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Extreme Lesson in Goal Setting

You hear and read about the importance of setting goals. The gurus in personal development expound on how important goal setting is to achievement in anything. Peter Drucker wrote about the importance of setting objectives in his book The Practice of Management, which he termed ‘Management by Objective’. Self help expert Tony Robbins stated, “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” Great athletes will tell you the same; setting goals and then working towards those goals is what set their careers apart from their competitors. Mohammad Ali put it simply when he said, “What keeps me going is goals.” This brings me to an example of goal setting that just seems so juxtaposed, given the gravity of the situation and the direness of the consequences, to any normal goal setting scenario. However, it is the absurdity of the situation that makes this story about goal setting so memorable.

John Aldridge, a commercial lobsterman, from Oakdale, New York found himself in this dire, seemingly helpless situation. You see he was thrown overboard into the Atlantic Ocean at 3 o’clock in the morning off the commercial fishing vessel he had been working. He was 40 miles from shore and all he had was his rubber deck boots, a T-shirt, shorts and a knife. Oh, the other thing he had was company in the form of fins swimming around him , sharks.

John was asked if he ever felt like this was the end, that he wouldn’t make it. He stated that he forced himself to not let those thoughts enter his mind. Instead he focused on, “positive thinking the whole time.” Now this is a situation where positive thinking would certainly be a plus. But it is not enough, especially when you’re floating alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. More than positive thinking was going to be necessary in order for John to survive. This is true in more pedestrian situations in life as well. You can have a positive attitude but without actionable goals dreams are just dreams and not reality. There is more to do than thinking positively to make something you’ve dreamt become reality. John Aldridge knew this as well. He declared, “Death was not an option. I immediately set goals for myself: OK, I’m floating on these boots. I’m above the water, I’m breathing. The water’s warm. All right, that’s one goal. John’s next goal, “I got to stay alive until sunrise. If I make it to sunrise, they’re going to call the Coast Guard and come looking for me. They’ll be able to find me.”

The story of this tough lobsterman finding himself in a seemingly impossible situation and responding to it by, what else but, setting goals will always be a reminder to me of just how important the concept of goal setting is. It’s even more telling when you compare John’s response to what the experts in goal setting have to say about the subject.

Your goal must be conceivable. In other words you must be able to imagine, conceptualize and understand the goal or desired result. John was doing this by first taking stock of the fact that he already had met a number of goals on his path to survival and rescue. He mentally checked off that 1. he was above water, 2. he was breathing, and 3. the water was warm. This prepared his mind up for making his goal of survival until sunrise conceivable.

Your goal must be believable. It may seem like in John’s situation this would be a tough goal prerequisite for him to meet. However, John already set the stage for success in his mind by stating that death was not an option. And to make good on that he used his ingenuity by using his boots as makeshift floats, which led him to the third attribute about goal setting.

Your goal must be achievable. I find it interesting that many self-help coaches say that while a goal must be achievable it is also important for the goal to cause you to stretch beyond normal self-imposed limits. Well, mission accomplished John you definitely put yourself in a postion that would be categorized as a stretch goal. However, what John did next was more important towards making his goal achievable. He was able to use his knowledge and expertise of the environment, even in a situation of extreme duress, to make excellent decisions that helped him succeed. He used the boot floats to make it to a fishing buoy. Then he was patient and waited. This seemingly inconsequential act of waiting at the buoy was most likely the best decision and action John made. And it led to his rescue after 12 hours in the water. His decision to stay at the buoy allowed John to secure the fourth attribute of goal setting.

Your goal should be controllable. Staying at the buoy gave John the best chance to maintain control over his goal of staying alive until rescuers could find him. If he had left that buoy because of impatience or frustration and tried to make it further on his own it most likely would have cost him his life. It is important to maintain control. And it is important to judge the level of control in comparison to the situation you find yourself. Granted, hanging on to a fishing buoy in the middle of the ocean does not seem to envisage control, but given John’s circumstances it was his best option to maintain control of the situation.

Make your goal measurable. Note that John provided a critical measure right from the start in his goals. He said he had to, “stay alive until sunrise” then he believed they would call in the Coast Guard and they would come looking for him. This is exactly what happened. Peter Drucker used to teach his business students that you could not predict the future but you could certainly take steps to create it.

Be sure you have singleness of purpose. Check, done, complete. John was certainly single-minded and his actions were absolutely congruent with his goal. However, It might not have been that way if John had ended up questioning his original goal, which was to stay alive until daybreak so rescuers could find him. What if instead he had started to let incongruent thoughts and actions creep into his mind and sabotage his goals. For example, what if he started thinking about his goal in terms of getting to shore. If he would have wavered from his original goal he might not have made the best decision to stay with the buoy.

The story of the tough, smart lobsterman, John Aldridge, will always be a kind of allegory for me of what it means to set and achieve goals besides being an amazing story!

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