Ambitious Goals: Go Big by Setting Stretch Goals

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Smarter Faster Better" by Charles Duhigg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you set ambitious goals? Are they just pie in the sky, or do you know how to reach them?

Ambitious goals—also known as stretch goals—can make a big impact on your productivity. Setting stretch goals can transform your perspective and your way of working.

Read more to learn about ambitious goals and the difference they can make.

The Impact of Ambitious Goals

A stretch goal is an aim so audacious that at first glance, it might not seem possible. Examples of stretch goals include running a marathon, starting a successful company, or writing a book.

Setting and pursuing such ambitious goals can transform your perspective and your way of working in three ways: 

  1. These goals are inspirational. They challenge you to be more productive so that you can achieve things you’d never dreamed could be possible.
  2. The challenging nature of stretch goals prevents complacency. You know that to fulfill such ambitious goals, you’ll need to work hard and push yourself. 
  3. In your quest to make the seemingly impossible possible, you become more imaginative, innovative, and willing to pursue new avenues of thinking.

Research has demonstrated a strong link between setting ambitious goals and increased productivity. For example, a 1997 study found that Motorola engaged in setting stretch goals, leading to a tenfold decrease in the time it took engineers to develop new products.

(Shortform note: To learn more about setting stretch goals, read our summary of Measure What Matters.)

Example: The Japanese Bullet Train

In the 1950s, the 320-mile train journey between the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Osaka could take up to 20 hours. This long journey time was problematic; this was a high-demand route, in terms of transporting both people and raw materials. So, in 1955, Japan’s top engineers were challenged to invent a faster train.

Within six months, the engineers had created a prototype of a train that could go 65 miles per hour. This was an impressive feat: they’d created one of the fastest trains of its kind in the world. However, when the engineers presented their design to the head of the railway system, he wanted something faster. He set them a new, audacious stretch goal: building a train capable of traveling at 120 miles per hour.

The engineers protested that this task was impossible. They named all sorts of issues that would prevent them from meeting the ambitious goal. For example, trains traveling that fast would derail if they turned corners too sharply. To get rid of the need for trains to turn, they would need to tunnel through mountains, which would be an incredibly expensive process. It just didn’t seem feasible. However, the head of Japan’s railways was insistent: they were going to do whatever it took to meet their stretch goal.

The engineers realized that the only way to meet their seemingly impossible stretch goal was to completely transform every element of the Japanese railway system. Over years, they innovated everything from new train cars to stronger tracks. They even drilled tunnels through the mountains! With each innovation, the train’s maximum possible speed would increase.

Eventually, the engineers achieved their ambitious goal. The new bullet train traveled at an average speed of 120 miles per hour. This reduced the journey time between Tokyo and Osaka from 20 hours to just under four hours. The stretch goal gave the engineers the push they needed to challenge their perceived limitations, innovate, and produce the seemingly impossible.

What ambitious goals have you set in your life?

Ambitious Goals: Go Big by Setting Stretch Goals

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Here's what you'll find in our full Smarter Faster Better summary:

  • Why becoming more productive isn’t about working longer hours or constantly pushing yourself to do more
  • The 8 principles for improving productivity
  • How to create a work culture in which each employee is truly valued

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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