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When to Shoot for the Moon

The saying goes: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”

In other words - be bold! Take a risk! Try something big and spectacular! Even if you fail, you’ll be in a great place!

While I love the idea of doing all those things, there is an important element missing from the moonshot saying: assessment. By that I mean taking time to assess the probabilities of failure and success and the potential impact of each outcome.

I know, I’m such a wet blanket. But there is wisdom in being both bold and measured.

When we set a goal to achieve something in the future there are many unknowns, so we have to estimate probabilities based on what we do know. We don't have certainty, but at least we have an idea of what the odds are. You wouldn’t bet half your life savings on the flip of a coin. Yet some people risk more than that for goals with much lower odds. People risk and lose their security, health, relationships, and more all the time.

Of course, we have plenty of examples of people and businesses that set crazy-sounding, low-probability goals and they were wildly successful. It does happen, but there are a couple of illusions at work.

  1. Survivorship bias. We hear about the few stories of big risks paying off because those are the survivors and survivors like to tell their stories. (We also like to hear them.) But we ignore the multitudes of stories about those who have bet it all and lost. So we get the impression that big risks pay off way more often than they really do.

  2. Illusion of high risk. We usually don’t know how risky the moonshot was to the shooter. For example, Google has created an entire company called X to only work on low probability breakthrough technologies, most of which will never be profitable. But Google calculates the low probabilities of success into their business model. They aren’t betting everything on any one project. Those moonshots are relatively low risk.

Moonshot projects and goals can be great and they accelerate innovation, but ask these questions before heading up there:

  • Is it reversible?

  • What is the best and worst outcome and the probability of each?

  • Can you withstand failure?

A moonshot endeavor works best if It is not the only goal you are shooting for. When most of your goals and projects have a high probability of success, including a bold but risky one is not as potentially devastating in the likely event that it fails.

If you do shoot for a longshot, be sure to measure your progress and adjust during the project’s journey. Set futures dates at which you will re-assess the probability of success. If you are getting no closer to achieving it, or even further away, your probability is dropping and it may be time to adjust your goals - maybe to something with better odds of success.

Finally, I have to object to the whole metaphor of “landing among the stars” on astronomical grounds. If you shoot for the moon but miss and “land” in the vicinity of it (what are you landing on, anyway?), you are still 93 million miles away from even the closest star - our sun. The next closest stars are more than 4 light years away. It would be more accurate to say you land among the planets.

All this is not to say you shouldn’t set high goals - at a level you need to stretch to reach. High expectations increase your ability to grow. Just remember that lofty goals should be tempered with realistic expectations and contingency plans for both success and failure.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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