Imagine losing your sight at the age of 14. That happened to Patricia Walsh and, understandably, it threw her into a pit of despair.
"I had always been ambitious when I was very young," she recounts in our Expert Interview podcast. "All the stories anyone tells of me as a child were [of me] never trying to walk or crawl, only trying to run and I’ve heard that all my life.
"When I lost my vision, all that had been a high achiever and all that had been ambitious was over, as far as I understood. And unfortunately, all the messaging I got from my professionals, mentors, all the adults in my life [was] ‘You need to give up on those hopes and dreams.’ Anything that I wanted that was better for myself was considered denial, was considered an unwillingness to accept my limitations."
But Walsh did not accept those newly imposed limitations, despite considerable pressure to do so. Alone, she reached out to educational bodies and universities, to find out if she could still pursue her goals despite her blindness. And it turned out she could.
Fast forward a few years and she is an award-winning computer engineer and champion paratriathlete. She's also a sought-after speaker and runs her own company, Blind Ambition. This took a great deal of hard work, a lot of courage, and some skillful goal setting.
"I think the thing that's interesting in hindsight is when my friends and family retell it, they always say that I went out with something to prove, or I went out with complete assurance that I knew that I would be successful. But I'm very sincere when I say I had no assurance I would be successful," Walsh admits.
"I was terrified that it may not work out, but I was absolutely willing to make an attempt, because the one thing I knew with certainty was that not knowing my limitation was driving me crazy, and that, if I went and made an attempt and it turned out not to work out, I was no worse off than I was already."
In her book, also called "Blind Ambition," Walsh shares the goal-setting strategy that has supported her in achieving so much. It's built around three words: fuel, fire and blaze.
She says it's useful to think about these as three tiers that exist concurrently, so at any one time you are working toward goals at all three levels. She explains further, using herself as an example.
"My blaze goal is that I live to be an athlete who is on par with elite able-bodied athletes, such that anyone who comes behind me will not have to overcome the perceived limitations that I’ve experienced.
"The fire is then your milestones. So if I want to be an athlete who is on par with elite able-bodied athletes, milestones are the various races where I have an opportunity to demonstrate the success or the improvement I've seen as an athlete," she says.
So what about the fuel? This is the small, day-to-day tasks that, little by little, move you towards achieving your fire goals and then your blaze goal.
"So from my world view, the day-to-day tasks are the everyday workouts. So, for example, I had to be at the pool this morning at 5:30… Maybe I hit seven days but, by the eighth day, maybe I say I’m tired. It would be remarkably easy to give myself an out," she says.
"But since I have that day-to-day mapped to something I honestly care about, all that I have to do is on that eighth day, when I’m feeling fatigued and I’m exhausted and I burn out and I don’t want to do it any more, I have to wake up and I say, 'These are the tasks that are going to help that intrinsic goal, that goal that I care so deeply about. This is what’s going to move the needle to make that happen.' It’s the consistency over time."
Our perception of our own limits plays a key part in how high we reach when setting our goals. Part of Walsh's message is that we often perceive limitations that have no basis in reality. They're only in our heads. She explains how to push through these in this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast.
How do you keep on track with your goals when your perceived limitations threaten to shut you down? Join the discussion below!
"Get yourself a notebook. Every day, write down three problems that you observe. This can be the place where you drive and foment your own change."
Is paternity leave working? How do new fathers feel about it? I spoke to some parents at Mind Tools to find out.
How can managers and leaders make returning from maternity leave easier for working mothers? I spoke to some parents at Mind Tools to find out.