Witmer’s Wisdom: Unconventional Big Stupid Goals

BFG’s Lili Gu is lifted by her teammates in celebration of their gold medal win at WUCC 2018. Photo: Andrew Moss — UltiPhotos.com

This post is sponsored by The Ultimate Athlete Project. See how the UAP can help you become a better, healthier, smarter ultimate athlete at theuap.com.

This year I’ve played and coached ultimate in eight different countries in Latin America. I’ve had the honor of coaching Actitud Pizza to prepare for women’s league in Buenos Aires. I coached KIE at Colombian Nationals. And I just got back from playing PAUCC with Ysanga in The Dominican Republic which felt like a bit family reunion with all the players I’d met this year.

Life in 2023 was good!

This all came about because one day, back in 2010 I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make a living from ultimate frisbee.” My second thought was, “Don’t be ridiculous!”

I didn’t listen to the second thought for very long. Instead I embarked on a multi-year journey to bring the Ultimate Athlete Project to fruition.

Using SMART Goals Mindlessly

My methods for setting goals and for pursuing them goes counter to a lot of the normal advice on goal setting.

My favorite goals are almost never SMART goals. In fact, the goals that have impacted my life the most have been the most nonsensical.

If you’ve been around self-improvement literature or in corporate environments, you’ve probably heard about SMART goals. S.M.A.R.T.  is an acronym for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-Bound. The idea of SMART goals came about during the industrial era at a time when studying management theory became a thing.

SMART goals make sense in an environment in which you already know how you are going to achieve the result that you want. But for many situations in life there is no step-by-step process. And you do not live your life in a factory – even if you happen to work in one.

The Magic of Big, Stupid Goals

I’ve had a few big, stupid goals in my life. There was no reason to believe in 2010 that starting an ultimate frisbee business was a good idea. This was before Ultiworld, before Skyd Magazine, before any of the modern pro leagues or even the NexGen and All Star Ultimate tours.

At age 33, there was no reason to believe that trying out for an elite team would be a good idea. I hadn’t played seriously in a few years. No one knew who I was. I had no ultimate pedigree and, at the time, I was pretty out of shape.

I know from experience that there is magic in large and illogical goals. It’s the goals that are on the edge of believability that will pull you forward the most.

Do you have a large, illogical goal or desire in your ultimate life? Maybe like me, your goal or desire lives along side the thought “don’t be ridiculous!” Or maybe you wish you had a big ultimate goal to go after but you haven’t really landed on anything that inspires you.

A Quick Exercise to Uncover a Big Stupid Goal worth Pursuing

When you think about your frisbee life and say to yourself….

  • “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could _________?!”
    • What comes to mind? Anything? Any first thoughts?
    • What if you write down the sentence and fill in the blank 10 times with 10 different things?
    • Does anything surprising or interesting appear?
  • Wouldn’t it be cool if I could…
    • Tryout for and make the ________ team!
    • Throw a full field huck?!
    • Throw left handed?!
    • Break the mark against anyone on my team?!
    • Throw farther than anyone on my team?!
    • Become a coach for an elite ultimate team?!
    • Play in an international frisbee tournament?!
    • Make the starting D-line on my team?!
    • Pull full field?!

Do any of those sound exciting and fun? Are any of them a little bit scary? In my experience the best goals are the ones that generate a mix of emotions – hope, excitement, fear, resistance. When you have these mixed together, you’ve got a goal with some energy in it! If you already have a big goal that’s generating some strange emotions in yourself, I want you to know that you’re on the right track.

In all of the big goals I’ve pursued, I’ve never done it alone. Remember, a big goal is one you don’t know how to do yet! You’ll need coaches and peers to help you and support you along the way.

If you’ve lapsed on your New Years goals or have gotten a bit disconnected from them, hopefully you’ve got some new ideas to help you set goals that matter and will pull you forward. Now the hard part.

Following Through with Your Big Goals

Once you’ve got an idea, you’ve got to generate some movement toward it. If you’re used to SMART goal thinking, you might be tempted to create a logical plan to help you achieve your goal. Resist the urge! At least for now.

The problem is that you have a goal, but you don’t currently know how to achieve it. Making a logical plan at this stage can actually decrease your motivation.

Remember, you don’t know how to achieve your goal. You’re going to need to learn some things, make some mistakes, and face some setbacks along the way. The only way to get yourself into these high-context learning situations is to get moving!

Instead of making a logical plan with incomplete information, I recommend these counterintuitive tips to help generate momentum toward your goal.

Start Smaller Than You Think You Should

With my clients, I like to have them choose an Action Work at the start of our work together. An Action Work is something very small that you do almost every day that represents your journey toward your larger goal. It does not need to be tied logically to achieving your larger goal. The purpose of the small Action Work is that it communicates to your habit forming brain every day what you are trying to accomplish.

An Action Work should be…

  • Something you can do with little to no emotional resistance
  • Something that is a metaphor for larger goal

Examples:

  • Laying out on your bed each day (this is not proper layout practice, but it represents a goal of getting your first layout block)
  • Eating a carrot for breakfast – even if it is not a full serving of vegetables, it is a reminder of your goal to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day.
  • Doing one repetition of one core exercise every morning – this will not, by itself, strengthen your core, but it is a reminder of your goal to do some core training most days of the week.

Give Yourself Permission to Quit (Later)

A goal that’s big can be intimidating. It likely produces a mix of emotions. You might not be sure you can achieve it. You might not be sure you can commit to the work required to achieve it.

So leave those concerns behind by giving yourself permission to quit.

We sometimes take the fun out of pursuing what we want by making it into something we have to do. Just like anything else, if you feel like you can’t say no, then you aren’t allowing yourself to say yes either. So let yourself say no. Give yourself permission to quit.

But not today. You have a deadline in advance where you can choose to quit. Basically you are going to procrastinate on your quitting instead of procrastinating on getting started.

I like to do this with a timeline. Maybe you can pursue your goal for 21 days, or three months, or three years, and if it’s not working out, give yourself permission to quit. This is how I started the UAP. I decided I would try for three years, and if I couldn’t find a business model that would work, I’d quit. Choose a timeline that creates feelings of some urgency, but not pressure.

The secret is that you have to mean it. Give yourself real permission to quit. And if you do quit, it doesn’t have to be forever. Maybe the timing, the situation, or the level of desire just aren’t aligned for your goal acquisition right now. Whatever you do during the time before quitting, you’ll have learned something valuable for the next time you pursue this goal or any other goal.

Be Careful About Who You Share Your Goals With

Most traditional goal setting advice will advise you to tell someone about your goals. The idea is to increase your accountability to your goals. For short term goals, or goals with a clear process, this can still make sense.

However, in my experience, for big goals you need to be very careful who you share them with, if you share them at all.

Why? Because unless you’ve prepared someone to receive your goals, or unless the person you’re sharing them with is a coach who is going to support you as you pursue your goals, people are generally not very good at receiving the goals of another person in a supportive way.

They may try to be helpful. Or they may subconsciously be trying to sabotage you. Being around another person who is actively pursuing the things they care about can be an affront to the status quo. When you pursue big goals, you will sometimes inadvertently make folks uncomfortable. You may be reminding them of the big goals they’d like to be pursuing but aren’t.

The best folks to share your goals with are people who are also in the pursuit of their own scary goals. These are the folks who can intuitively understand the big emotions that big goals produce. People pursuing their own goals know the value of pursuit. And they are less likely to judge your goal at face value or tell you that it’s too big or too small. Even better if you can tell a person who is pursuing completely different goals so that you can avoid the understandably human pitfalls of comparison and jealousy.

Many people who don’t share your vision might provide a response of dismissal disguised as helpfulness. I’ve had this happen twice. Once on my goal to run up a mountain, my friend told me, “It’s not that hard. I used to do it all the time” Which I believe. However, I knew it would be hard for me. And that’s the whole reason it was important to me. His ‘helpful’ comment was basically telling me that my goal shouldn’t be important. (I did run up the mountain, and it was awesome)

I once told someone I was going to write a book. “That’s easy, just write each chapter like a blog post,” they replied. Which is a logical plan. But that’s irrelevant. In the sharing of that goal with that person, my goal felt small, I felt small, and I lost the energy I had for it.

So be careful about who you share your important goals with. Just like parts of your subconscious brain want you to stay the same, so do your close friends and family. Or, they at least aren’t going to be able to share your vision fully and this can leave you feeling unseen and misunderstood.

If you want to share your goals, sharing with loose acquaintances can actually be better. Your success or failure likely doesn’t impact their world at all. And so, they are likely to simply smile and nod. And that might be all you really need at the beginning stages.

Alternatively, share your goals, and the journey, with other folks who are on the same path. When you find these people, you’ll find community with folks who understand the emotional part of your goal pursuit.

When to Make a Plan

I started working on my business before I had a product or a business model. I started moving every day before I created what became The Ultimate Athlete Project Strength and Conditioning program.

Move first, then plan.

Eventually, only after you’ve gotten started, you will want some logical plans to help bring your goals to fruition. The time to make plans is after you’ve done some informal exploratory work.

If you’ve been dabbling in your goals for a few weeks, you’ve likely also started collecting more information. Or maybe you’ve made some connections – either with folks pursuing similar goals or with a mentor or coach who can support you or help you with your planning process.

I planned my first product only after I’d been blogging about ultimate and fitness for most of a year. I’d make a training plan for myself to run up a mountain only after I started doing some exploratory runs/hikes.

If you’ve got a truly large goal that you don’t know how to accomplish, then these initial plans probably won’t work. That’s ok. Make them anyway!

The Ultimate Athlete Handbook was my first product. I thought that would sell at least 1,000 copies (it didn’t). I had to stop and adjust my mountain running training plans after just a few weeks and restructure with a different training philosophy. First plans rarely work with hard goals.

But once you’ve gotten going without even a plan in place, you’re more resilient. So an imperfect plan isn’t going to stop you or demotivate you if it turns out not to work or need adjustment along the way. The goal remains the priority – not the strength (or inevitable weaknesses) of your first plan.

Next Steps

If you’d like support from someone who specializes in big goals, join our UAP Premium wait list.

Whether it’s making your first club team, making your university A team, or making a national team – we have the tools and the track record to support you.

  1. Melissa Witmer
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    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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