Ceramic Goals

When I was eleven, I wanted to boost my family's efficiency while baking in the kitchen, so I decided to help with the dishes. I took the hot ceramic tray cooling off on the counter after being used to bake dinner rolls and brought it to the sink. To cool it down faster so I could clean it, I turned on the cold water from the faucet. Within seconds of the cold water hitting the hot ceramic, the dish shattered into a dozen pieces. I was shocked. Embarrassed. I had broken one of our most used dishes - one that baked many cinnamon roll breakfasts and lasagna dinners.

As I was thinking about goal-setting recently, it struck me that the cold water on hot ceramic is a helpful analogy for setting goals that maximize our achievement without discouraging us. Here's what I mean.

What actually happens that causes the ceramic dish to shatter? When the ceramic heats up in the oven, it expands ever so slightly. It's not noticeable to the naked eye. When the dish is back on the counter cooling down, it slowly, imperceptibly shrinks back to its previous size. When I put the hot dish in the sink and ran cool water over it, I fast-forwarded the cooling process. But only on one side. That one side cools quickly and contracts, while the other side stays hot. This stress between the slightly expanded and slightly contracted sides of the dish increases enough that it cracks into a mini-mosaic in the sink. Who knew breaking my parents' dishes could be artistic?

When you set overly ambitious goals, you’re—perhaps unintentionally—trying to fast forward to the results. But we know you can't do that. Without the diligent work required to accomplish something meaningful, you can't get there. The question becomes, how do you set goals that cause you to grow?

We've all set goals that seem super exciting, but when we actually try to figure out a plan to achieve them, we're overwhelmed. They're so far beyond what we think we can do that we end up discouraged and don't make the effort required to achieve them.

In 2013, I worked on the staff at Keewaydin Camp for boys in Salisbury, Vermont. The leader for my camper age-group was studying for his master's degree in Mind, Brain and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at the time. He shared the following idea about how to help our campers grow:

Anyone can grow to meet a challenge as long as their perceived support structure and resources are greater than their perception of the difficulty of the challenge ahead.

This was a precious mental model when designing programs to help young boys grow into mature young men. It also has a lot to offer someone wanting to grow in any area of life. Let's see how we can use it.

There are two main dials to turn up or down.

The first dial is the perception of the difficulty of the goal. The second dial is the perception of the resources available to you.

Perceived Difficulty

First, the perceived difficulty. If we think something's too easy, we won't be motivated to stretch ourselves to grow. No new skills are needed, so we'll jump into solving it, none the stronger on the other side. If we think it's too hard in the time we have, we'll be discouraged from trying because we don't see a path to success.

Challenge comes from deadlines. If you want to build a great business, the difficulty changes dramatically when you give yourself ten years instead of ten days. Your deadline must be realistic to be helpful.

Notice that I say perception of resources and challenge, not the actual resources and challenge. We don't experience the world as it is. We experience the world according to our senses, our experience, our expertise. Just like a child may see wind as mysterious, cooling gusts, a meteorologist sees wind as a series of constantly fluctuating pressure gradients. We're looking at and experiencing the same thing, but perceiving it far differently. These lenses inevitably color our view of the world. Take time to understand yourself, then leverage that knowledge to set achievable goals with the time you have.

Perceived Resources

The second dial governs the perceived resources available. These are the mentors, books, articles, and people cheering you along in your pursuit of the goal. If you sense you have a network of support, you're much more likely to try something that requires you to venture beyond your existing expertise.

Think about a time someone expressed their belief in you. Belief that you could accomplish more than you thought you could. In that moment, it's possible you felt a surge of belief in your ability to reach a goal. But you didn't suddenly transform into Einstein or Michael Jordan. The hidden paths available to you were simply illuminated. Your perceived set of resources expanded, and therefore increased your ability to achieve your current goal or an even more ambitious one.

Understanding reality helps us accurately identify obstacles to success and deftly avoid them. However, once we learn a lot about something, including the base rates of success, it may show that our chances of success are low. So why do we continue? We continue because we care. [1]

And a dash of delusion [2], driven by our desire to serve, is sometimes needed to pursue an endeavor with uninviting base rates of success.

Properly set goals can be catalysts for personal growth. Design them improperly though, and you may be discouraged (the ceramic may crack) or not challenged enough to evolve. To find the right challenge, you need to know yourself well. To dial in your perceived resources, learn from as many people (including their writing) as you can.

Here's to setting goals that make us better, and to keeping our parents’ dishes intact.


  • [1] I will write more about this in the future.

  • [2] Optimists (those who pursue ambitious dreams in spite of the base rates and naysayers) play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. They're the ones willing to take risks to innovate. Idea from Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. By delusion I mean the act of ignoring base rates. Choosing to not see probabilities quite as they are.

Thanks to my amazing wife Abby Nice, Abram El-Sabagh, and Steven Ovadia for reading drafts of this.

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