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5 Shining Examples of Goldilocks Goals

Once upon a time a little girl named ‘Goldilocks’ made a goal to read 1 book in 1 week. She finished in 2 days and sat around twiddling her thumbs. That goal was TOO EASY.

Next she set out to read 20 books in a week. After reading two books, she realized it was not going to happen. She got discouraged and gave up. That goal was TOO HARD.

Finally, she tried reading 7 books in a week. By Wednesday she was slightly behind pace, but with an extra push on Saturday, she got all 7 read and felt really good about accomplishing such a worthy goal. That goal was JUST RIGHT.

This story is, of course, loosely based on the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” story. And it’s also based on something Julien Smith actually did.

I’ll share what Julien (and 4 other people) did shortly, but here’s the point:

  • Sometimes we set mama bear goals, and realize we could have done more.
  • Sometimes we set papa bear goals and wind up getting discouraged when we realize we’re truly in WAY over our heads. I’ve written about that here.
  • And sometimes we set baby bear goals where we have to stretch ourselves, yet wind up getting things done in the end and feeling quite good about it.

Since Goldilocks always agreed with Baby Bear, we’ll call these “just right” endeavors ‘Goldilocks Goals’.

So how do we set Goldilocks goals?

That’s a topic of a future post.

Today I want to share 5 examples of people who have set very worthy Goldilocks goals and made them public.

1. Julien Smith – 7 Books in 7 Days

Julien set out to read 7 books in 7 days. These weren’t the largest books he could find, like Moby Dick or War and Peace. And they weren’t the densest pieces of Philosophy you could find, like Brandom’s “Making it Explicit” (good luck getting through that one by itself in a week!), But they weren’t completely fluff and filler either.

He read books like:

* The E-Myth Revisited – Michael Gerber
* Religion for Atheists – Alain de Botton
* Quiet – Susan Cain
* The Timeless Way of Building – Christopher Alexander

He was reading fairly quickly, but not exactly skimming. Julian reports that he took about 4-5 hours on average per book.

Had Julien set out to read just one of those books, he would have completed it no problem. And had he set out to read 20, he would have failed, almost certainly. 7 books was right in the Goldilocks zone for him. Do-able — but very challenging.

2. Sean Croxton – the Lustig lecture challenge

Sean Croxton is a health video blogger.

Robert Lustig is an Obesity researcher.

Robert Lustig recently took YouTube by storm with a video making the case that fructose is a major culprit in the obesity epidemic. This thesis is controversial, but resonated with many people. Lustig’s lecture got over 2 million views — which is all the more amazing because I’m guessing that easily 90 percent of those viewing the video didn’t actually follow the argument very well. It’s highly technical.

Sean is a bright guy, and has been studying topics related to health and nutrition for a while now — but he’s no biochemical researcher. That didn’t stop him, though. He decided he was going to 1) understand the details of Lustig’s lecture, and 2) summarize the lecture in a way that would be easier for his audience to understand.

The results: this video.

And Dr. Lustig himself said that Sean did a VERY good job summing up in 10 minutes what took an hour during the original lecture.

Sean could have spoken at a much higher level of generality and gotten the main point across. That would have been a Mama Bear goal. But Sean set a Goldilocks goal, and put in the extra work. The extra work paid off. Sean’s typical YouTube video gets about 10,000 views. This one got over 100,000.

3. Tim Ferriss – Learn a language in 3 months

Can you master a language in 3 months?

Probably not.

But it turns out you CAN gain a high level of proficiency with it in that time. Tim claims to be able “to attain conversational fluency (here defined as 95%+ comprehension and 100% expressive abilities) in 1-3 months”.

Tim has learned several languages quickly. And he has learned how to learn languages.

His article is worth a read. The strategies he outlines make sense once you read them.

So what’s the point here. Am I saying YOU need to learn a new language? No. Though feel free to consider it.

My point here is that what you consider a Goldilocks goal depends on the strategies available to you.

Remember language classes from High School? If you’re like me you spent 2 years learning a language, and you still couldn’t have talked your way out of a paper bag with a native speaker if your life depended on it.

If I were to try to set a Goldilocks Goal for learning a language (before reading Tim’s article) I might have considered 2 years a good goal. And I would have been prepared to work a lot harder on it than I did in high school.

After reading his article, I realize that with good strategies 3 months might be more in the Goldilocks Zone.

Perhaps before setting goals, we should spend some time researching the strategies others have used to reach performance levels we might otherwise consider impossible.

4. Scott H. Young – Complete an MIT computer science degree in 1 year

Scott set out to get the equivalent of an MIT computer science degree in 1 year.

How did Scott do this?

First he did some research and discovered which courses made up an MIT CS degree. Then he found sample homework assignments and final exams for all the courses. And then he went to work studying until he could pass the final exams for each class at a level he deemed acceptable.

Did Scott wind up with an education exactly equivalent to an MIT education? Scott admits that his training might fall a bit short in some respects. For instance, he is probably not yet as proficient in Computer Science as an actual MIT student would be after completing a 4 year track at MIT. He also didn’t get to benefit from the “group brain” and social capital benefits of studying with other bright students. And he doesn’t have official MIT credentials.

HOWEVER, it’s still a heckuva goal. And he does come away with a heckuvan education in one-fourth the time it normally takes. And he paid a heckuvalot less than he would have at MIT.

So what’s the point here? Am I saying YOU should try to teach yourself through an MIT degree in 1 year?


In fact, my take is that Scott’s feat is partly made possible by where Scott is in his life right now.


  1. Scott is young, and doesn’t have all that “wisdom” to distract him and slow him down :) (That’s my way of rationalizing why it takes me longer to read a book than it used to when I was Scott’s age. Every sentence connects to more ideas in my head now than it would have when I was younger — so I linger to process the material a lot more than I would have then. Lame excuse? Perhaps. But I’m sticking to it!)
  2. Scott does not have kids (believe me, this makes a big difference!)
  3. Scott has a regular semi-passive income (again, he had the time to devote to this.)
  4. Scott is a bright guy. (Native intelligence isn’t everything. Hard work is probably more important overall. But you do have to have some natural talent for mathematics to try something like this).

OK, so let’s say the MIT challenge isn’t right for you in your current situation.

Still, ask yourself. What’s YOUR MIT challenge?

5. Corbett Barr – Million Dollar Blog Project

Corbett Barr is a blogger who writes about how to get traffic to blogs. He’s done well and earns over 6 figures per year with his main blog.

But Corbett wanted to prove that he could do the same thing with a blog that was not in the marketing niche.

So he set out for himself the Million Dollar Blog Challenge.

Now, this is NOT about creating a blog that generates $1 million/year. In fact, Corbett’s criterion for success is that the blog make $1 million over 10 years – or about $100,000/year

Corbett is still in the midst of this project and is publishing his results as he goes. Check it out.

But note this point. $100,000/year is a Goldilocks goal for Corbett Barr. It might not be a Goldilocks goal for you. Corbett knows HOW to do this.

If you don’t know how to get traffic to your blog like he does, this might be a discouraging Papa Bear goal for you.

If you blog, and are tempted to set a similar goal, perhaps $100,000/year is too high for you right now. Maybe you should try to make $100 in a month first. Then raise your goal to $1,000 in a month. And so on.

And perhaps you need to spend some time learning what Corbett knows. (He shares a lot of his strategies on his blog)

Wrap up

So here’s the gist of Goldilocks Goal setting:

If you set a goal too low, you won’t achieve as much as you would if you set higher goals. Much research backs this up (I’ll share more from Gary Latham on this in the future).

If you set a goal too high, so that you really don’t have any idea how to accomplish your goal, you will get discouraged and tend to procrastinate.

What you want is to set your goals “just right.”

So, let me ask you, . . . what is your Goldilocks goal? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

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  1. Jim Stone
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I’ll go first.

    I’ve been a casual chess player on and off during my life. I want to take it a bit more seriously and start doing tournaments through the local chess club. My Goldilocks goal is to achieve a 2000 rating within a year (I’m probably starting at about 1500 right now). It’s a stretch, but why not, right?

  2. Posted August 10, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    A guy is testing the 10000 hour to become an expert theory by trying to make the professional golf tour. Starting from almost no experience he now has a handicap that is in the top 95% of all golfers.

    Also like business guru Eli Goldratts viable vision. Bring your revenue to the bottom line in 4 years.

    We set out on that goal 4 years ago, we will see how close we get.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Chris, for the extra examples. Hard work (with effective strategies) usually does pay off.

  3. Beth Lowell
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I’m a quality engineer and a mom. So the mom noticed an error, and the quality engineer has to point it out so you can decide whether or not to correct it. :)

    In Goldilocks, the two extremes of each situation were the papa bear and the mama bear. It was the baby bear’s porridge, chair, and bed that were just right.

    Great analogy! I definitely need a goldilocks goal in my life.

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I was just testing to see if you were reading carefully, lol ;)

      Nice catch! I’ve fixed it now.

      Thanks Beth.


      • Beth
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        “I was just testing to see if you were reading carefully ”

        That’s what I told the students in a mistake-proofing class I was giving when they found a typo!

  4. Phil Callinan
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jim,
    Great article. How right you are with kids being an important factor in getting things done. To reach my optimal performance I’ve found if I keep track of every 15 minutes of our day, it will help alleviate the 30% guaranteed chaos that my 3 and 4 yr old daughters bring to the daily schedule. It is a great way to measure my own “Goldilocks Goals” and progress as well.
    Phil Callinan

    • Jim Stone
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Ah, children. The joys and the distractions. Mine have definitely been worth the trouble, although some days . . . :)

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