I like to ask people what their goals are. It opens up interesting conversations. Some people actually do not set clear goals. If you are one of them, I would encourage you to do so. But be careful not to commit the same mistake everyone else does.
What Not Why
In a chess sense, 99% of goals will be either a title (FM / IM / GM) or a specific rating. But when I ask “why do you want to achieve this goal?” I get empty gazes or standard answers like “because it is cool”.
People know what they want to achieve, but not why they want to achieve it! If you have no clue why you want to achieve that goal, there is a very big chance you will not have the stamina to stay on track if things go wrong.
But that is in no way a phenomenon that is only seen in the chess world. So many times people say “I want to be a millionaire”. The fact of being a millionaire may boost your ego, but not solve your problems. What these people are really looking for is the lifestyle they associate with being a millionaire.
Or more concretely, the feelings they associate with that goal.
Maybe it is storming into the office and telling their stupid boss they quit immediately. Maybe it is helping people in need. Or maybe it is sending their kids to college. All of these things will cause positive feelings. And this is what the goal is about.
Ask Yourself Why
Goals are here to motivate us when things go bad. On a good day, you will anyway have enough energy to go after your dreams. But to be prepared for the bad days, you need to know exactly why you want something to achieve your goal. If there is not a strong enough answer, then maybe revisit your goal. Is it not big enough? Or are you trying to achieve something that society sees as a remarkable goal, but you do not feel the same way?
Over the years my goal-setting process has evolved big time. I started out with the goal of the Grand Master title. But when I actually reached that goal, I had to go deeper. What do I really want to achieve? And why? First I came up with other standard goals like a 2600 or 2700 rating. Even Top 10. Or European Champion. But something did not feel right. These goals did not give me an additional boost on bad days.
Why? Because I had no feelings attached to them!
So I came up with the following:
I want to win the European Championship and enter the Top 10 of the World. Why? Because I want to be an example for other people that you can achieve your wildest dreams. To show them that with hard and smart work + dedication you can achieve things nobody thinks is possible.
I was bullied in my childhood and suffered from epilepsy. This does not sound like the usual success story.
For people in similarly desperate situations, I want to be a sign of hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Go after your dreams. It is possible after all to achieve them.
Now, what seems more energetic on a bad day? Saying I want to achieve a 2700 rating, or thinking of all these young desperate kids and forcing myself to be an example to them? Only by writing these lines do I get goosebumps.
Whenever I let myself down, my girlfriend will tell me: “Think of all these kids that look up to you. Imagine they see every step you do. Do something to inspire them”.
This usually does the trick. Instead of lamenting and feeling sorry for myself, I will get back to work. Immediately! With passion.
The Why Counts
Most people think the goal is about the what. But it is not. The what is only the vehicle of your message to the World. After all, it does not really matter if that is a train, car, or plane. What counts is the message. Your WHY.
If at some point I feel my chess career is not the right vehicle anymore, that is no problem. The why will stay forever. But the ‘What’ can change with time. I will change the vehicle. Even if I do not reach my goals, the ‘Why’ still has importance. It was not all for nothing.
It does not matter if I get that European Title or if I finish fourth. Yes, it would be nice to take home gold, but my story is still inspiring if I can only reach fourth place. I am still living life on my terms. I can still help others to do the same and spread hope.
Now some of you might say: “but how does that apply to me?” I’m just trying to reach the next level in chess, not changing the world. Fine, you got a point. But the principle still stays the same.
If you do now know why exactly you want to achieve your goal, you will not have the stamina to go after it. Don’t worry, I will lead you through the goal-setting process now. I am sure you will find some inspiring stories for yourself.
Set Your Own Goals
Please take some time to do this exercise. You can also read through it and then come back. This will only work if you put some thought and especially pour your heart into it. This needs to be about yourself and not what you think others would like you to do. Do it on your own terms.
If you want to go through a much more deep process, then consider reading the magnificent book “Find Your Why” by Simon Sinek. If you first want to learn the key concepts, then “Start with Why” is the place to start. You can also listen to his Ted Talk with over 50 Million views here.
1) Start With Why
Instead of starting with your goal (the what) start with why. Why do you want to improve your chess? Think of feelings, not things. So, if you want to make money with it, then think about the nice things you can do with this money. For example, sending your parents into retirement early.
But most of you readers will play chess as a hobby. So, think about the positive feelings your improvement can give you. Maybe you can prove to yourself your limits are only in your head. You can win self-confidence, which can translate into your private and business life as well. Really take some time to write all the things down that come to mind.
And now comes the big point. Think about what good this can do for others. A goal that is not only about yourself is so much more powerful. It does not have to be about a lot of people. Already inspiring one person can be enough. maybe it is your kid, your parents, a loved one, or your friends. Find somebody you can think of whenever you seem to get off track.
You also do not need to know that person. It could also be dedicated to your younger self. When you needed someone to look up to. I am sure there are millions of kids out there in similar positions as you have been, waiting to be inspired by you.
2) Set A Scary Goal
Yep, that is right, your goal should be scary. You only have that one life. So setting goals which you will achieve anyway is boring. Not totally unrealistic obviously. But there should be a chance of not achieving it. If everybody around you thinks you will reach the goal it is too easy. Be sure some people think you are crazy. Then your goal is about right.
As a rule of thumb, my sports psychologist told me I should fail 1/3 goals each year. If I have achieved more than 70% of my goals it is a clear indication that I do not reach for the stars anymore. I have written an article about believing in yourself with an example of a young Swiss Player. This might help you to get into the right mindset.
Remember: reaching the goal is only a bonus. It is about the journey and your ‘Why’. So, set out to reach something great. Something that would make you ecstatic. Some of you might think I am crazy to think I can reach the Top 10 in the World. After all, all these players were much better at my age. Yes, it will be hard, but I think it is possible.
I beat the #19 in the World 2 years ago and am dedicated to working hard. If I fail by reaching the Top 20, I will still be much stronger than aiming for a safe Top 100 and reaching it. If you still think I am crazy that is fine. After all, my goal would be too easy if all of you thought I will reach it.
3) Set Out A Bounty For Yourself
Now comes the fun part. There might be moments when your ‘Why’ still needs a little more support to get you out of your comfort zone. Then think of something you dream of. Promise yourself to fulfill that dream once you achieved your goal.
This can be a gadget, traveling the world, or beautiful holidays in the Maldives. Be creative. Then set up a contract with yourself, sign it, and put it somewhere you see it every day. Your fridge can be a good place to start. This will give you an extra boost to really put your heart into it at any point.
4) Set Up A Plan And Stick To It
Even the greatest goal is useless without a plan. After all, only big-time ACTION will bring you closer to your goal. So, please follow my guide to set up a training plan and stick to it.
Even if you have some bad days, when even your WHY cannot get your ass off the couch, do not be too harsh on yourself. But be sure to get your ass off the couch on the day after! Never miss 2 days in a row.
You Got Nothing To Lose
I hope this article helps you to achieve your wildest goals. And to discover why you really want to achieve them. Remember to be wild & reach for the stars. After all, you only have that one life.
Do something out of it. You literally have nothing to lose. Do not play small to please others. Be crazy. Play Big. Use your life to do something great.