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Aim Big, Fail Big  

2024 is going to be a big year for me. I’m not sure how it’s going to be a big year as I’ve yet to set any concrete goals, so the specifics are still a little hazy, but I’ve got a good feeling. Maybe this is the year I’ll finally write the autobiography that the world hasn’t asked for, or bike across the state of North Carolina, or do 500 pushups a day for the whole year! Or maybe I’ll try to do all of those things! The possibilities are endless! I’m so pumped! 

I know what you’re thinking: “Graham, we’re already two months into the year. Isn’t it a little late for these life-changing resolutions?” Maybe, but you shouldn’t come out of the gate with your new year’s resolutions too hot. Have you ever run a marathon? Starting too fast is a common mistake. Pace is everything. And is it ever a bad time to start a kale-based, all-liquid diet or decide to sell your car and walk everywhere?  

I’m really good at that, by the way—setting huge resolutions for myself. Every year is loaded with new massive health declarations, big adventure goals, and life-changing workout plans. I’ve developed schemes to run every day for six months, to bike 5,000 miles and camp every night for a month…I give up alcohol completely on a regular basis. Some people might call these goals unrealistic and borderline dangerous, and based on my track record, those people would be correct. I’m not so good at achieving big goals, but setting them? I’m a freaking pro. I’m very good at aiming high and taking big swings at life changes.  

Because you can make a living doing anything these days. There’s an entire industry of experts called “Life Coaches” that specialize in this sort of thing, and they’ll typically tell you to avoid unrealistic objectives. They’ll prescribe smaller, more attainable goals to give you a better chance of success. Instead of trying to run every day for six months after not having run since middle school phys ed class, why not just try to train for a 5K? Think about making tiny changes to your daily habits instead of big, sweeping changes that are hard to sustain. Get up just 15 minutes earlier instead of setting your alarm for 5am to write for two hours every morning. Meditate for three minutes a day instead of signing up for that seven-day silent retreat. Switch your burger for salad at lunch instead of trying to eat nothing but vegetables for all of 2024. The prevailing theory goes that if you stick with these tiny changes, they’ll eventually stack up to make a big difference in your life. And those experts are probably right, but damn it, what a boring way to go about changing your life. Small changes and realistic goals give you small realistic results. Attempting something big and bodacious is far more interesting, and I’d argue far more productive. Because when you aim high, even failure can be a sort of success. 

Let me explain. 

Two years ago, I dedicated the entire winter to learning how to do a 360 on skis. Never mind that I’m a middle-aged guy who’s prone to injury and has never successfully pulled off the simplest of ski tricks—the spread eagle. I was determined to jump really high in the air, spin all the way around, and land safely on my skis. I gave it the college try for months at Cataloochee, throwing myself around on side hits and small tabletops, and landing hard on our East Coast powder (read: ice) over and over. I got really close, but I never landed the damn thing. Instead of hitting the 360, I screwed up my shoulder to the point where I can’t really lift my arm above my head anymore. Scratching my own back is impossible now.  

You’d call that a failure, right? Maybe. But through the process of trying to land what would be a huge trick for a pedestrian skier like me, I got way more comfortable with jumping in general, and I got really good at hitting 180s and skiing switch. I failed, but I became a much better skier because I set my goal really high. Now I can do a trick that my kids think is pretty cool. I’d call that failure a resounding success. 

Here’s another example: Several years ago, I tried fasting for three days, even though I’m a spoiled, middle-class dude who’s never had to miss a meal and doesn’t know what it feels like to actually be hungry. Instead of attempting something reasonable like portion control, I decided a 72-hour fast was the right move. By lunchtime the first day, I convinced myself that I could eat rice during the fast because even monks eat rice, right? And then I decided that if I’m having rice, I might as well have beans with that rice, because, you know, protein. And if I’m having rice and beans, I might as well have a burrito. You can probably see where this is going. 

Now, you might think eating burritos for three days straight instead of fasting as originally intended was a failure, and technically you’d be right. But you should’ve seen my diet before that attempt. And there was some success that came with that failure; I skipped breakfast that first day and didn’t eat McDonalds at all for the entire experiment. It wasn’t the fast I intended to achieve, but I ended up eating healthy(ish) for a few of days and that ain’t bad. 

And therein lies the beauty of aiming high and setting unrealistic goals: even failure is kind of awesome. There was no way I was going to succeed when I declared that I would camp every night for a month; I have a job and kids, so sleeping in the woods every night isn’t feasible. But during that attempt, I did manage to camp for several nights during a single month and that’s pretty cool. I went down in flames during my six-month run streak challenge, but failure meant running every day for three weeks in a row. I logged way more miles than I ever had before in the midst of that failure. 

Listen, we all set goals for ourselves and we’re all going to come up short because we’re human. Trying to eat better or exercise more or sleep in a tree for a week straight is hard. It’s almost March and most of us have already abandoned our New Year’s Resolutions. But if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail trying to do something really impressive. Going down in flames sucks, so you might as well burn while trying to jump a pallet fire on a tricycle…after reshaping your diet to only eat green foods…and doing 100 pullups a day for a month…and hiking to the top of Mount Mitchell every Saturday for a year. 

Here’s to swinging big in 2024, or what’s left of it. 

Cover photo: Courtesy of the author

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