I’m not very comfortable with kids. I like them, and always want them to like me back, but my experience level is so low that interactions typically end in me feeling like a dumbass and the kid thinking I’m a weirdo.

Now, before you ask, yes, I do have a kid of my own. But she’s only four months old, and she’s learning how to be a baby at the same rate I’m learning to parent one.

Kids older than four months? I haven’t gotten that far.

So when my cousin — a runner and third grade teacher — asked if I’d come speak to his class about goal setting, I was more anxious than confident.

“Third graders?” I thought to myself. “They’re what, five or six and just learning to read, right?”

It turns out most in his class are nine years old, and have been reading for the past two grade levels.

With no clue how to talk to third graders, I did the only thing I could think of …

I kept it simple.

A Goal Setting Strategy, Simplified

Goal setting has become a hot topic of late. There are countless books, blogs, podcasts, and worksheets devoted solely to the topic.

They get down to the nitty gritty by formulating strategies, establishing habits, and tricking your mind to believe things you doubt are possible.

It has become this massive industry with gurus preaching their own twist on a complex formula.

But here’s the thing:

At it’s core, setting a big goal is incredibly easy. And with some very minor planning, the path to reach your goal should be just as simple.

You don’t need gurus. You don’t need a library of motivation books. You just need to:

  1. Dream big.
  2. Make a plan.
  3. Take action.

It’s that’s simple.

3 Steps to Achieving Your Ambitious Running Goal

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Under the advice of my cousin, I decided to put together a short slide presentation using my first 100 mile ultramarathon goal as an example of how to set — and follow through with — a big goal.

He said, “Use pictures. Kids like pictures.”

So I did, and kept the words to a minimum. Using the three steps above, this is what I explained, only for the purposes of this post I’m sticking exclusively to running examples:

Step 1: Dream Big

What’s the massive, scary, out there goal that you’d love to achieve? The one goal that sends shivers down your back with both excitement and nerves?

For me it was to run 100 miles through the mountains. But for you it may be:

  • Run a marathon or ultramarathon
  • Qualify for Boston
  • Go sub-twenty minutes for a 5K
  • Run an epic trail route at your favorite national park
  • Make it into the Western States or Hardrock 100 lotteries
  • Fastpack your way down a trail

The options are endless, and motivations unique to you alone.

The key is to think big. A goal that may feel out there now, but over time — maybe even years — you can make it happen.

Most of us know what that goal is, whether we’ve admitted it out loud or not.

Step 2: Make a plan using stepping stone goals

What are the medium sized steps it will take to get there?

Before I could run a mountainous 100 mile ultra, I need to be comfortable running in the mountains. I needed to train up to the 50 mile distance, then the 100K distance, and learn to run in the dark.

Before you can qualify for Boston, you need to train up to a half marathon, then marathon, then work on speed for a faster marathon.

All of these are stepping stone goals, and once determined, become your roadmap that gradually leads you towards that big, ambitious goal.

Step 3: Take action today

What’s the one action you can do today that will help you work towards those stepping stone goals?

My first step was to find and start a training plan.

Yours might be the same, or to find a coach, sign up for a race, or even simpler, to get back into the routine of regular running.

This is my favorite step because it makes that lofty goal feel more tangible. More real.

But unfortunately, it’s where most people get stuck. They set a big running goal, then never take the first step to start.

They get hung up on excuses — not the right time, don’t have the right gear, no one to run with — when in reality we’re just scared.

In part, I believe, precisely because it makes that lofty goal real, and no longer just an idea.

Be Fearless … Like a Nine-Year-Old

After I made it through my ten minute presentation, the kids broke into small groups, each armed with a single page and pencil. The page listed the three steps, along with a number of blank lines for them to fill in their thoughts.

I wasn’t sure how this exercise would go …

… What they understand the concept?

… Would they feel inspired to set a big goal?

… Would they think I’m too big of a weirdo to take seriously?

What happened, though, was beautiful.

The kids furiously sketched out their big goals, along with what they needed to achieve first in order to reach them. Goals like, play in the Wisconsin Marching Band, become a pro soccer player, start a smoothie shop (I like this kid), and become a judge.

And then came my favorite part of this entire experience. We sat in a circle, each sharing the action they were going to take today to begin the journey of making that goal a reality.

They weren’t scared. They didn’t list excuses. They didn’t hide behind a complicated goal setting process, only to never start in the first place.

They were both ambitious dreamers and fearless action takers.

And just like those nine-year-old kids, you can be too.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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