainable.

But they all understood Michael’s lesson. You can never aim too high.

11 thoughts on “Why We Need to Set our Goals High

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I’m taking much away with me (ie: “Aim as high as you can. Be as pretentious as you can. Try to rewrite world literature. And the greater your ambition, the better your failure.” Brilliant and inspirational) The video was fantastic, too. Your trek across the country must have been fascinating. Thanks for sharing! And thanks, too, for following me on Twitter (@NicoleDwrites)!


  2. Patrick, I have a similar story of aiming high starting at the beginning. It is about another writer, someone I’m sure you have heard of … Chuck Pahluniuck.

    I knew Chuck “back when” … when he was still a technical writer for Freightliner in Portland. That position was a breakthrough for him, because he had been doing something manual for Frieghtliner, and he had been wanting to utilize his skills as a writer. But he was soon left unfulfilled with technical writing, and decided to write a novel.

    His idea … to write the absolute worst schlock and drivel he could possibly write … and so he did. Some 800 pages of the worst crap he could compose … with the intention of getting it out of his system.

    After that, he set out to change writing, to get people who just did not read interested in the written word again. He wrote “Fight Club” … and the rest is history. (Every one of his books has been a best seller since). His readers have been repeatedly quoted as saying they never read, that they hated reading until they read Chuck’s work. And that they can’t get enough of his writing.

    Last I heard Chuck is a multimillionaire, arrives in limos to events and … is basically still the same guy I knew when he worked at Freightliner. 🙂

    A *personal* story about aiming high was in 2002, when I had only been painting for two years. (Though I had drawn most of my life, I had never really painted before 2000). I set two goals for myself in 2002 … get into a show in NYC (quality show, high-quality juror) and to get juried in as a Signature Member of what is now the International Society of Acrylic Painters. I had people tell me I was crazy, it was too soon (I was still 4 years away from graduating with my BFA), that it was a waste of time and money (the entry fees).

    Guess what? I got into three KILLER exhibitions in NYC that year – great locations in the Chelsea district with art-world heavy-hitters for jurors. And, I got juried in as a Signature Member of ISAP (then NAPA-USA) – a title I still hold today.

    Sure, there have been plenty of times I have reached for the stars and fallen flat. But one thing is for sure, if you don’t try, you won’t get what you want. 🙂


  3. Amy,

    A fantastic comment! Your own story is very inspiring and probably should have been the lead 🙂

    As for writing out the bad stuff, that’s an Anne Lamont technique (bird by bird), also similar to Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way approach where journaling clears the cobwebs. Michael told me that what he wrote his first few years is best not seen by anyone, but of course any artistic pursuit requires both talent and skill, and the skill comes from labor.

    Oh, and those folks telling you were crazy for aiming for an NYC show, Cameron warns creators to tune out such dreamkillers, whatever their motivation might be.


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  5. I saved this post to read today because it’s perfect timing for me to be reminded to set my creative goals high. While reading the post, I realized I have an outlandishly high goal for my screenwriting that I had discussed with my husband about a year ago but had never written down.

    My goal is to write a screenplay that contributes to world peace or a raising of consciousness.

    At the time I first conceived of this goal, I did not have a clue what that particular story might be. Nor did I have a clue how I would ever get noticed as a screenwriter in order to help make that dream come true. As of the past few weeks, I now have my story and characters, and I have the treatment written up in first draft form. I also now have a contact who is showing my first screenplay to a producer friend of his.

    I’m still a long way from the end goal for my spiritual story (which will be presented in the sci-fi/fantasy genre to give it a wider audience), but I’m a lot further along than I was when I first had that wildly huge dream of impacting the world in a positive way. And I could not have visualized what has taken place since then to get me this far along. That’s the mysterious part of creativity—once we set the wheels in motion, the same stuff imagination is made of works silently in the background to move you along, even when you think you might have given up.


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