Big Dreams: Setting & Achieving Wildly Improbably Goals

Woman ClimbingI was 13, doing my homework in front of my family’s broken-down television, when I felt strangely compelled to look up at the screen. It showed an athlete running around an indoor track. I heard myself say out loud, “That’s where I’m going to college.” A split second later the TV narrator’s voice came on: “Here at Harvard University’s athletic center…” My heart stopped. Not in my most fevered dreams had I ever considered applying to an Ivy League school. Such behavior would be unusual, if not downright bizarre, for a girl from my deeply conservative Utah town. Besides, going to Harvard required several thousand times more brains, talent, and money than I would ever have. On the other hand, I felt the truth of my own strange words in the marrow of my bones. Okay, I thought nervously, maybe going to Harvard isn’t utterly unthinkable. Maybe it’s just barely, barely possible. Right there, in front of the TV, I surrendered to the first of what I would one day call my Wildly Improbable Goals (WIGs, for short). 

Decades later I have a couple of Harvard diplomas stuck in a closet, and a happy expectation that sometime soon another WIG is going to pop, unbidden, into my consciousness. I’ve watched this happen repeatedly, not only to me but to loved ones and clients. I suspect it may have happened to you, too. Perhaps it was just a flicker of thought that transported you for a moment, before you dismissed it as nonsense. Maybe it’s a dream that simply will not let go of you, no matter how often you tell yourself not to hope for anything so big, so unlikely. Or it may be an ambition you’ve already embraced, even though everyone else thinks you need serious medication. In any case, learning to invite and accept your own WIG can awaken you to a kind of ubiquitous, benevolent magic, a river of enchantment that perpetually flows toward your destiny.

Time travel 
I might as well admit what I believe about these minor prophecies I call WIGs. I suspect they’re not so much mental constructs as literal glimpses of the future. I stand behind Albert Einstein’s comment that “people like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Physics tells us that time can be stretched or compressed like Silly Putty, and I am just woo-woo enough to believe that we humans might sometimes sense truths that are ordinarily veiled by our assumptions or self-imposed rules.

Prescience—knowing about events that haven’t yet occurred—is not altogether foreign to behavioral science. In one study, experimenters showed test subjects a series of images, including both pleasant pictures and violent or otherwise emotional ones. The researchers were not surprised to find that the subjects’ blood pressure and heart rate increased in response to the upsetting images. They had not anticipated, however, that this reaction would occur seconds before the subjects saw the violent pictures—a result that has been replicated in other studies but never satisfactorily explained.

What occurs infinitesimally in laboratory experiments takes on huge dimensions in the lives of some extraordinary people. Joan of Arc had goals so wildly improbable that she was burned as a witch for achieving them. A young Winston Churchill once said to a friend, “I tell you I shall be in command of the defenses of London… In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” Do such people accomplish great things because they dreamed near impossible dreams, or were their dreams previews of what they were destined to achieve? I’m open to either explanation. To me, one seems as mysterious as the other. Whether our WIGs are the cause or effect of our actions, they have a peculiar power to lift us beyond what we thought to be our limitations.

Wild Kingdom 
At this point, I hope you’re wondering how you can set your own Wildly Improbable Goals. The problem is, you can’t. WIGs are to normal thoughts what Siberian tigers are to house cats, and your “right mind” doesn’t have the hunting skills to find them. Fortunately, your WIGs can find you. The knowledge of your destiny may stalk you for years, undetected except for occasional moments of longing or hope that glint like eyeshine in your darkest hours. Then when you least expect it, a WIG will leap out of nowhere and overwhelm you in one breathtaking burst. I’ve had the privilege of watching many clients recognize WIGs. It’s thrilling to see people who thought they were directionless realize they’re about to run for office or buy a house or publish a novel or have a baby. If these moments were broadcast on cable—the Wildly Improbable Discovery Channel—I’d watch it all day long.

Speaking of having babies, that process is somewhat similar to the procedure for inviting WIGs into your life. You can’t force a WIG to happen, but you can create conditions that will either prevent it or invite it. One precondition is absolutely necessary: You must befriend, protect, and nurture your own spirit. This means paying attention to your real needs, treating yourself not just fairly but kindly, and standing up for yourself even if that displeases people around you. Just as a run-down body may be unable to conceive a healthy new life, a run-down soul can’t support the healthy development of the life you were meant to have. 

Helping it Happen 
Once you’ve met the basic condition of self-care, there are several strategies you might use to lure your WIGs out of hiding. One is to take a pencil in your dominant hand (right for right- handers, left for lefties) and write down a few pointed questions, such as “What are you feeling?” “What do you need?” and “What do you want?” As soon as you’ve finished writing a question, switch the pencil to your other hand and write whatever words bubble up. You may be surprised. When your problem-solving mind is fully engaged, trying to master the task of writing with the “wrong” hand, hidden aspects of the self often surface. I’ve seen people encounter full-fledged WIGs in the shaky words written by their own nondominant hand. 

If you think more visually than verbally, you may want to try another exercise: time travel. Take a few quiet minutes, relax in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and imagine that the date has changed. It’s the same day of the same month, but the year is 2005, 2012, or 2020. Figure out how old you are in the year you’ve chosen. How old is your best friend? Your children? Your spouse? Let yourself inhabit this time. Now with your eyes still closed, simply describe your circumstances. Where are you? What are you wearing? What is the weather like? Now describe your life. What is most important to you on this date? What projects occupy you? Who hangs out with you? Try to simply observe rather than make things up. If no images appear, don’t worry. Your WIGs are still hiding, but you’ve called them and they are listening. They may show up after you’ve finished the exercise, when you’re brushing your teeth or making your bed. 

A third WIG-baiting exercise also involves time travel, but for this one you don’t project yourself into the future. Instead your future self comes back to visit you. Imagine meeting a wise, happy person who just happens to be your best self ten years from now. Ask this person for advice. If you’re facing a problem, ask your mentor how she got through it ten years back. Ask her what mistakes you’re making and how you might correct them. As with the previous exercise, you may initially get no answer. Nevertheless, your true self, that wise being who exists outside of time, has registered the questions. The answers will come.

When it Hits 
Being struck by a WIG is nothing like setting an ordinary goal. First of all, you’ll notice that it is not something you thought up; it seems to come from somewhere beyond thought. Second, you’ll feel an almost physical jolt of yearning, as though your heart is straining toward its destiny. Third, you’ll have the vertiginous sensation of your mind boggling. If you haven’t experienced this before, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed, the way I felt at 13, watching that runner circle the Harvard track. You won’t even be able to imagine the mess of work and luck necessary to make it happen. The very idea will seem impossible…almost. That “almost” will tickle the edges of your consciousness, tempting you to believe that somehow, someway, your dream may fall just inside the realm of probability. How can you be sure? You can’t. Fortunately, your first step is simple: Write down your WIG. In detail. Immediately, before you regain your sanity and lose your nerve. 

Experts say that simply writing down goals greatly increases your chance of actually achieving them. Perhaps it’s because the act of writing primes your brain to scan the environment, looking for opportunities that will take you toward your objectives. Many choices you make en route to realizing your WIG will be so inconspicuous that you won’t even notice them, but over time they’ll add up to huge changes in direction.

Once you’ve written your WIG, the real work begins. I’ve had many clients who, impressed by the strange electricity of their WIGs, assume that this intense feeling alone will magically create the desired reward. Yeah, right. I think the reason WIGs have so much mojo is that we need a huge reservoir of desire to keep us slogging through the hard work needed to realize them. Almost invariably, the effort necessary to achieve a WIG is not less than we expect but more. That said, the process of working toward a WIG does seem to land us in extraordinary territory. Creativity coach Julia Cameron comments that her clients reap the fruit of their labors only if they are willing to go out and “shake the trees,” but weirdly, the fruit that falls almost never comes from the tree the person is shaking.

This has been my experience as well. By the time I was 15, I’d developed a shortlist of WIGs that included three rather childish goals: I wanted to learn to ski, own a ten-speed bicycle, and visit Europe. Once programmed, my brain began noticing job opportunities and sporting-goods sales, and I slowly earned enough money to buy a bike and some used ski equipment. I was also working on selling enough French-club perfume to win a trip to Europe. I’d sold three whole ounces and had only a couple of gallons to go, when a Yugoslavian friend sent my family two round-trip tickets to Europe that he was too busy to use. Days later I was standing on European soil, dizzy with jet lag and euphoria.

That pattern—the recognition of a WIG, followed by enormous amounts of work, followed by a miracle—has happened to me so many times that it’s almost stopped surprising me. I see it strike my clients as well, when they prepare a safe space for their true selves, ask a few questions, and accept the answers. You already know your own WIGs, though you may not yet realize it. The part of you that is unhampered by illusion—the illusion of time, the illusion of powerlessness, the illusion of impossibility—is waiting for you to slow down and open up so that it can speak to your consciousness. In some unguarded moment, you will hear its wildly improbable words and know that they are guiding you home. 


Wildly Improbable Goals – WIGs – are a foundational concept for my life coach training program. First introduced in my book “Finding Your Own North Star”, all of my coaches are trained to help you set – and achieve – your own WIGs.

27 replies
  1. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I am a Martha Beck Junkie.!! I noticed that across the parameters of what I need at any given moment she speaks to my personal inquiries How crazy is that? ?

    Reply
  2. Wendy Haxton
    Wendy Haxton says:

    I love all Martha Beck’s ideas and have found her books inspirational. Only one thing puzzles me. Why would people already rich enough to go on her wonderful courses, need to go? They already have the means to do whatever they like…

    Reply
    • Editor
      Editor says:

      Who said that the only people who attend her live events are rich? Or that rich people are happy and fulfilled and feel the freedom to do whatever they like? Shackles and thought dungeons exist for people of any means imaginable. I encourage you to break the “rules” of your mind because these are exactly the things that keep us from our WIGs. Wishing you much peace!
      ~Jessica

      Reply
      • luciana
        luciana says:

        You said exactly what I wanted to hear…4am and I can not sleep. Read your message in my email and make a lot of sense. I am about to pursue a long ago WIG that overwhelms me only by thinking of the possibilities this project can bring to my life. That was a great reading and encouragement! tks

        Reply
    • Missy
      Missy says:

      I was one of those not rich people who went. Years ago I took out a loan and went to one of her courses and it was the best thing I could have done. All things are possible. You are worth it!

      Reply
    • Jo
      Jo says:

      Physically, yes. Not necessarily spiritual. Many times earning money involves a different skill set than being in touch with who you are as a person, not following orders, watching “the bottom line”. Our world is preoccupied with material wealth, making impressions on others, and “having fun” and the method justifies the means. After these material goals are met what is left for these rich people to do? Why, check out that “something more” out there! Let’s hope they take their new found info from Martha and allow us poor schmucks to have enough vacations and pay so we can live the “good life” as well!!!

      Reply
  3. Anita
    Anita says:

    I had an opportunity to attend one of Julia Cameron’s workshops on creativity a number of years ago. While packing up for a move last year, I came across notes taken in one of her books, that would fit the description of Martha’s WIGS. I had also written in journals about, what seemed at the time, activities & life situations that seemed out of the realm of possibility for me. You can guess the outcome — most “dreams” became a reality. Dreams DO come true — with great effort, planning, & action. But that adds to the reward. I hope that each reader attains their heart’s desire in 2013 and beyond.

    Reply
  4. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    Martha,
    Thank you for all your amazing work, yes I truly believe in wigs, at 13 years old on vacation in florida, going through a beautiful neighborhood. I announced very confidently someday I will live here! My parents looked at each other and Im sure rolled there eyes. Well, here I am right in that neighborhood!!!!

    Reply
    • chris
      chris says:

      Hi Jennifer—from one who knows your pain, take the time you need to practice some Extreme Self Care, just for YOU! When I take time to really really care for MySelf–which I so deserve and you do too—RIGHT???—-it gives me new strength. Fine one thing to be thankful for—there is something—the blue sky, a flower in a garden, a singing bird….all Gifts. You will make it, be Good to yourSelf.

      Reply
    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      I have walked and at times crawled through that tired. It was not an easy journey but it is do-able. One thing I learned? It is okay to ask those you trust for help. Know that you are not alone.

      Reply
  5. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I’ve had this happen a lot lately and can remember numerous occurrences throughout my life. My latest WIG is coming together through lots of flashes of insight and inspiration and each time I am like “WOW! What a great idea! Thanks!”

    Reply
  6. chris
    chris says:

    Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! I have actually read this post many times but today I needed it more than ever and it hit me upside the head as if for the first time….Martha, you are nothing short of a savior to me….sorry if that sounds gushy ( and I totally am not a gushy sort )but your insight and stellar advice have really helped me so much to navigate through so much in my life. I have many gifts but Zero confidence which is sad and very inhibiting….your advice gives me courage and direction to continue pursuing my dreams. Thank You so much for sharing your Wisdom, it means so much to me. With love, Chris

    Reply
  7. Ken Jaques
    Ken Jaques says:

    My WIG for the longest time has been very clear, working with a team of like-minded individuals to “heal the health care system by empowering patients in all aspects of their lives”. Little did I know that it would have the side effect of healing a lot of other things as well.
    And I’m shaking the trees :).
    In one of my future self meditation exercises, I was on the roof of a townhouse, smiling and shaking hands and maybe even a glass of wine, and the reason we were there was in a celebration of “we did it”. The conversation was along the lines of “remember when people thought we were crazy and it couldn’t be done in our lifetime”.
    Ironically, I never saw the faces of who I was celebrating with. My “logical brain” said it must have been Lissa and Martha and others, but I don’t know who the people were or even how many.

    So there’s my WIG. I’ve said it, and now I have to go shake some more trees. It feels like it’s time for our Team to start playing as a Team 🙂

    Reply
  8. Anita
    Anita says:

    My WIGS have to do with writing a novel that will be made into a movie; I’m currently now just starting out writing, trying to get a platform so I can get a publisher and it’s all a big mess.

    Do you know how many authors even get published today and do you know publishers want you to have a platform before they deal with you? So my WIG is hilarious:)

    And what about I live in Europe and I’m being pushed to go to the US? Apparently that’s where my destiny lies. This stuff is scary and real.

    Reply
  9. christina
    christina says:

    My question is the following: What if real limitations prevent you from WIGS? Many of the WIGS I wanted to shoot for were aborted because of a condition I have and a back injury. It makes me feel that WIGS are only obtained by the healthy. I have had several WIGS shattered and it left me a bit hopeless
    Thoughts answers?

    Reply
  10. Marsha
    Marsha says:

    My morning ritual is..
    Coffee, Friskies for the kitties, recliner, iPad, & straight to Martha’s daily dose of Thoughtful Goodness.

    Reply
  11. Donna
    Donna says:

    My WIG happened 36 years ago when I “decided” to adopt a child as a single young woman. It was a thunderbolt out of the blue with no prior contemplation. I have always taken it as instruction from God as to what to do next.

    Reply
  12. Angela
    Angela says:

    One of my WIGS is to do your life coach training programme and I'm working like a little trojan to save up for it! Let me know if you ever run a competition so I can enter 🙂

    Reply
  13. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Martha, I’ve loved you from the moment I first encountered your work in O, the Oprah magazine. I admit that it was my admiration for Oprah that drew me to the magazine; but it is your words of wisdom that have kept me loyal to the magazine all of these years. Each month I await with anticipation because your words are always relevant to wherever I am in my life when I read them. You have been my saving grace for many years, and today is no exception. The “perfect storm” has been brewing in my life for quite some time. It started with my husband walking out on me and our three children, then the unexpected death of my Father after a brief illness and last but not least, the loss of my job almost six months ago. I knew for all three of those events to occur in my life in succession could only mean that God has been trying to get my attention. And after having the pleasure of meeting you and Adam at Lissa Rankin’s Whole Health Medicine Institute in San Francisco in July of 2013, and after reading this post, I now have the courage to answer the call to serve my purpose. As I was reading this post I experienced a WIG so overwhelming that I had to retreat to my prayer closet to contain myself due to the sweeping emotion which accompanied it. Martha, I thank you so much for letting the divine take the lead in your life. You have truly been and will continue to be such an inspiration! Now wish me well as the real work for me begins!

    Reply
  14. M.
    M. says:

    Martha, your quote today in my inbox was perfect timing – like the strange coincidences & occurrences in your link about WIGS. So here’s my question: beyond my wildest dreams I have really tried but still cannot imagine my WIG – living continuously in peace & friendship with my husband, a Narcissist. Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary of 36 years & we are again hanging on by a thread after a few months of a peaceful hiatus.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] can use this process with any size dream. Martha Beck coaches call BIG dreams W.I.G.s, Wildly Improbable Goals. I unexpectedly manifested my  Life Coaching business within two weeks of doing this as a fun […]

  2. […] They come to you in the middle of the night, while you are on your daily walk around the neighborhood or during a friendly chat over beers on your back patio. They are those little ideas that start with “what if” or “maybe I should” and lead to brilliant lights of inspiration that feels like a “physical jolt of yearning, as though your heart is straining toward its destiny” (Martha Beck). […]

  3. […] ~ Big Dreams: Setting & Achieving Wildly Improbably Goals     Next up is Danielle LaPorte a lover of the senses and sensibilities.  In the Romantic Period she could easily be accused of being a Sensualist.  She is the author of  the Fire Starter Sessions and The Desire Map and a liberal collection of wisdom teachings that keep me in wondrous awe for hours.  She is not so much a life coach as she is a modern shaman.  I recognize the star dust of the universe in her.     […]

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