Apr 19 2012

The Art of the Quest

Jim Collins, in both Good to Great and Built to Last talked about the BHAG – the Big, Hairy Audacious Goal – as one of the drivers of companies to achieve excellence.  Perhaps that’s true, especially if those goals are singular enough and simplified enough for an entire company of 100-1000-10000 employees to rally around.

I have also observed over the years that both star performers and strong leaders drive themselves by setting large goals.  Sometimes they are Hairy or Audacious.  Sometimes they are just Big.  I suppose sometimes they are all three.  Regardless, I think successfully managing to and accomplishing large personal goals is a sign of a person who is driven to be an achiever in life – and probably someone you want on your team, whether as a Board member, advisor, or employee, assuming they meet the qualifications for the role and fit the culture, of course.

I’m not sure what the difference is between Hairy and Audacious.  If someone knows Jim Collins, feel free to ask him to comment on this post.  Let’s assume for the time being they are one and the same.  What’s an example of someone setting a Hairy/Audacious personal goal?  My friend and long-time Board member Brad Feld set out on a quest 9 years ago to run a marathon in each of the 50 states by the age of 50.  Brad is now 9 years in with 29 marathons left to go.  For those of you have never run a marathon (and who are athletic mortals), completing one marathon is a large, great and noteworthy achievement in life.  I’ve done two, and I thought there was a distinct possibility that I was going to die both times, including one I ran with Brad .  But I’ve never felt better in my life than crossing the finish tape those two times.  I’m glad I did them.  I might even have another one or two in me in my lifetime.  But doing 50 of them in 9 years?  That’s a Hairy and Audacious Goal.

For me, I think the Big goal may be more personally useful than the Hairy or Audacious.  The difference between a Big goal and a Hairy/Audacious one?  Hard to say.  Maybe Hairy/Audacious is something you’re not sure you can ever do, where Big is just something that will take a long time to chip away at.  For example, I started a quest about 10-12 years ago to read a ton of American history books, around 50% Presidential biographies, from the beginning of American history chronologically forward to the present.  This year, I am up to post-Civil War history, so roughly Reconstruction/Johnson through Garfield, maybe Arthur.  I read plenty of other stuff, too – business books, fiction, other forms of non-fiction, but this is a quest.  And I love every minute of it.  The topic is great and dovetails with work as a study in leadership.  And it’s slowly but surely making me a hobby-level expert in the topic.  I must be nearing Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours by now.

The reason someone sets out on a personal quest is unclear to me.  Some people are more goal-driven than others, some just like to Manage by Checklist, others may be ego-driven, some love the challenge.  But I do think that having a personal quest can be helpful to, as Covey would say, Sharpen the Saw, and give yourself something to focus personal time and mental/physical energy on.

Just because someone isn’t on a personal quest doesn’t mean they’re not great, by the way.  And someone who is on a quest could well be a lunatic.  But a personal quest is something that is useful to look for, interesting and worth learning more about if discovered, and potentially a sign that someone is a high achiever.