Is it Better to Encourage Students, Teachers, Policymakers, & Innovators to Set Small or Grand Goals?

“If you are thinking of solving a problem that you can solve in your lifetime, you are thinking too small.” – Wes Jackson (Land Institute, World Future Council, and lost of other stuff)

Nearing thirty years after the fact, I vividly recall a debate with my high school social studies teacher (John Shimkus, who is now a US congressman from the Illinois). I remember many conversations with him, and continue to be grateful for his willingness to diverge from what some might consider standard teaching practice at the time: student input on co-creating an ancient history course with a student teacher, his willingness to deviate enough to tell fascinating stories about his training exercises on the way to becoming an Army Ranger, allowing me to pursue a wonderfully engaging research project entitled “Did Hitler Meet the Clinical Criteria for Insanity?”, teaching fascinating military strategy as part of our history units on the world wars (what do you expect from a West Point graduate?), and much more. Just as important to my learning was how I often felt like he treated me and others as peers in the marketplace of ideas. As such, there was one particular day when we debated about the proper use and role of goals in life.

He contended that goals are best broken up into small, achievable, sub-goals. They should be challenging, but achievable. Your success in one goal will motivate you to take on the next goal, eventually leading to mastery of something otherwise too overwhelming to take on in the first place. I accepted the logic behind his thinking, but this was long before I started reading about and studying books and research on motivation and goal-setting. As such, I mostly spoke from personal preference and experience. Small goals didn’t motivate me, I explained. In my experience, I needed to start with a grand vision and goal, something that might seem entirely impossible to others. I needed a moonshot. Then, and only then, I could start thinking about the steps to making that vision a reality (which might, of course, include smaller goals). I remember articulating my idea this way. “I want to shoot for the stars. I might reach them. I might not. Even if I ultimately fail, if I set that grand of a goal, I’m far more likely to do something truly remarkable along the way.”

Thinking back on the debate, I didn’t actually disagree with Mr. Shimkus. It just wasn’t inspiring enough for me. I am and have always been addicted to meaning, purpose, and impact…but in a sometimes undisciplined way. And in full disclosure, my position represented a character trait that I carry with me to this day (even though I acknowledge its significant dark side). Namely, I take on too much. I fail at more things than I succeed. I lean on the inspiration of a grand dream, vision, or goal to inspired me toward the discipline and work needed to make it happen. I also get drawn into and distracted by too many grand goals. Along the way, I learn more than I ever imagined and find this approach taking me to incredible places (literally and figuratively).

This brings me to the opening quote from Wes Jackson. “If you are thinking of solving a problem that you can solve in your lifetime, you are thinking too small.” I treat this as a proverbial truth, not an absolute one. I’m sure that Wes Jackson has set out to solve small problems in his life and work, and that he has achieved many of them. Yet, the proverbial truth in such a quote is that there is something powerful and compelling about taking on massive and seemingly insurmountable problems. In fact, the nature of problems in our modern world begs for us to set goals bigger than what we might think achievable in a single lifetime. Such goals move many of us in ways that do not happen if we settle for that which is merely achievable in a 60 to 80 year timeframe.

Part of what intrigues me about this mindset is that it demands that we think beyond ourselves. It is not just my personal quest. It calls for a broader view and good, solid, systems thinking. This is often a collective quest, greater than a single person. It calls for a legion, or maybe a tribe, to make significant progress.

Not everyone thinks this way. I know many who are not as inspired by the larger-than-life quest. They are more interested in the present-day experience or smaller-scale goals. In fact, I see ample wisdom in that, and have even embraced it in some areas of my life. Jacques Ellul is likely the original source of the well-known quote, “Think globally. Act locally.” It is about being inspired by a global vision for good, but then it draws us to think about how we can each contribute to that global good by doing something positive in our own family, local community, or other sphere of influence.

Yet, some people do not seem to need the global thinking at all to find motivation, meaning, and ultimately fulfillment. They play their role. They build meaningful relationships. They develop character that is important to them. Maybe they articulate it as having their small contribution to a better world or benefiting others. Maybe they don’t.

There are undoubtedly benefits and limitations to these different ways of thinking and living, and we can become quite passionate in defending our particular take on the subject. No matter where one ends up, however, this topic has important implications for education. Any attempt to convince every learner to set goals so big that they can’t be achieved in a lifetime is a setup for disappointment. The same is true for the one who drives us to focus our attention on the present, small, achievable goals. It will work for some and not for others. There is more wisdom in finding ways to honor and celebrate the benefits of both approaches, along with a few more that I’ve not even thought to include. Yet, there are some cautions and suggestions that I offer along the way, especially for those educational innovators and policymakers in the crowd.

  1. Beware of :thinking big” shortcuts. That is how we end up with ill-informed policies and practices forced upon others, usually with unwanted and unexpected consequences.
  2. Beware of “small thinking” nativity and addiction to keeping everything simple. Simple is good, but what we do impacts others. Even the most pragmatic and here-and-now minded person can benefit from a crash course on systems thinking, because what we do locally can and will have a global impact.
  3. Your local effort can and will have a larger impact, even if you do not want or expect it to do so. This is especially true in education. The law of compounding interest applies, I contend, to the impact of any educational innovation or experiment that involves more than a couple learners. What you do will have consequences, some of what will be favorable, and some will be hard (or impossible) to predict.
  4. Beware of demonizing the other perspectives. If you are a big picture person, learn to use it, but there is no need to contend that everyone must become like you. The same is true for the pragmatist or realist who is tempted to judge the big picture thinkers as do-little dreamers or egomaniacs. Instead, consider how we can learn from one another, celebrate the benefits of each, and discover the value of supporting and maybe even working with one another.
  5. If you are a big picture thinker, invest time in learning about systems thinking and strategic planning. It will amplify your impact.
  6. Learn to appreciate the less efficient pathway from one destination to another, from one goal to another. The serendipitous has its place for many journeys in life.

Set small goals. Set goals that are larger than life…your life. Forget about goals altogether and just focus upon cultivating values and experiences that are important to you. A robust educational ecosystem will have room for these and many other approaches among learners.