Big Goals Take Small Steps

It was just past 1 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2014, when I crossed the finish line of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

As pain shot through my legs while the bottom of my feet throbbed from the 26.2-mile trek through more than 20 Chicago neighborhoods, it was a moment filled with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I was in incredible agony. Why in the world did I decide to do that? How did I ever think that putting my body through such physical punishment would be a fun way to spend a Sunday? I could’ve just grabbed some couch and watched football like everyone else. But no — on this day, I chose to run. For nearly five hours. Without stopping. And I paid a large entry fee to do it.

As volunteers rushed to offer me a complimentary beer, all I could think about was locating the nearest curb to sit down and give my legs, feet, back, arms, hands, neck, you name it, a rest. Everything hurt. Maybe I would be ready to get back on my feet sometime the following week.

At the same time, it was an incredible accomplishment. I’m not a marathon runner. I’d played sports in high school and have been somewhat active since, but nothing has been that challenging on my body. Crossing the finish line that day, after succumbing to the major aches, fatigue and pain in the final stretches, was a major test of my mental and physical toughness. I was proud of myself.

I recently watched as a few of my best friends accomplished their own marathon-running feat, which gave me a different perspective on the experience.

As expected, they expressed the pain and hardship that comes with running a marathon for the first time — the surprise hunger you start to feel even though you ate four bowls of pasta the night before; the knee aches that didn’t show up during your extensive training; the unexpected uphill trek toward the finish line, just when you feel as if your legs are about to break down; the heat, oh the heat, despite the fact that it’s mid-October.

For me, the biggest lesson — and reward — wasn’t necessarily crossing the finish line. It was a newfound appreciation for the power of using small goals to achieve big ones.

Running 26.2 miles is hard; I mean, really hard. Most people can’t wake up one morning and try to run that far successfully. Still, the reason so many people are able to complete marathons each year is they commit to a process that takes one large goal — running 26.2 miles — and they break it down into smaller, more attainable ones.

When people start to train for a marathon they don’t run 26.2 miles; they run maybe 2 or 3. Then, the next week, they push themselves to 4; then 6; then 10, and so on — until a few weeks before they’re able to run 20 miles. Adrenaline gets them to 26.2 on race day (or so they’re told). 

Anyone trying to accomplish anything big can develop a larger process made up of smaller goals to get there.

Want to build a new onboarding program? Start by changing how new employees are greeted on their first day. Hoping to overhaul the way social media is used in your firm’s recruiting? Try conversing with one prospective candidate on Twitter and see how it goes. Then build from there.

Big goals can be scary to the point that people either give up too soon or don’t try entirely. As talent managers head into 2016, don’t let daunting goals get in the way of going after them.

The point of running a marathon isn’t to showcase your physical feats. It’s to prove to yourself that with the dedication to a process of going after small goals, larger ones that seem impossible are actually well within reach.