Dreaming Big, Focusing Small, and Some Science behind It

"You have to dream before your dreams can come true." - A.P.J. Abdul Kalam 

We all have dreams. Sometimes we like to keep them reasonable.  No need to set ourselves up for disappointment.  Sometimes we let ourselves have the big dreams, but we don’t go after them.  They’re just hazy, someday wishes.

But there are people that have big dreams and then achieve them. What makes those people different?  Is it just that they go for it; that they don’t let fear of loss and failure stop them; that they have more willpower and gumption than the rest of us? 

Perhaps to some extent yes, but they are likely just a little more tuned into how their brains are working either consciously or subconsciously.        

Owning Big Dreams

Experts seem to all agree this is essential.  Here’s why. There’s a bit of science at play in your brain that makes goal setting effective. It’s called the Endowment Effect and it is a label for the way people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.

Researchers at Cornell did a cool experiment to show how this works.  They gave subjects a coffee mug at the beginning of the experiment and then asked if they would trade for a chocolate bar at the end. Most declined. Well, was it because the mug was cool?  Nope.  They switched it with the next group and, low and behold, they kept the chocolate bar.  Why?  Endowment Effect.

How does this work in goal setting? Well, it turns out you don’t have to physically HAVE something to mentally own it.  Goals count. Meaning once you’ve set a goal, you have a strong desire to keep it and see it achieved. This is great because you can set a big goal and then own its achievement and that provides built in motivation. This is less great because once you commit to reaching a goal, if you don’t pursue it, that ownership will make you miserable (but this can also be motivating). This might explain the reluctance to sometimes make that big dream a big goal, but fuck it, just own it.   

Focusing Small to Achieve It

You may think this is necessary because you need to break a goal into manageable chunks that can actually be achieved.  You’re right, but there is more at work here than just a manageable list. 

You have a reward center in your brain and it floods your body with serotonin and dopamine.  You get a hit when you finish a level on a video game, give someone money, eat a chocolate bar, or check something off your day’s list. All day long you subconsciously seek the rush and get it in small ways.

But, when you set a big goal -- like start a business or write a novel -- the dopamine rush is far out of reach. This may play a large part in why achieving big things is not the norm. Not only does it sit far out of our comfort zone, but we can barely muster the motivation to take steps towards it, knowing the payoff (even subconsciously) is WAY down the road.

Enter focusing small. So while the dream is, “Be a fitness goddess that buys all her clothes from Title 9,” the smaller goals include, “get to the gym for an hour a day and have salad for dinner.” Now, when you check those off your list, you will get your small dopamine brain-rush as a reward. 

Ideally, these small goals are also little rungs on a ladder to the bigger goal.  Each rung that is achieved sets off the reward center of your brain and all the while you climb closer to the big dream.

But as we move toward our big dreams, we need to keep an open mind.  Dreams change, goals can change.  It’s the sense of progress that truly is fulfilling.    



Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited