Stretch Goals Should Inspire Not Keep You Stuck

by Alli Polin on October 7, 2014

stretch goals should inspire, not make you feel like a failure

My kids rode their bikes home as fast as they could to tell me their exciting news!  They decided to participate in NaMoWriMo and write a book in the month of November.  The music teacher is leading the charge over lunch and recess and they’d selected a target number of words.  Let’s just say that they set the bar high at 15,000 words each.  I wanted to encourage them, but also didn’t want their goals to keep them stuck or worse, make them quit.  It was up to me to help them find a more inspiring stretch goal, or so I thought.

My son said, “The most I’ve ever written is 200.  This is going to be a lot!”
My daughter said, “I picked this as my goal.  Nobody told me what to pick.”
Silly Mom said, “Don’t you guys think you should pick a goal that’s a stretch, but could still be reachable?  We’ll celebrate when you exceed it instead of realizing in the first few days it’s too much.”

That did not land well at all.

The comments came flying fast!

You don’t believe in me!
How do you know what I can do?
I don’t want to talk to you.


I’ve seen big goals keep the sales team stuck. 

The sales team knows the routine – a contest is announced.  There are three tiers and the top one has a great prize attached.  It matters to the business that sales pick up and the leadership team thought it would be a good idea to give the sales team a huge goal, “because we need it”, and a huge incentive to match.

Everyone on the sales team gave their best effort for the first, second and even the third contest, yet they were always falling short by a wide margin.  Unfortunately, in the long run, the sales team felt like failures, and gave up trying for the top.  It felt impossible.  It was simply too far beyond what they could imagine, even with tons of work and hustle.

Every contest that was announced was met with an eye roll because the goal didn’t feel real.  Specifically, it felt like a leadership lie that sounded something like this: “I know you want the big bucks, but we don’t really want to pay them out. This goal is beyond your reach.  Just settle for doing a little more than you’re doing now and we’ll give you a little more in your paycheck.”

The goal was ultimately keeping them stuck from reaching further because they believed that they could never reach far enough.

I’ve seen personal goals that allowed no room to flex.

“I’m going land ten speaking gigs by January 1st,” Jane said.
“I’m going to be an SVP by the time I’m 30,” said Rob.
“I’m going to sell 5,000 copies of my book next quarter,” said Meg.

Jane was finding it hard to break in since she was not yet known on the speaking circuit.  She chose not to celebrate the two gigs she booked and instead lamented falling short by eight.

Rob was still a Senior Director on his 30th birthday and celebrated with thoughts of quitting to finally be promoted, despite the fact that he loved the company.

Meg’s sales early in the quarter were 250, a far cry from being on pace for 5,000.  She let embarrassment replace her early energy and her promotion efforts started to feel half hearted at best.

Can Goals Keep You Stuck Instead of Stretched?

Take 30 seconds to google “goals” and you’ll find approximately 20 zillion articles on why they matter and how to stay motivated.  I believe that yes, everyone needs to have goals, but not all of them need to be the big kahuna.  Goals can keep you stuck, believing that you don’t have what it takes, when the gap is too big.  

Stretch goals should adjust and grow.  Don’t let fixed goals make you feel like a failure.  Every big kahuna goal has interim milestones and places to stop and celebrate.  Moreover, it’s easy to forget that our bars do not need to be equal.  My stretch may be easy for you and vise versa.

Imagine a ladder with each rung taking you higher.  Each step is a goal and when you reach it, you set a new one and climb further.  If the only choices are the ground and the top rung, with no landing points in-between, you will likely never reach the top, give up, and find a new ladder to climb.

Raise your own bar

Whether you’re writing a novel in a month or exceeding sales quotas, it’s motivating to have a goal.  Targets keep you moving towards success.  However, targets should never be arbitrary.  When you can’t imagine any scenario where you can reach the goal, it’s going to backfire.  Instead, continue to raise your own bar over and over.  Set a stretch goal and when you achieve it, move it.  Keep the stretch going and discover the outer limits of what’s possible as your confidence, competence and creativity grows.

Celebrate success instead of lamenting the failure

You will have times you fall short.  We all will. Falling short does not mean that a heck of a lot of good stuff was not accomplished along the way. Failure is only truly a failure when you give up.   It’s up to you to intentionally look for the good and use it to inform your future goals.  Think stretch, not stop.

Falling behind doesn’t require you to give up

You’ve heard it a million times before: Success does not follow a straight line.  You will have setbacks and days that you move forward by leaps and bounds.  When you have one of those setback days, don’t start telling yourself lies like “I knew I couldn’t do it.” or “The dream was just too big.”  Today may be a setback, but tomorrow may be the leap.  My advice?  Keep stretching and keep going.

Believe you can 

Belief is often what separates success from stuck.  Do you believe you can do it or are you going through motions propelled by doubt and fear?  Belief is what keeps you in action.  Belief is what gives you strength.  Belief is a gift that you can give not only to others, but also to yourself.  Don’t lower the bar because anyone else thinks it’s a good idea, believe you can and you will (or at least get a heck of a lot closer than simply playing it safe).

As for my kids, my son is adjusting his target to 7,500 words which is still a stretch goal that will take a lot of discipline.  My daughter is sticking with 15,000 and I’ll be cheering her on every step of the way.

How have you learned to feel the stretch without falling into stuck?

Set goals that stretch you, not break you or keep you stuck!  Want support? Check out my eCourse: Get Unstuck and Choose to Move.


{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

John Thurlbeck October 7, 2014 at 6:07 am

Hi Alli – loved the post! You set me a great stretch goal recently!

I’m still persevering with the daily 5-5-5 reflection exercise, although it is a challenge and requires great discipline ~ something else I find a challenge. I am too much of a social butterfly I think … and am having to curb my natural instincts!

Having said that, the stuff I’m coming up with is really good and, overall, I am both enjoying and learning from the process. I just need to persevere till it becomes a natural habit. That will take so time … and there’s the stretch for me!

Thanks for sharing! Have a brilliant week ahead!

Kind regards



Alli Polin October 7, 2014 at 6:24 am

Discipline is a big part of the stretch, isn’t it? There are many things I’ve started that I’ve been tempted to give up before the habit kicked in 🙂

I once had a colleague that described the challenge of sticking with new things as “shiny object syndrome.” I’m thrilled to hear that you’re still giving 5-5-5 a go! Maybe I need my own stretch goal of journaling… even if it’s only once a week. We all start somewhere!

Many thanks to you, John!


Carl October 7, 2014 at 7:02 am

Hi Alli, ah…..the ‘silly mom’ dreaded voice of reason – regardless of the sphere of leadership – manager, team leader, or parent – it can be a very slippery slope to question another’s goals.
One strategy I developed as a teacher when I heard one of my students with what I considered unrealistic goals – was to keep my opinions to my self (easier said than done) congratulate them on their goals and immediately establish check points. The more unrealistic the goal, the more often we would meet. During our meetings, I would try to guide them to be reflective on their progress and upcoming deadlines and always allow them space to adjust their goals – if they wanted to.
The process usually went very well in the classroom – I wish I could say I had equal success in the home. Somehow the authority a teacher carries doesn’t always translate well into the role of a parent. I had lots of those ‘oh crap’ moments. 🙂

Best regards for your thoughts and work


Alli Polin October 7, 2014 at 7:08 am

Excellent advice, Carl! As soon as I said it, I was ready to eat my words, but alas, once out, they’re out.

I’ve offered to help come up with a schedule and time to write, but more than anything I want them both to know how proud I am that they’re stretching their skills and doing something that excites them. My daughter’s word for the year was “challenge” and she is living up to it. Who I am to tell her she can’t.

A parent’s (or leaders) fear that someone will fail matters. However, character is built in the challenge, not the glide. It won’t be easy but it’s oh-so-worth it.

Many thanks for sharing your wisdom, Carl!!


Tom Rhodes October 7, 2014 at 8:05 am

Goals that are unreachable will do more to de-motivate a team than help them succeed. Want to turn a great salesperson into a former salesperson than make their goals so unreachable they leave. I have seen this so many times. When you want to reach a larger goal you need to build confidence by continually setting and reaching the goals in between. Like the rungs on a ladder. People are not dumb. They know when a contest is unwinnable. This will destroy trust and people will find somewhere else to work.
In sports you don’t win a championship by winning all the games at once. You win by winning one game at a time. When we try to do too much at once we may not only get stuck, we may drown.
Great post. Thanks for all you do.


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:15 am

Tom – You said it so well! Unreachable goals absolutely can turn a great salesperson into an former salesperson. Confidence truly matters and every time we reach a new goal, it propels us to reach for the next… even when it may have felt unreachable initially. (There’s something to be said for momentum)

It’s funny that you wrote people are not dumb. I actually had that sentence in my post and took it out in a final edit. Thank you for writing what I too know to be true.

Many thanks, Tom!


Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ October 7, 2014 at 8:26 am

WOW Alli, What a post! It is the essence of the message: Know your audience. Some people so well when they set the bar at “attainable” as you initially to your children while others need it set much higher.

I love this post. So real, so true, so powerful a message.


Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:11 am

Thanks, Kate! Important reminder that we all have different bars and need to stretch in different ways. Goals are rarely a one size fits all event. 🙂


Bill Benoist October 7, 2014 at 9:08 am

Fifteen thousand words during November. I love it!!

If your daughter breaks her goal into chunks and does 750 words a day, she can have it finished in 20 days, and still have play time 🙂

In 2013, the help desk I manage was recognized as one of the top 50 support centers in the world. Not in the industry, not in the US. In the world. We ranked 28th. My manager was extremely proud, but he cautioned me not to be disappointed if we could not repeat because, hey – we’re talking the world, right?

Well, I had a team that believed and this year they they did it again.

14th place.

I don’t mean to tout my horn. I just wanted to say you are spot on when it comes to the power of believing in oneself.


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:08 am

I absolutely love this story, Bill! Also appreciated learning more about it on your blog. HUGE kudos to your team and than you for sharing what’s possible when you choose to believe… even when others don’t.


Terri Klass October 7, 2014 at 9:46 am

Making our goals too challenging can defeat anyone’s goal setting strategy.

In addition, when we break our goals down into smaller steps and see progress, we are probably going to stick with our plan. I do this all the time. I am now working on a project that involves a series of training workshops. They all need to be designed but I am having difficulty working on the new ones before completing the present ones. So I decided to just work on only one ahead so I would not only enjoy the current training but not feel so focused on constantly creating a new presentation.

Thanks Alli for a great way to honor our milestones!


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:07 am

Excellent advice! The biggest goals can be accomplished with the smallest steps. Also, giving ourselves permission to set interim goals enables us to give our best. Love that you’re working one ahead instead of spreading yourself thin. Grateful that you share your experience here! Thanks, Terri!


LaRae Quy October 7, 2014 at 11:51 am

This post brings up an extremely important point, Alli!

We hear so much the importance of setting goals…I have found that while goals are great benchmarks, they should never take the place of where they are supposed to be taking us.

Too many leaders supplant the word “vision” for the word “goal.” A goal should help us keep moving toward our vision—but never be confused with the vision itself.

It’s interesting…so many people cling to the notion of setting goals in their life that the very idea that the ultimate destination is something else entirely completely throws them off balance, and can even produce some heated arguments!


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:06 am


This comment really hits home for me. In my new course designed to help people get unstuck, we have a whole week devoted to vision. Some people struggle on separating vision from goals and I firmly believe that they can and should be two very different things. With you that our goals are what keep us moving forward towards our bigger vision of what we want to create in our life and leadership. Many thanks to you for bringing this forward!


Karin Hurt October 8, 2014 at 6:43 am

Alli, Terrific post. I had a very similar conversation with my son, Ben, a few years ago. Guess what, as it turned out, his goal was not too high 😉


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:02 am

I support my kids with the goals that they set and want to see them stretch. I was actually bummed to hear that my son was assigned the goal by his teacher. 1000 words for the month. 33 words a day?

Thanks for sharing your experience with Ben too 🙂


Chery Gegelman October 8, 2014 at 7:41 am

Alli – Great post! I can’t wait to hear the rest of the story! I’ve been stuck by setting goals that were to big to soon, and I’ve been stuck by unrealistic goals set by others. And at the same time, I love Karin’s point that sometimes our goals are not too high! And love the feeling of blowing some of them out of the water!


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:04 am

It does feel great to blow goals out of the water! I agree! The great thing is learning to calibrate our goals. Too easy? Go bigger. Too big? Find something that’s a better fit – for now. It’s the idea that we have to start at the top that can intimidate some people into stopping before they start. A little humility and a willingness to find the sweet spot goes a lonnnggg way.

Thanks, Chery!


Jon Mertz October 8, 2014 at 8:50 am


Great points. Just has tiny habits lead to big changes, so will smaller, achievable goals lead to great achievable missions. It is interesting to see how BIG goals can get us stuck just as comparing ourselves to others can get us stuck. We get distracted and then begin to feel small and unable to achieve. Instead, we need to pick a path and put one foot in front of the other. By doing this, we make progress and, more importantly, a difference.




Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:20 am

Well said, Jon!

It’s true, when we fall short of our big goals, we begin to beat ourselves up and retreat instead of breaking things down and finding a better path forward. It’s the progress that matters, not the size of the leaps.

Thanks for sharing your insight!!


Harish Kumar October 10, 2014 at 10:09 am

Great points, Alli!
I agree that goals should facilitate forward movement and not enhance getting stuck.
I love the ladder analogy that you provided and I believe that it is precisely that reason that makes huge goals seem unreachable and unapproachable. Because they really are!
I know that goal setting is important and the “why” is important but often overlooked is the “how.” It seems there is a lot of emphasis on the idea that if the why is clear, a path will open up. While this may be true in some cases, most of lack of progress that I have seen or experienced was not because of a lack of BIG goals or the “why” but rather being stuck because I did not know how to proceed and take the next step. I believe that the small next steps make or break forward motion.

Dan and Chip Heath in their book, Switch call getting beyond this lack of clear instructions-Scripting the Critical Moves. When the goal is huge and fuzzy, forward motion is unclear, confusing and promotes mind freeze.
I think that having a smaller next step goal like you suggest and a very clear how to get to rung B from A makes forward motion more possible.
Thanks for a great post!


Alli Polin October 12, 2014 at 7:24 am

First of all, Harish, welcome! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

Big YES!! I agree! There is a lot of talk (for good reason) about a compelling why but oftentimes it’s the how that’s overlooked. A year ago I sat down for coffee with a coach I respect and she looked me in the eye and said that I know exactly what I want to achieve, who I’m working for… but it’s the how where I need a jumpstart – and she was right. I saw a million paths forward and was frozen that I’d make a choice and pick the wrong one instead of recognizing that it’s sustained action, not giant leaps that will help me (and others) achieve my vision.

Also appreciate that you shared Switch. I have it on my reading list and clearly need to bump it up!

Many thanks!



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