What’s Your BHAG?

by Stefani Rossi July 25, 2013

There’s no place quite as magical as the Oregon coast. The quality of light, rock formations, small welcoming towns, and calming presence of the tide makes this particular shoreline one of my very favorites. Having fresh Tillamook Ice Cream readily available is an added bonus. I gathered at this magical place with colleagues once, to think strategically about some of the changes we wanted to see in our organization. During one of our conversations, our director posed to us a question:

What’s your BHAG?
(pronounced Bee-hag)

Over a decade later, this is a question that in some form I find posing to myself, to my friends, colleagues, and students. Some of you might be familiar with this term.  For those of you who aren’t, BHAG stands for: Big. Hairy. Audacious. Goal. It is a phrase coined by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. While many of us are practiced at establishing goals (though perhaps not always as effective in accomplishing them), Collins and Porras offered a slightly different paradigm for thinking about goal development. Rather than short-term, metric-centered goals

I will send my work to 5 calls for submissions in the next 3 months…

they suggest that a BHAG looks to the long-term, formulating “10-to-30-year goal[s] to progress towards an envisioned future.”[1]

A BHAG is determined not so much by what you hope to accomplish immediately, but instead by the person or organization that you hope to become. The late Stephen Covey, in his renowned book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, echoes this concept in Habit #2: Begin with the End in Mind. Similarly, from Covey’s perspective, the “end” is not wrapped up so much in tactical analysis, or bean counting

I will have my work in X number of top-tier galleries by the time I’m 50…

 but it is a more holistic, transformative vision of a possible future

I will be a painter who works diligently, strives for excellence, models fairness, practices compassion for those with whom I interact, works for justice in and out of the studio, and mentors younger artists.

The latter expression of a goal is clear, although it might require more thoughtful deliberation to quantify. But it is also, at least for people like me, more compelling. Why? Because I know these goals cannot be met overnight, and that they are not based on external circumstances that might prove fickle. There is more room to experience successful accomplishment of them incrementally over the long haul. And, perhaps, there is therefore less room for discouragement to kick in.

In my career as an artist and educator, I have met some resistance to the idea of applying business models to the creative process. But working with long-term sensibilities about the people we want to become as we engage in various creative enterprises might provide a helpful rudder as we navigate morphing topologies of life seasons and shifting project endeavors.

I imagine that most of us have encountered some version of “keep your eye on the prize” motivational platitudes as we work to show up at the easel, or the keyboard, or rehearsal room, even when our practices don’t seem to be yielding the results we want.
  • We’re running marathons, not sprints. 
  • “It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up.”[2]
  • It’s okay to stop for a breather, but don’t quit. 
  • Art is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. 
  • “Amateurs wait for inspiration; the rest of us just show up and work.”[3]
These types of encouragements can be helpful. Good work ethics and short-term goals are indeed beneficial, and well suited to help motivate…for the short-term. But when I’m trying to foster a more sustainable source of intrinsic motivation—what some people might identify as vocational calling—I find it helpful to reframe “the prize” in terms of a way of being, in terms of character rather than accomplishment or acclaim. Thinking of goals—even artistic goals—as something more comprehensive than a static event, tangible award, or acceptance letter seems to be a path that frees me up to make strides toward meaningful accomplishment that is congruent with what I really value, and respond to change, all the while guided by deeply rooted priorities.

Kofi Annan summarizes this idea well:

“To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”

So I’m curious: what’s your BHAG?  What is the future you envision for yourself?

[1] Collins, J. & Porras, J. (1996). Building Your Company's Vision. Vol. 74, Iss. 5: Harvard Business Review. pp. 65–77 [2] Vince Lombardi [3] This seems to be a favorite refrain from painter Chuck Close.

Stefani Rossi
Stefani Rossi


Stefani Rossi studied painting and printmaking at the University of Puget Sound. In 2010 she received her MFA in painting from Colorado State University. Her work has been exhibited nationally in solo and group exhibitions. Stefani has worked with Ruminate Magazine as visual art editor since 2008. More of Stefani’s work can be viewed at www.stefanirossi.com

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