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Aim Safe or Aim High? How to Journey to your North Star

How do you even begin to articulate a goal that lights you up, not to mention working toward it?

Jean Latting
Published in
13 min readFeb 29, 2024

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No enthusiasm

Something seemed off. Marianne¹ was telling me about her plans for the new year, but her voice lacked its usual enthusiasm.

She had a dilemma, she told me. Should she continue working on a long-term project she was committed to but wasn’t giving her any juice? Or should she risk switching her focus to an amazing new possibility that just popped up last month?

I’m conflicted, she explained, because people are telling me to stop dreaming and get real.

Let’s distinguish between the two opportunities, I suggested. We will refer to your ongoing project as the building block project.

Yes, she said, it’s my bread and butter. It’s part of my ongoing work.

Okay, and this new possibility sounds like a North Star project, am I correct?

Yes! she responded enthusiastically. It’s where I see myself in about five years — or even beyond! I’m nowhere near ready for it now, but this opportunity is at least a chance to get my feet wet.

Okay, I said; so we have the building block project that’s your bread and butter but doesn’t really give you any juice. And is sort of obligatory, is that correct? She nodded.

Then we have the North Star project that gets you jazzed up. What’s your question about the two projects?

Should I even consider the North Star project, even this little part of it? Am I being unrealistic — dreaming of something that may never come to pass? Should I just devote my time to what’s real and what supports my family right now? If so, then I have to get more concrete and realistic about what I want to achieve and by when, and I may lose my chance for the North Star.

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Be realistic or dream big?

This is a common dilemma: be realistic or dream big. More concretely, and appropriately for the new year, should she set her sights on her North Star goal or should she work on her bread and butter project and set clear measurable goals?

Most people in the work environment know about SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. They provide a practical, clear framework for setting and achieving your aspirations.

With SMART goals you know what to do, track your progress, and stay accountable by comparing where you are with the SMART goal milestones.

The North Star goal has been popularized as the big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.² These goals are highly ambitious, high stakes, compelling, and risky.

My response to Marianne’s question stems from watching too many people decide they don’t like their lives after shutting down their hopes and dreams in the name of practicality and realism.

The North Star goal keeps us vibrant and makes life worth living. It gives us meaning and inspiration. It provides us with a grander vision of ourselves, sometimes beyond what we can imagine.

To not aim for it hijacks a little piece of our soul and makes life a little less joyous and meaningful.

Arguing against it are those voices that ask: who are we kidding? why are we wasting our time dreaming big when there are real life matters to attend to in the here and now?

The naysayer voices make sense; they sound practical and sensible, yet they repel hope.

The who-are-you-kidding? voice can be particularly loud and discouraging.

So which should Marianne choose — risky North Star or practical and SMART?

What is a North Star goal anyway?

Marianne said she could see herself doing North Star work in about five years — or even beyond.

But what is North Star to her?

I explained: so far we are talking about North Star vs SMART goals as two competing and concrete opportunities. But your North Star aspirations do not have to show up as a concrete job. Here are some examples of famous people and their hypothetical North Stars:

  • Oprah Winfrey: Empowering others through storytelling and education
  • Nelson Mandela: Championing equality and social justice
  • Mark Cuban: Pursuit of business innovation, investment, and entrepreneurial success, and advocacy for cost-effective healthcare solutions
  • Beyoncé: Pursuing artistic excellence and empowerment
  • Simone Biles: Pursuing gymnastics excellence and mental health advocacy
  • Harvey Milk: Pursuing LGBTQ+ rights and visibility
  • Taylor Swift: Pursuing artistic excellence, creative storytelling, and fan engagement

Each of these famous people seems to have set their North Star toward making a contribution to humankind through their gifts and talents beyond a specific job or a single opportunity. They aimed to derive personal satisfaction and meaning by making an impact on something bigger than themselves.

Several of them have had their journeys made public. As they excelled in whatever arena they started in, new opportunities popped up for more contribution and personal growth, and their North Stars gained greater clarity and focus.

With that in mind, I asked Marianne to say more about her North Star opportunity. If she achieved what she was thinking about in five years, what would that be? And was there more?

She laughed at my question.

There’s always more. My driving passion is to mentor young women who grew up thinking they were not enough and did not have enough. That was me as a child. I was fortunate to have a mentor and I want to pay it forward.

So how will the five-year opportunity get you there?

This new company would give me a more strategic role. If I establish myself in this new company and increase my reputation for strategic positioning, I will have immensely greater credibility. I believe the company would let me build mentorship into my performance goals, and young women will seek me out and to help them advance in their careers. I personally know so many young women who feel overlooked where they are.

Ah, I said, so you’re considering a strategic executive job as the means to the ultimate end of having the credibility to mentor young women?

Exactly. Now don’t get me wrong. I love strategy and have been seeking a job that would allow me to do more of it. It comes naturally to me. But what I really want is to leverage my success as an executive to open the door for others.

Then is it true that either your current job or the new one you’re talking about would work as long as they position you to have credibility and experience so that you can help others?

She broke into a broad smile.

Is this a real either/or dilemma?

As Marianne explained her North Star, it became clear to both of us that she was presenting her choices as a false dichotomy. She could choose either or both, as long as they positioned her to gain the credibility she was seeking for eventual mentorship of young women.

The amazing new opportunity was more visibly aligned with her North Star. Yet she could also explore enhancing her credentials in her bread-and-butter job, while at the same time marching steadily toward her North Star.

She could aim for either or both — if she could expand her mental timeline of how long things take and overcome some common biases that get in her way of conceptualizing her options.

People either never dare think about having a North Star goal or, if one comes to mind, they quickly shut it down as a fantasy — impossible or too far away. They can’t project that far out.

What gets in the way of setting North Star goals?

A friend of mine is a high achiever, yet also loss averse. I don’t want to be disappointed, she says. Better to aim low and then achieve high, then to aim high and achieve low.

There is some truth to that. Goal setting theory holds that people who set high goals actually do achieve more than those who aim to only do their best or to set low aims, yet paradoxically are often less satisfied with their progress.³

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Some people can push themselves to achieve high goals and feel fine if they don’t hit the mark. They still congratulate themselves for the success achieved. Others, however, are devastated if they don’t live up to their own expectations. They descend into shame and guilt.

Related to this are the well-known fear of success and fear of failure phenomena. Fear of failure is what my friend talks about — not wanting to be disappointed that you don’t achieve what you set out to achieve.

Fear of success can often stem from feelings of unworthiness: Do I deserve what I’m setting out to achieve? If I make it happen, will my life become so disrupted that it’s not worth it?

All of these concerns fall under the rubric of safety biases.⁴ For evolutionary reasons, we tend to respond more quickly to threat than to positive anticipation. People prone to safety biases will gravitate toward making decisions in favor of avoiding a loss rather than garnering a gain.

A second form of bias that can put a damper on setting North Star goals is known as expedience bias. This is when we choose options that are easiest and don’t take much effort. It’s simply easier to work on a SMART goal where the path is laid out for you than to consider the North Star in the vast blue sky with unknown dangers, obstacles, and uncertainties. The here and now wins out.

The third form of bias is known as a distance bias. Generally, people give greater value to nearby objects, individuals, or outcomes than to those that are far away.⁵

A well-known experiment illustrates this. You are given the choice between $100 today and $150 tomorrow. Which would you choose? Most people would wait a day to get the extra $50.

Suppose the $150 comes three months from now? Given that choice, many more people would choose the $100 today, even though that $50 would represent a 50% return on their investment.

Marianne was in the grip of all three biases. The North Star goal was diminished in value because it entailed unknown risks (safety bias); would be harder to achieve and require more effort because of its uncertainty and lack of definition (expedience bias); and presented results that are far in the future (distance bias).

No wonder Marianne was so conflicted.

The case for the North Star goals

My personal solution is to aim high, but to not put a timetable on it, nor to expect linear progress.

Six years ago I envisioned a follow-up book to Reframing Change,⁶ where people who had actually used the skills in the book describe their experiences. It was a far-off dream.

I could have worried myself into a frenzy by setting SMART goals about it, with measurable timeline and concrete action steps, but I chose not to. Instead, I declared it was a North Star goal that I would just take my time achieving.

A year later, I did what my friend Stephanie Foy calls “the next right thing.”

I sent an e-mail to former clients and students asking them if they would be interested in contributing a chapter describing their use of the Conscious Change skills described in Reframing Change. I also reached out to some of them personally and posted a notice on Facebook.

A few responded, somewhat to my shock (did this mean the book could actually happen?), and the book became a low-level activity I worked on when I had time.

Even though there was now obvious interest, it still remained in the dream realm somehow. Could I make it work?

I reached out to Eliot Davis, a graduate student at my college, and to Amy Hageman, who worked with Leading Consciously, to help with the editing or interviews. Both said yes; they are now co-authors of a chapter (Eli) and of the book (Amy).

Then, as has happened for most of my life when I decide what I need to do, the Universe smiled on me.

When the pandemic hit, Jean Ramsey, my co-author with Reframing Change, reached out to ask if she could help me in my work. Her normal travel retirement plans were upended when everything shut down. I gave her several options and she chose the still-unformed book as the way she most wanted to contribute!

We both quickly agreed we would work on the book with no stress, no deadlines, and no pressure. With Jean Ramsey on board, the elusive North Star was now a reality.

Fast forward three years (with all the ups and downs you can imagine during that time). Conscious Change is now on track to be published in July 2024 with 19 authors contributing a chapter.

How to balance SMART goals with North Star goals

Dream big!

Set your North Star goal and move steadily toward it. No need to rush or berate yourself for what is sure to be a snail’s pace, even backtracking at times. And no need to think of your current North Star as your forever North Star. Think of the journeys of Beyonce or Taylor Swift or Mark Cuban. They zig-zagged their way to their current successes.

If you find yourself needing to rush or to meet a deadline, then convert your aspirations into SMART goals to make them achievable.

Until then, though, have a North Star to energize you and give you direction. You can do both. You deserve it.

Make sure you keep your North Star alive by enjoying the journey. If it’s still a pipe dream in your head, there’s no need to pressure yourself if you don’t achieve X milestone by Y date. Just plug steadily away at it and watch for opportunities to leapfrog into the next stage along the journey.

The universe will cooperate with you if you keep doing the next right thing, but you have to be willing to see each opportunity as it occurs and to take advantage of it. Stay open so you don’t miss anything.

Meanwhile in your day-to-day life, you will have things to do that have timelines and standards of achievement and people to be accountable to. Use your SMART goals for those things and do the very best you can to not drive yourself crazy with worry and self-flagellation if you don’t hit every milestone.

Yet don’t let the SMART goals seduce you into forgetting about your North Star goals. This is called mission drift. It happens when people get so tangled up in achieving the near-term that they forget what they really want to get out of life. Then one day they look up and decide they don’t like their life. This happens because they lost sight of their North Star.

If you keep your SMART goals pointed toward your North Star, you may s-l-o-w-l-y find, as happened with me, that your North Star is more attainable than you had thought! Brick by brick, layer by layer, inch by inch, your beautiful aspiration in the sky may become your reality.

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The case against suffering in the process

I told Marianne the story of Conscious Change and the clear separation I made between North Star goals, driven by the baby steps of “do the next right thing,” versus SMART goals, with timelines and concrete action steps.

Marianne laughed when I warned her about the dangers of self-flagellation with either type and teased, “you don’t work for my boss. If I don’t achieve, I don’t keep my job! I have to be hard on myself.”

Well yes, I can understand why she would say that. I question, though, whether having high standards and beating oneself up if you don’t meet them are required activities for achievement.

As the saying goes, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

It’s possible to learn how to strive for excellence and still feel good about yourself at the same time. For many of us juggling these two things, it’s not something we were taught, and it doesn’t come easily. But it’s possible.

The first step is to figure out if you are using suffering as a motivator. If so, the next step is to decide this doesn’t have to be.

One of my clients kept insisting she needed to push to motivate herself. I asked her to name goals she had achieved without all that suffering, and she rattled off several — to her surprise.

In my experience, some of us learned to beat ourselves up to succeed. If that’s you, consider this is learned behavior — that you can unlearn, while still achieving.

Bottom line: both North Star goals and SMART goals can coexist peacefully in your arsenal

Let the North Star give you a sense of meaning and purpose, and let your SMART goals give you a sense of achievement and self-esteem.

What should Marianne do? When we ended the conversation, she still hadn’t decided.

Yet she was clearer about her North Star goal, and realized that no matter what she chose, she still could keep the dream.

The question for her, then, is about immediate risk. Step out now and risk giving up what feels like the surer and safer thing? or let what could be an excellent opportunity pass while meeting her current obligations.

But on the other hand, as she astutely noted, she has no 100% guarantees in her current job either. Suppose her boss left? Would she even want to be there?

“There is no right answer, is there?” she asked.

“There is no knowable answer in the current moment,” I responded. “All any of us can do is give it our best shot and seek the opportunities and fulfillment in whatever comes next.”

#NorthStar #SMART #Dream #ThinkAhead

¹ Marianne is a composite of several people who each initiated strikingly similar conversations with me.

² Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

³ Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. 2019. “The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective.” Motivation Science, 5 (2):93–105.

⁴ Grant Halverson, H, and D Rock. 2015. Beyond bias: Neuroscience research shows how new organizational practices can shift ingrained thinking. Strategy+ Business 80.

⁵ Bulley, Adam, Julie Henry, and Thomas Suddendorf. 2016. “Prospection and the Present Moment: The Role of Episodic Foresight in Intertemporal Choices Between Immediate and Delayed Rewards.” Review of General Psychology, 20(1):29–47. doi: 10.1037/gpr0000061.

⁶ Latting, Jean Kantambu, and V. Jean Ramsey. 2009. Reframing change: How to deal with workplace dynamics, influence others, and bring people together to initiate positive change. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers. Marianne is a composite of several people who each initiated strikingly similar conversations with me.

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Jean Latting
Sparks Publication

President, Leading Consciously| Diversity and Inclusion Consulting |Leadership Consulting| Online course: Pathfinders: Leadership for Racial and Social Justice