Anyone can ride an ostrich, leap from the world's tallest bungee jump or become a social networking visionary if they write it down and set their mind to it, says entrepreneur Bill Starr.
He should know. He's done all three.
"I've had some wonderful experiences," says the New Brunswick native of his hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and whitewater rafting in Zimbabwe. "That's what inspired me to create an online tool to allow people to actually achieve their goals."
Launched in early 2009, Mylifelist.org - his next-generation social networking site - encourages people to consider their deepest dreams and desires, be it a fitness, travel or career goal, then write them down and draft a plan to make them become reality.
Starting this January, the site is running a 21-day challenge encouraging people to break down their big dreams into manageable chunks. Doing so allows users to gauge when they're on the right track, celebrate milestones and share their successes to support and motivate other members.
"It was inspiring to read the stories about what others had done and what their ideas and goals are," Luce Peterson, of Madison, Wisc., says of her first visit to Mylifelist in February, 2009. "Looking at other people's profiles made me think about what my own goals are."
With her second child getting older and her job as a software support manager hampered by the recession, Ms. Peterson realized that she hadn't done much for herself in over a year. "After having two kids I hadn't really got back into shape," she says, "so I decided to run a marathon."
Likening writing down her goals on Mylifelist to signing a contract with herself, in preparation for her run Ms. Peterson contacted other marathon runners on the site to see how they had done it.
After writing out her plan online, training and actually running a marathon four months later, she went on to complete a second marathon and eventually a short-distance triathlon. "After you complete a goal," Ms. Peterson says, "you think to yourself 'Why shouldn't I be able to do this other project that I have in mind?'"
By setting a challenging yet attainable goal that stretches you beyond your limitations, your ability and confidence to take on more difficult tasks grows, says Dr. Jordan Peterson (no relation) a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
In a study published last March, Dr. Peterson and colleagues at McGill University showed that struggling university students were able to raise their grade point average by 30 per cent after using a guided online writing tool to jot down their past achievements and set goals for the future.
"Writing is a very effective way of thinking things through," says Dr. Peterson, who notes that sharing your past achievements jogs your memory about your accomplishments, and that clearly defined goals give purpose and meaning.
Mr. Starr's gamble is that people are growing weary of being inundated with trivial Facebook updates, and that a new generation of social networks will centre on self-improvement. Yet on his route to growing Mylifelist into a successful business, he's met obstacles to his own goals.
"Building a website is probably one of the hardest things I've ever done," says Mr. Starr, who quit his job as an investment banker and moved to California to create the site. "The attention span is so little that you have to have your site mapped out right or people will just walk away," he says.
This can be a massive barrier to entry into a market already saturated with life-list websites. Amazon's 43things.com has more than two million users, and others like Mybigfive.com and SuperViva.com wrestle for users' time, a fact underscored by the Mylifelist community of 5,000 monthly visitors.
Yet there's something unique about what Mr. Starr has created, says Kimberly Thrush, a Mylifelist member from Portland, Ore. Before stumbling upon the site, she says she used a couple of other goal setting websites and found them lacking. "Mylifelist was more interactive," she says, pointing to its ability to let users follow each other for updates about their triumphs and the questions it asks to help them break down their goals.
Mr. Starr grants it has been a struggle to get the site off the ground during the recession, but he believes it's now in a good position to become profitable in 2011.
"Being an innovator is difficult because no one believes that you're going to be able to do what you're about to do," says Mr. Starr, who has since moved his business to Boston.
For this reason, he says it's tricky to search for and build up a network of people from your past on Mylifelist.
"One of the challenges to accomplishing our goals is the limiting beliefs of the people who we used to know," Mr. Starr says. "Mylifelist focuses on who you want to become and what you want to accomplish."