Shoot for the Stars To Hit the Stars


One of my first job interviews in high school was also one of the most memorable.  For some reason, I was being interviewed by three people who looked like they were all in college.  One guy in particular looked like a punk and he acted like it during the interview.

He, of twenty-odd years old, gave me a lecture on how life works.  The lesson he shared was that I should set my goal as high as possible so that even if I fail, I would have still achieved something.  He summarized this in one phrase, “Shoot for the stars so that even if you miss, you’ll hit the moon.”  In case I was too dense to understand his infinite wisdom, he even drew a picture of a star and a moon with an arrow launching me from the earth to the moon.

I’ve seen this phrase in yearbooks and other places where you write words of wisdom, but I remember thinking, while sitting through the interview, that this guy is an unsalvageable idiot and so are the people who think these are words to live by.  My experience in life in the decade since has done little to change that opinion.

The point of setting a goal is to achieve it.  Work and effort necessary for one goal is different from work and effort necessary for another. And because of this, setting a realistic goal requires some self-awareness, to know what you’re capable of and what it takes to get there.   If you have an overly haughty view of yourself, you waste your work and effort spinning your wheels in the mud seeking goals that are unattainable.  If you lack self-confidence, your efforts are equally wasted because they could be put to better use to achieve your full potential.  I find most people to already lack even a semblance of an objective view of the self.  Encouraging people to just aim high and shoot so they can hit something does nothing to address this troubling blindness.

What I find to be a far bigger problem with the phrase, though, is that it glorifies failure by disguising it as a success.  If you analogize the phrase to a real rocket, the problem becomes rather obvious.  If NASA shot a rocket for the stars and it hit the moon, no one will be celebrating how far the rocket went since NASA failed to reach its target.  In fact, it fails on the same token even if the rocket was targeted for the moon, overshot and hit the stars.

Analogy to real life situations equally doesn’t work.  If you’re seeking to become an analyst at an investment bank and you end up as a non-paying intern, there’s really no congratulations to go around just because the internship is with Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Getting to the moon and landing a gig with Goldman are worthy achievements in a vacuüm, but the phrase tries to place accomplishments in the context of goals.  And in so doing, it misses the rather obvious point that you failed.

Much can be learned from failures.  In fact, many of the most significant personal developments come from making mistakes and learning from them.  But the phrase does little to encourage you to be so introspective.  Instead of encouraging people to reflect on what went wrong and why, the “lesson” says “Hooray” for hitting the moon and encourages you to next aimlessly target Pluto so you can hit something, anything, very far, like Jupiter.

I have this deep suspicion that what happened with “Shoot for the stars so you’ll hit the moon” is that a much more insightful phrase of Confucius got distorted over the years and passed along mindlessly by people who were too much of an idiot to know better.  “If you shoot for the stars and hit the moon, it’s OK,” Confucius had said.  “But you’ve got to shoot for something.  A lot of people don’t even shoot.”  He doesn’t say it’s o.k. that you missed the stars because the moon is still very far.  Indeed, he makes no judgement on the result.  What he does say is that the act of trying is worth celebrating regardless of the result.

This certainly is a wisdom that’s worth passing along.  I know this because Coach Eric Taylor said something very similar when he discussed character with his quarterback:

I said you need to strive to be better than everyone else. I didn’t say you needed to be better than everyone else. But you gotta try. That’s what character is. It’s in the try.

–“Friday Night Lights,” Season 5, Episode 3, “Right Hand of the Father”

So live the words of Confucius and Coach Taylor.  Shoot for the stars, give it a try.  And if you end up on the moon, that’s worth celebrating as well, not because getting to the moon is an accomplishment, but because it’s an opportunity to contemplate why you ended up at the moon and not the stars.

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10 Responses to “Shoot for the Stars To Hit the Stars”


  1. 1 jon December 13, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Stupid entitlement generation. People think everything they do must be valuable and special in some way these days. Many people make little to no real contribution (perhaps even a negative contribution, perpetuating overpopulation). These ones need to stop thinking they’re useful and be thankful for the chance to just hang around. How ’bout them apples?

    • 2 joesas December 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm

      Not that I disagree, but when oh when and how oh how did you get so cynical.

      Incidentally, there’s a difference between thinking you’re useful and knowing you’re useful. I’m obviously in the latter…

      • 3 jon December 18, 2011 at 11:39 am

        Was that cynicism? I thought it was just practicality…

        • 4 joesas December 21, 2011 at 9:07 am

          Jon,

          I’d say you do have a little cynical view of people… I think we can all do better and I’m hopeful that we can..

  2. 5 Jay the Elitist December 15, 2011 at 9:03 am

    It’s just an expression. Stop hating people. Hate on this, “Clear eyes, Full hearts, Can’t Lose”

    • 6 joesas December 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm

      I hate you…

  3. 7 Caitlin December 16, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I agree with you, Joe, and I love the term “unsalvageable idiot.” I can picture the look on your face as you sat through that interview and it’s cracking me up.

    • 8 joesas December 18, 2011 at 1:08 am

      Caitlin,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I did all my best to contain myself during the interview and prevent I agree with him (I think I even said couple nice words)…

      Jason,

      Meet Caitlin, who appreciates wisdom.

  4. 9 Joseph January 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I was tracking until your argument became hinged upon the ethos of Coach Eric Taylor. This may only be because I haven’t watched Friday Night Lights, but I doubt it. Also, I thought the quote was “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll end up amongst the stars.” Which is in its own right more stupid and less scientifically accurate, but what are you going to do?

    • 10 joesas January 14, 2012 at 9:14 am

      Joseph,

      Thank you for your comments. As an answer to your question of what am I going to do, I can say you are wrong about the quote and you are wrong to dismiss the great Coach Eric Taylor and wrong to disagree with me. In essence, you are wrong.

      How about them apples?

      Joe

      P.S. Hope all is well. Law school in sights or have you chosen the path of the wise?


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