BHAGs

On having Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Essay status: freshly baked, may still add minor points

Recently, I asked tweeple:

Need some inspiration. What is your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal?

And people kindly indulged:

  • "Make 5 millionaires" (Joel Hooks)
  • "build my own house" (Wei Gao)
  • "Have my code executed a trillion times" (Mike Sherov)
  • "A coding school by day, a dance floor by night" (Dan)
  • "I want to be on the TC39 committee" (Laurie)
  • "Low-code, visually-developed, robust AI-powered app development tools." (David K.)

There were also people who didn't like BHAGs:

What BHAGs mean to me

For the uninitiated, BHAGs (I pronounce them "Bee-Hags") were coined by Jim Collins in Built to Last. Click thru for the concept in his own words. In a sense this is original sin - yet another management obsession borne out of ignoring selection bias for the sake of success porn.

However I choose to view BHAGs as something broader than a management goalsetting exercise. You don't have to run a company to have a BHAG, and plenty of companies are run successfully without one. You don't even have to have a BHAG. But having one helps put your current goals in context.

For a brief period, being "mission driven" was in vogue in Silicon Valley. BHAGs occupy the same mental space as having a mission, in my mind, except that they are bigger, hairier, audacious-er, and more specific.

BHAGs are a reaction against incrementalism. In a world of neverending trivial pursuit of low hanging fruit, they are a breath of mountain air. BHAGs aren't SMART - they're SMT, at best.

I think it's important, but not essential, to have some specificity to the goal. There ought to be some point at which it is over, no matter how ridiculously far out it may seem. That way, you might get some closure on it, and savor the feeling of a Job Well Done. But you can also track progress, and work backwards on the math to get to where you want to go (see BHAGs and Systems below).

Audacious (and Worthy)

The Audaciousness component of a BHAG is inspiring. Ideally your goal should be so audacious as to evoke laughter as to how ridiculous it is. There's a few ways to get there - doing something for the first time, or doing some big thing in a really short amount of time.

How laughable would it be if someone got up on stage and said this:

I think we should save 100,000 lives.

And then they followed it up with:

And I think we should do that by June 14, 2006--18 months from today.

It's ridiculous! There's no plan involved! How do you measure multicausal impacts of things that don't happen?

But it's memorable. Worthwhile. Directionally correct.

Impacting lots of people is often more impressive than just impacting yourself - but don't do it for others (you'll never make them happy forever), keep true to what you really want.

There's some relationship with Audacity and Reasonableness, in the George Bernard Shaw sense of the word. An absurdly reasonable person can reason away not only everything currently wrong with the world, but also all our expectations of what we can do with the future. It takes some amount of unreasonable audacity to imply: "our own reasonable expectations are wrong, and we can do better".

Also implied is that this goal should be worthwhile in some way. You could set out to build the Universe's Biggest Ball of Yarn or to set the Guiness World Record for Underwater Basket Weaving, but nobody's going to be very inspired by that.

But, tell people you want to make Humans a Multi-Planetary Species or to own the Jets or to run a two hour marathonor to make a city lose 1 million pounds of fat or to eliminate Polio, people will laugh, and then they do a very curious thing.

They start trying to help. They tell their friends who can help. They volunteer ideas. They check in on you. They celebrate your progress with no jealousy, mourn setbacks with empathy.

That's something you don't get with incrementalism. When you're working on the 35th Uber for X, nobody really cares. If you're lucky, they actively try to take you down or tell you why it won't work. There's a reason: it's zero sum.

When you work on something audacious and worthy, you're doing no one (or very few people) are doing anyway - you present no threat. In fact, like breaking the Bannister barrier, you're proving it can be done, giving people an expanded sense of their own human capability.

By going for Audacity, you bring Hope.

Hairiness

I think the understated part of a BHAG is actually the "Hairiness" aspect. A "hairy" problem isn't easy - there are a lot of devils in details, tons of miniproblems within the bigger problem. Right in JFK's "Moon Speech", he directly acknowledges all this hair:

we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out

The Audacity is almost made more worthwhile (or ridiculous) by all that hair. If our goal was to set out to solve those hairy things by themselves, sure, that's fine, but making a better alloy for a sake of it isn't particularly exciting. But if this alloy helps enable moon flight, then you can suddenly get much smarter people working on the exact same thing.

BHAGs and Systems

Aren't Systems supposed to matter more than Goals? If you set a ridiculous goal and have no plan to reach it, that's a wish.

I guess I'd just mildly point out that systems and goals aren't mutually exclusive. If systems help you move further and more consistently, goals at least help you set direction. It's kinda ridiculous to argue that either have zero importance. Hairy goals help establish little checkpoints and goalposts for building the systems to get there.

Example BHAGs

Just a list of nice things I see from people I know: