When You Aim High, You Set Yourself Up to Fall Far—Here’s Why It’s Worth It

UPDATED: June 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 8, 2016

When I graduated with my M.Ed. in 2012, my grandma gave me a card in Spanish that, loosely translated, said: “Aim high.” ​It meant a lot to me. I was the first in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and now a master’s degree.

My grandma did not receive formal education after the fourth grade. She made sacrifices that made it possible for me to aim high. I was grateful, and I took her card as a call to action, one that said, “Don’t stop here.”

So I kept aiming high, even as high as Harvard. But when that failed, I started to wonder if I’d taken my grandma’s encouragement too far. I couldn’t ask her, because she died weeks after that card brightened my day. But I wondered, truly. Do I aim too high? Do I dream too big? Should I stop? Should I be “normal”? Should I settle?

I’m guessing that if you’re reading an article on SUCCESS.com, then you’re probably an achiever like me. You try hard. You aim high.

But what I wasn’t prepared for—the part about aiming high that no one ever told me—was gravity.

When you aim high you also set yourself up to fall far.

And it hurts. It’s embarrassing.

For some people, that’s enough reason to never try hard, to never aim high. They want to avoid those hard, long, fast falls. This strategy works. If you never aim high, you will never fall hard in that particular way.

But it also guarantees you stay firmly where you are, never growing, never learning, never changing. Maybe that works for some people. But me? I just can’t seem to get comfortable being on the ground. I need to climb.

Along the way, I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a “4.0 GPA” of aiming high—there’s no straight-A version. There’s no way to climb without the falls, the bruises, sometimes even the helicopter EVAC rescues.

And occasionally after a big fall, I wonder if it means I should stop, if trying has gone from brave to stupid. It can be hard to tell until you get to the end.

When I’m in the pain of the initial fall, body bruised and in shock, the harsh reality of the ground, being back where I started—that is when I start to wonder if the problem is that I aim too high. I wonder if all this madness could be stopped if I just started ignoring my grandma’s graduation card.

But then I think about my grandma at my age, moving from Puerto Rico to New York to find work, raising her younger siblings after her mom died, successfully navigating the subways without knowing English. I think about her moving to Staten Island when things got rough in the Bronx projects, to find a safer environment for my dad and his sister. I think about how she cleaned other people’s bathrooms, how my grandpa exterminated other people’s bugs, all to earn a living. I think about the house they eventually bought and paid off in Florida, one with a pool and a grapefruit tree that yielded fresh fruit every October without fail.

When I think about where they started and where they ended, all I see is aiming high. I’m sure there were falls, so many I don’t know that I wish I could ask them about. I wish I could ask my grandma what kept her aiming high. What kept her from giving up?

I can imagine answers and they all make me feel spoiled and selfish. And I think that’s a good thing, because compared to her, I am.

Because of her, I am.

I have so much opportunity, including the opportunity to think about things, like what I want to do with my life. There are still of course times when glass ceilings and inequalities in our culture make me feel so small I want to give up, but aiming high, continuing what she started, is the only way I can think to say thank you, to make use of the privileges and opportunities she created for me.

So I aim high. And I fall.

Sometimes I get there. Sometimes I fall short.

Sometimes I achieve exactly what I aimed for.

Sometimes I achieve something totally different, but better than I could have ever aimed.

And sometimes, I just fall, fall, fall.

There are moments when I forget Staten Island and subways and grapefruit trees and simply question whether trying hard works, whether aiming high is just for suckers, whether the American dream is just a nice story to keep us from going insane.

There are real barriers. The world is not an equal or fair one. It’s often more cruel than I ever dreamed.

But what gives me hope is not that that playing field is fair.

It’s that, even despite all the injustice, a young woman from Puerto Rico can still move to another country and find a job as a seamstress and support a family.

That there are still some people for whom aiming high means helping those who are the victims of the harshest injustices. 

It’s not easy. Aiming high is not a guarantee. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you hoped. But I’ve come to think that aiming high is part of what makes something great possible.

It’s the possibility that keeps me aiming.

Because I’ve come to realize that the only real answer to the question, “Am I aiming too high?” is this: “There’s only one way to find out.” To aim high and try. To experiment, test, climb, fall, learn and try again. That maybe aiming high isn’t about an external outcome at all, but about aiming for something higher in you.

I think about this every time I slice through a fresh grapefruit and sprinkle a little salt on each half, just like I always did at my grandparents’ table. It’s sour and salty. It takes me by surprise, oddly unpleasant and pleasant all at the same time—my lips puckering and eyes wincing. And yet I don’t stop. I finish the whole thing.

I used to think “ambition” was a dirty word—something only cold, cut-throat people had. But then I learned otherwise…

Isa Adney is an author and TV host named by GOOD magazine as one of the Top 100 People Moving the World Forward. She is currently writing a book about dreams. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at IsaAdney.com.