Goals, Stretch Goals and Aspirations: What’s the Difference?

Something that I have struggled with in the past is understanding the difference and interplay between goals, stretch goals and aspirations.

According to most dictionaries, a goal is an aim or purpose, or the outcome of efforts directed toward achieving a result.

A stretch goal is a goal on steroids — extreme in its difficulty, going beyond our current capabilities and expectations, and extreme in its novelty, requiring us to work in new ways.

The best goals are fact based and SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. Goals ask us the how— for example, how will I increase sales by 10X in the 12 months?

An aspiration, on the other hand, is a strong desire or longing. Aspirations are feelings based—capturing our hopes and dreams for ourselves. Aspirations ask us the why—why are we here?

Now that we’ve defined each of them, let’s take a look at how they’re related. The big picture is that often goals are used to accomplish our aspirations, but how? And when are stretch goals appropriate?

It depends.

Goals focus our attention on the small wins and incremental steps needed to accomplish our aspirations over time. Stretch goals are alluring—the hope of leapfrogging our progress to reach our broader hopes and dreams in record time!

According to the Harvard Business Review article, “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” stretch goals are frequently unsuccessful because they are misused. Stretch goals depend on two key conditions: one’s recent performance and having the bandwidth and mindshare to accomplish the goal.

Are you riding the momentum of successes, what the authors describe as ‘thriving but complacent’? Do you have the knowledge, experience and energy to tackle a new ambitious goal? If so, a stretch goal may be for you.

I’ll give you an example. I had an aspiration as a single mom to provide a better life for my children and myself. I was a non-traditional student. I didn’t earn my Bachelor’s degree until I was 35 years old. When I finished my degree, I still had a lot of energy and motivation left to continue my studies. I had years of pent up book learning to do! I immediately enrolled in an executive MBA program, finished it in 10 months, and went directly to law school. In all, I accomplished my aspiration to provide a better life for my children and myself in record time—six and one-half years from start to finish.

When I returned to school several years later, however, I did not have the same level of motivation, time and energy. My aspiration was different—less of a ‘must do this now,’ and more of a ‘nice thing to do sometime’ feeling. I had a goal to receive a doctorate, but I approached it as a goal, rather than a stretch goal, and took my studies at a more leisurely pace.

In both cases, I accomplished my aspirations, but my sense of urgency was different – in one case, I was able to harness the energy of a stretch goal; in another, goals were more appropriate, as a stretch goal would’ve likely been overwhelming.

In conclusion, I want to share some advice I love from Jeff Tweedy, lead singer in the band, Wilco. In his book, “How to Write One Song,” he describes aspiration as a word that is reserved for our loftiest goals and dreams—out of our reach in time and effort, whereas an accomplishment (goal) is clearly defined and attainable. He suggests that readers take a look at what they are trying to accomplish—setting a goal to write just one song. In doing that much, we create a connection with ourselves, with our listeners, which is the sacred. Creating this connection to our hopes and dreams and to others is the loftiest aspiration of all.