During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Michael Hyatt was running Thomas Nelson Publishers. As Hyatt, now the founder and CEO of Michael Hyatt and Co., worked to confront not only a crashing economy but also a wildly disrupted book industry, he was “viscerally feeling the fear,” he writes in in his book Entrepreneurs Will Save the World. “In the midst, I met with my executive coach, Ilene. She asked me a question that changed everything for me: What does this crisis make possible?”
If at the end of a crazy 2020—no industry untouched, more chaos expected in 2021, exhaustion a daily occurence—you are wondering the same thing, Hyatt suggests finding an answer by digging into a series of questions, including:
- How are you uniquely placed to help customers?
- How can your products or services solve problems that customers have right now?
- What partnerships or alliances would help you serve your clients?
Answering these questions will inevitably lead solopreneurs to setting new and big goals in 2021. They will for me, at least. I’m ready to take a big swing, at what, I’m not sure, and whether I’ll hit it, I don’t know. But I care much more about swinging now and much less about hitting, thanks to lessons learned on a comically bad kayaking trip on the Mississippi River in October.
The island loomed in front of me. My friend John had taken his kayak to the east side of it and disappeared into the distance. I let myself drift to the west side, hewing close to the bank. I didn’t have the energy, or the will, to paddle myself around to his side of the island and instead just drifted along. On the third and final day of this kayak trip, I was utterly defeated.
I stopped paddling. The river rolled underneath me, twisting my kayak this way and that. I was, in a word, angry. I was angry at the river, angry at whoever invented kayaks, angry at Mark Twain, angry at myself for putting myself in a position in which I had to give up.
“Never give up” is terrible business advice, but I still hate giving up. I felt like I let down my friend and made a fool of myself for thinking I could kayak on the Mississippi River.
One of the reasons I do trips like that is enduring hardships in the middle of them prepares me to endure hardships in the rest of my life. I have learned that if I can keep going on a bike ride or a hike after I want to quit, I can apply that same perseverance to my work. On hikes, I tell myself, one more step. On bike rides, it’s one more mile. In work, I turn that into one more phone call, one more draft, one more pitch, whatever.
This was different though. The Mississippi River presented hardship I couldn’t endure. The current was too strong, the barges were too big, the wind was too heavy. For three days, I could not paddle straight. Finally, I gave up trying. One more paddle stroke? Screw that.
In the days after the trip, I told my friends how annoyed I was by my inability to keep a kayak going in the direction I wanted for any more than a few minutes. I told them I was frustrated that we had to cut short our destination goals because I couldn’t reach them. I told them it was a failed trip.
Good friends that they are, they told me I was full of it. (Pro tip: Find friends like that.)
Once my anger subsided, and with my friends’ straight talk, I saw that I still had a ton of fun on the trip. John and I camped two nights on the banks of the Mississippi River and talked and laughed deep into the night. I still filed the stories out of the trip that I intended, including this one, even if they weren’t what I originally envisioned.
This story was supposed to be about learning new skills. Only problem: I didn’t learn any. Pro tip: Don’t try to learn how to kayak on the Mississippi Freaking River.
Now I see that I took a big swing at the Mississippi River, and while I didn’t hit it the way I intended, that’s beside the point. And that led me to examine my career. When have I set big goals, the equivalent of kayaking the Mississippi River, for my business as a whole?
The answer is almost never.
I hope to change that.
I’m perfectly comfortable pitching challenging stories or tackling adventures that push me out of my comfort zone. But those always have built-in fail-safes. For example, when I sold a story a few years ago about spending the summer trying to get my first hole in one, there was no way to screw it up. All I had to do was try, because I would write the story whether I got the hole in one or not. I would (probably) not have taken the assignment if I only got paid if I got the hole in one.
I’ve rarely taken equivalent risks in my business as a whole because there are no fail-safes. I want to know before I set a goal that I’ll reach it. That has made me timid.
The more I’ve thought about that October kayak trip, the more I’ve started to wonder… what opportunities have I missed out on because I have been unwilling to risk failure? “Life is too short not to pursue your dreams,” wrote Jim Rohn. “At the end of your life, all you will be able to do is look backward. You can reflect with joy or regret.”
As the New Year approaches, I’m looking at what I can do in 2021 that applies this lesson. I hope you will, too. I’ve started a list of dream projects, which amounts to writing down what’s been floating around in my head for years that I’ve never worked up the nerve to start working on.
The benefits of striving for big goals go beyond whatever boost actually reaching the goal provides. “Findings from 30 years of research on life satisfaction show that happiness requires having clear-cut goals in life that give us a sense of purpose and direction,” write Caroline Adams Miller and Dr. Michael B. Frisch in Creating Your Best Life, which was recently re-released.
“When we make progress toward satisfying our most cherished needs, goals, and wishes in the 16 areas of life that contribute to contentment, we create well-being. Our research also shows that when we make progress toward attaining goals in one area of life, we raise our overall life satisfaction in other areas because of the potent ‘spillover’ effect.”
The key words to me are “make progress,” and I’ve been missing that spillover effect that results. Chasing big goals will allow me to, in a manner of speaking, camp on the banks of the Mississippi River and talk and laugh deep into the night. I’ll need to remind myself of that repeatedly as I’ve identified a couple big swing goals that I’m trying to talk myself into pursuing even if I whiff.
I’m not ready to say what those are yet. But they won’t involve kayaks or the Mississippi River.
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