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  • Writer's pictureNathan Kirchner

It is better to shoot for Mars and fail at the stars than to shoot short and succeed

‘Life is short’ and all the rest of it... I’ll be honest, I have spent much of my life thinking like an engineer. My father was an engineer, my schooling leant that way, and I am pretty sure my mind was aligned to it before I begun to have much of a chance to fiddle with it!

Amongst other things this means I have a well developed tendency to be risk adverse and to see issues in absolutely everything. But something that has helped me loosen my reluctance to stumble into ambiguity. It is a simple perspective framed by a relatively neat turn of phrase I think I have honed over the years, but I probably lifted it of someone in one manner or another - sorry & cheers!

The phrase - It is better to shoot for mars & fail at the stars than to shoot short and succeed. Let me break it down to the key elements that have proved themselves to impact my mind, achievements & general attitude.

  • It is better to shoot for mars... - I guess I could be a rocket engineer and this may have a more literal meaning, but I am not! This to me means setting a goal that is possible to achieve with a lot of work & a few things falling my way, then make it harder, adding a bit, stretching it out & then looking just past the edge of it. This gives me a goal that is based on something believable to achieve that is clearly a step further in turns of challenging myself & in impacting those around it. This is my Mars. It is just out of immediate sight, I know it is out there somewhere, I am not exactly sure where, it is believable that someone will get there one day, it definitely seems possible, but it seems non-trivial. For instance, it seems unlikely that I will be walking down the street, take a wrong turn & accidentally end up on Mars. Perhaps most importantly to me is that I will be proud to strive for this & to tell people I am working towards it. I will have something solid, explainable & assessable to say when someone (or even myself) questions my sanity. Something that makes it seem ‘out there & accessible’ rather than ludicrous.

  • at the stars - I find this framing particularly warming, it takes the ‘disaster’ of failing away completely. I find this clause to emphasise the power of the first. Here ‘failure’ is considered having made it to the stars; a significant achievement! This gives me a solid basis to formulate & control my risk taking (still an engineer). I may set my Mars goal ‘way out there’, but as long as I do it cognisantly so that it points in a direction I want to go then even if I fall short I have still achieved a significant & meaningful outcome; after all, I made it to the stars!

  • ...than to shoot short and succeed - This bit really helps me. I find this to be a useful baseline against which to create the positive tension with ambition. I typically ask myself ‘What if I actually achieved this goal, what would people think/say?’ If the answer I come up with are more towards ‘So what?!?!’ then I know I haven’t really come up with much of a goal. It is generally at this point that my natural laziness kicks in & I default to my standard two options (yes, a false dichotomy!)

  1. Do nothing - I mean seriously, why bother spending energy on something no one is going to even notice enough to muster up some sense of caring? This one really just motivates me to do something to address the core issue of the weak goal.

  2. Try again - I seriously suck at doing nothing... I generally talk tough and suggest things like my option 1 here but in reality the only option I see is to iterate; to try again. Clearly my first pass at a Mars goal was a bit to conservative/achievable/safe/boring so I need to revisit it to make it a bit harder, add a bit more, stretch it more, & look out further - & then <repeat> <repeat> <repeat>!

<the ubiquitous 'honest question'> Wouldn’t it better to really think it out & accurately articulate a meaningful & achievable goal that can be delivered with certainty?

In some cases sure. For instance, the above is perhaps not a great paradigm to subscribe to in the extreme if your aim is to build a bridge! However, if your goal is radical innovation, disruptive innovation, step-changes, entrepreneurship, deep innovation, R&D or the such then it is more appropriate.

It simply comes down to the juxtaposition of tying to do something that has not previously been achieved / something that is against the flow of business as usual with having a clear certainty of delivery quality & timeframe. Taken to its extreme, the best way to increase the certainty around doing something is to do something you’ve already done numerous time before. More of the same - business as usual.

<the insight> If you construct your goal to be amazing (Mars) and your ‘didn’t quite get there but points for trying’ option as great (the stars) then is there really such a thing as failure? If you didn’t get what you aimed for you still land somewhere pretty great. It is better to shoot for the Mars and fail at the stars than to shoot short and succeed!

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