by Paula on August 31, 2011

This morning I did my usual waking up, reaching for phone and checking News, Weather & Twitter before considering getting up, when I caught sight of some tweets by William Goodchild. The question he was pondering (over several tweets) was:

“It is a strange fact that many Olympic champions experience extreme anti-climax, a sense of loss, on winning. Which begs the questions, is there something vacuous in success? We want it, we strive for it, but what happens when we achieve it? I sometimes wonder whether it’s the fear of success rather than failure that holds people back…”

I found myself driven to reply, that in my opinion, it’s not success that causes the sense of loss, rather the achievement of a life-long goal, beyond which the achiever has no further goals. If you have a goal so big, so life-consuming that everything you do is with that in mind, then once you’ve achieved it, and experienced the elation, you look forward and all you see is an empty hole. The direction that you were once clear on, is not there. The reason you got up every day and the thing you thought about every waking moment, is now behind you and what is there ahead? It is this, in my opinion, that causes that sense of loss in winning Olympians, and indeed in others in many walks of life who work towards and achieve their one big goal.

I dreamed of Africa

It happened to me….from a young age, I dreamed of Africa. I read about it, drew pictures of it, wrote poetry about it. It was an absoolute goal of mine that as soon as I had left school I would get a job, work hard and save the money to go there. As the years passed, this urge for adventure lead me to dream of other places I’d like to visit too, but Africa was still the focus and the goal.

To cut a long story short I quit my job in 1995 with £13,500 saved up and early 1996 boarded a plane to Johannesburg. The years between leaving school and getting on that plane had been purely focused on saving that money. I had no interest in settling down too much or getting too embedded in a career because I knew the more settled I got, the more I’d have to lose when I gave them all up to go.

I was away for about a year, and during this time I indulged myself in my beloved Africa and then “joined the dots” around the world of the sights I’d added to my list that I wanted to see. It was exciting, challenging, at times scary, but a fantastic realisation of my dreams.

And then in 1997 I came home. I had got the travelling out of my system and I looked ahead to the rest of my life and saw nothing. Just a big black hole with no markers in it, no signposts showing me what to work towards, no town, person, or job to call mine. I had spent all my energy focusing on one big goal, and never thought to look beyond it. It was a very difficult time.


I have seen this happen to people getting married. Not those who keep things fairly low key or have a few months of prep, but those who dream of a big day, and when they finally meet their partner, have a wedding date a couple of years in advance which they meticulously work towards planning every detail. The magical day comes….is wonderful…..and then passes and the rather lost bride (it often is the woman) feels lost without this direction to work towards. This all consuming focus of their last year or so has gone, and it’s a genuine sense of loss.

Looking beyond your ultimate goal

I have worked with many people over the years in a role as business and career coach. The learning I have taken from this striving for a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal, as my Manager at Suiko used to call them!) has helped me work with people and help them look beyond the goal, prior to achieving it. It can be challenging to get someone working towards a big goal – M.D. of the company where they are employed, achievement of a Degree etc – to think of life beyond this as they want to pour all their energy and thought into their one goal, but the value in looking beyond it is immense.

  • An Olympian winner could be looking to what they would do with that winning, raising awareness of charity, coaching kids in sport, training other would-be Olympians.
  • A recently appointed M.D. can be looking at what they wish to do with that appointment, what they’d like to change, what they’d do differently, how they plan to make a difference.

I worked with a client who like me was focusing all of their dreams on a big travel adventure. We looked beyond that at career interests, hobbies, smaller goals and I encouraged them to think of these while away from time to time, to ensure that when they returned there were the seeds of new opportunities already in place. It worked and although there was a dip on return, the cogs were already moving of future goals and this ensured they had the lift they needed and the future wasn’t just a black hole ahead.

Your goals

You may be reading this with your own BHAG journey in progress and good luck to you. Goals and the journey towards them are what makes life exciting and full of direction. Never let go of those goals but ensure there is fluidity, that smaller ones follow the main event, and that you never pile all of your dreams and focus up against one big wall – the other side of it can be a daunting place.

Thanks to William for his questions this morning, and for inspiring me to share my experiences with others today.


Kevin Leighton September 1, 2011 at 12:16 am

It’s difficult to know how to comment on this because your blog pretty much says it all.

I can see that having and achieving one big dream with nothing to follow on behind would leave a vacuum. The analogy of the M.D. is a great one because without knowing what he was going to do once he achieved office would leave him sat in said office with not a lot to.

In project management terms the achievement of this goal would be seen as the achievement of a major milestone in a programme of works and further tasks would be planned to follow on towards the next one. If people treated life as a project plan would their lives be very different do you think?

paula September 1, 2011 at 7:59 am

Hi Kevin. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

The analogy of a Project Plan is an interesting one. As long as the big goals are milestones and not the overall aim, then yes, this level of planning on our lives could work! I think the hardest part is not sinking all of our passion and thought into the thing we want the most and to be able to step back and look beyond it. Often this is not something people can do alone as they get very wrapped up in their goal. I guess in this scenario, the analogy of the Project Plan would suggest a team of people supporting you in the progress towards the goals and milestones, and yes, this would be a great help to keeping a sense of perspective and focus.

Thanks again.

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