Should you try to do unrealistic things?

In  The 4-hour work week, author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss makes the bold claim that it is “easier to do unrealistic things than realistic things.” What he means by this is that it’s actually easier to do things that sound so impossibly hard that no-one else bothers to even try doing them, than to do things that are pretty hard and a thousand other people are trying to do. This strikes me as a really interesting claim and a potentially great insight - but to what extent is it actually true?

Tim has two main reasons for his claim:

  1. There is way less competition for seemingly unrealistic goals than realistically difficult things. Since most people underestimate themselves, they tend to aim for the mediocre middle-ground: which actually leaves the really-hard-and-impressive things free for the rare person who has the guts to go for it. It’s easier to raise $10,000,000 than $1,000,000, or to pick up a ridiculously attractive girls at a bar than the 5 fairly attractive girls, he says, because no-one is trying to do the former and everyone is trying to do the latter.

  2. Having an unusually large goal provides much stronger motivation than a small goal does. With any goal that is at least moderately difficult, there will be difficulties along the way, which you need a decent adrenaline infusion to overcome. Realistic or mediocre goals are much less inspiring than unrealistic goals, so are much less likely to provide the motivation needed to keep at it.

I think there is something to this, and there are some good points here, but I think some caveats are in order if you want to apply this in practice.

Unrealistic goals, or  goals that seem unrealistic?

Firstly, what exactly does Tim mean by “unrealistic”? Presumably he doesn’t actually mean goals that are not realistically achievable. Some goals are “unrealistic” in the sense that there is something intrinsically impossible (or very very difficult) about achieving them. For example, “single-handedly solving all of the world’s major problems” is probably not the kind of thing Tim Ferriss has in mind when he suggests aiming for unrealistic things, even if it is very clearly an unrealistic goal. The problem with this goal is that even if no-one else is trying to do it, and you’re really motivated to do it, it is still likely to be insurmountable.

I think what Tim really means here is something closer to “goals that everyone thinks are unrealistic, but that aren’t in fact as unrealistic as they seem.” If this is the case, then you need to ask the question: what things seem unrealistic but are actually, although perhaps difficult, plausibly achievable? Why might something appear unrealistic to most people but actually be doable? A few possibilities include:

  1. It might be that something actually used to be unrealistic, but that it no longer is, and most people haven’t caught on yet. Technological advances might mean that more opportunities like this exist, if you can spot them. For example, a writer friend of mine once told me that publishing books is much easier than people think it is, because their intuitions are stuck back in the days where to get a book published you had to convince a publisher to do it for you. Nowadays, with ebooks and online publishing, it’s much easier. So “having a book published” might be an example of something that used to be an unrealistic goal for many - especially young people - but is actually becoming increasingly realistic without people realising it.

  2. It might be that something is unrealistic for most people, but that you have some special skills or knowledge, or you’re in a particular position, that make it much more realistic for you to do than most. In this case it’s not quite that people are wrong in their perception of how unrealistic the goal is, it’s just that you have some advantage. So if you can find some niche where you can do something that others can’t, then you can do seemingly unrealistic things without the competition. For most people “eradicate malaria”, is a pretty unrealistic goal. But for someone like Rob Mather of the Against Malaria Foundation, who found an incredibly cost-effective way to reduce malaria that no-one else had thought of, or Bill Gates, who has a large amount more resources than the average person, these goals might actually be realistic. This is an argument for specialising in areas that are neglected by others but which seem to be important.

  3. Finally, it might be that “success” in an area is mostly a matter of beating the competition, and that no-one is trying because everyone thinks that everyone is trying. I think this is the case that Tim is trying to get at: finding these massive coordination failures where everyone thinks that something is so highly competitive that in fact there’s no competition at all. This might be a reason why he suggests picking up a supermodel in a bar is easier than picking up a normal good-looking girl, if everyone is so intimidated by her that no-one tries to even talk to her. Maybe - I'm not entirely convinced that this will work though. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who tries it ;).

Relative or absolute success?

This final point - about cases where the fact that people think there is competition actually leading to less competition - is an interesting one. I think it’s worth distinguishing between two different kinds of goals: goals where success is a matter of achieving a certain position relative to others, and goals where success is about attaining a certain absolute standard. Most goals, of course, are a combination of the two: launching a successful business, for example, requires you to actually produce something that’s good enough in an absolute sense that people will buy it, and to beat the competition. But some goals will lean more heavily one way or the other.

Climbing Mount Everest, for example, is almost entirely about absolute attainment. How much competition there is makes very little or no difference to how successful you’ll be. Similarly, for altruistic goals like solving a certain world problem, success isn’t (or at least shouldn’t...) be measured in terms of how well you do relative to others, but how much absolute progress you make on the problem. On the other hand, if your goal is about status: being “the best x” in the world, then success becomes totally about your position relative to others and very little about what you do in any absolute sense.

If success in a goal depends on you reaching some absolute position which is independent of where you are relative to others, if that absolute position is hard to attain, the fact there’s little competition won’t help you much. The fact that no-one else is trying to climb Everest in a day doesn’t make it easier. Whereas the fact that no-one else is trying to start a startup in your particularly niche certainly will. So there being a lack of competition only helps you if your goal is the kind of thing where “beating the competition” essentially equates with success.

To sum up: I think it may be a bit overly simplistic, and perhaps not that useful, to just say that you should try to do unrealistic things. Whilst it may be true that this means less competition and more motivation, many things that seem "unrealistic" may be so for good reason: there may be something intrinsic to the goal that makes it very hard to achieve. What you really want to do is find things that seem really difficult to most people - so most people don't even try doing them - but perhaps aren't as hard as they look. Finding these things isn't necessarily straightforward, but looking for areas where you have knowledge or expertise that others don't, or where you're simply prepared to do things that others aren't, might be a good start. So perhaps instead of "do things that are unrealistic", Tim Ferris should have said "do things that aren't as hard as they look."