Remember to Eat the Airplane One Piece at a Time: Some Advice on Goals

Our love/hate relationship with setting goals

Most people have a love/hate relationship with setting goals. “I want to do great things—change the world—have it all,” we tell ourselves, mostly when things are not going well and we feel unfulfilled. But very few of us actually get to where we want to end up and we wonder why. What did we do wrong? What are we missing?

Where is this coming from?

I spent years teaching workforce navigation and psychological capital development  to unemployed and under- employed people in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. As my students moved through different levels of career transition and are all trying to become more competitive job candidates and stronger employees. They range from highly educated, former university professors to folks who found out the education system was not going to work for them in the ninth grade. Even among students with great differences in age, life experience, cultural and educational backgrounds, there are many similarities in the kind of supports they seek. One of the most common threads is a need to improve their current situation and to get to where they want to be. Often the “where they want to be” is a big step up from where they are now.

That’s where goals come in.

The danger of big steps

There has been a lot of research done and a lot of material written on the power and benefits of goal setting. One interesting (though questionable) study on goal setting was done in 1979 at the Harvard Business School.  Graduating students were surveyed on their goal setting techniques, including the benefits of planning and writing down their goals. The results indicated that the 3% of students who made a plan and wrote it down ended up making ten times more money than the other 97% of their classmates after twenty years of employment. Whether true or not, this makes a good case for setting and striving after detailed goals.

So: big, clear goals are very important. I think we all know that. And it’s hard to talk about goal setting without mentioning SMART goals. SMART (Specific, Measureable, Agreed upon, Realistic and Time-based) goal setting is a standard approach used in teaching. However there is a gap in helping people set these big, SMART goals, and it is between the making and the doing.

The practical side of little steps

The solution to this is very simple. Start small. But not with small goals (those are boring). Start with small steps. There have been some incredible, seemingly impossible, feats accomplished in our world through small consistent actions. Drops of water can dent solid rocks, roots can break through concrete, simple footsteps can cross hundreds of miles. Small, consistent, everyday actions can achieve the improbable.

How to eat an airplane

One of my favorite examples of this, which I eagerly share with my students, is an excellent and disgusting story I once heard in my teenage years. As I was playing video games with the TV on (you may be able to notice I am an early 80’s Millennial) I heard from the TV: “Up next on Ripley’s Believe it or Not, meet the man who ate an entire airplane”. In my teenage years there wasn’t a lot that would make me pause Super Mario 64 and pay attention, but this really piqued my interest.

The story was about a man named Michel Lotito who purchased a full-sized Cessna 150 airplane and disassembled it, chopped the metal into small pieces, dipped them in mineral oil and over a two year period between 1978 and 1980 ate a small handful every day until he consumed the entire plane.

The question of why he did this comes to mind.  If memory serves me, he was attempting to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for “Strangest Diet”. However, “why” is beside the point here. Once you get past the mind boggling weirdness of this, there is a really poignant and inspiring message here. You can achieve the seemingly impossible by taking a small bite out of your problem or goal, everyday. This is why I use this as an example with my students. When they are becoming overwhelmed with the tasks before them, I simply tell them to “remember to eat the airplane one piece at a time” and the message is received.

What small steps can give you

There is another, less disgusting, but more inspiring example of the small, consistent, everyday actions that can achieve the improbable. There is a man named Dashrath Manjhi who over the course of twenty-two years cut down a mountain that was causing the residents of his village to walk seventy kilometres to the nearest hospital. His efforts reduced the distance to only one kilometer. His motivations were sparked by the death of his wife who was unable to access emergency medical treatment.  Dashrath completed this amazing feat with little more than a shovel, pick axe and twenty-two years of commitment.

How this can help us

Here is the takeaway: setting goals, overcoming obstacles, taking on a massive project— it can all be overwhelming. Change of any kind can be daunting, staggering and a little scary. Planning out what you are going to achieve is important, but the real magic comes from the small, everyday actions that you put forth to chip away at the larger goal. With commitment, agency and a good plan, you too can move mountains, or even eat an airplane.


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