What Comes First: Goal or Aspiration?

My son asked me an interesting question today. What is the difference between a goal and an aspiration? I did as any self-respecting dad in the digital age would do. “Have you Googled it,” I asked? “Yes,” replied Ryan, “but it is very confusing.” Looking closer at the definitions I could see what the problem was, and I gained an insight I think is worth sharing. Read on.

Steady wins the race

First, the definitions, using the Oxford Online Dictionary.

GOAL:  The object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

ASPIRATION:  A hope or ambition of achieving something. 

Breaking it down further we see the differences really start to emerge.  Goals are objective, measurable, a tangible target to shoot for.  Aspiration is similar in that it describes a desired future state.  However, that is where the similarity ends with the tests of an aspiration being typically subjectiveunmeasurable, and intangible.

In business we could say:

Goals are closely linked to the HOW

      • unemotional
      • scientific
      • fact based

Aspirations are closely tied to the WHY

      • emotional
      • whimsical
      • feelings based.

We are always told that we should set goals.  Shoot for the stars!  True.  However, don’t you ever have the feeling that sometimes a goal is just too big?  Sometimes a goal is just too high, too far away to really expect to see happen.  What do we do then?  I think that is where ‘hope‘ in the form of aspiration comes in.  Hope, it is said, really does spring eternal.

For my son today the practical example was that he aspires to be a programmer.  This is his ambition, what he wants to achieve.  He will he get there by setting goals, the first of which is to programme a simple iOS app.  Many more will follow as he discerns the way to attain his aspiration.

Answering the question posed as the title of this post, I believe that aspiration must be present before one can set goals.

My insight as my son and I discussed this?


What is your take on this simple but distinct difference in meaning between these two words?  Do you think that a leader can lead with goals alone?  Will there be greater success with an overarching aspiration to create the framework into which the goals fit?  Is this aspiration the same as vision?

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I live in the Cayman Islands and I'm married to Christina. We have two incredible children, Ryan, attending Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and Taylor, attending Trinity College School, in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. I own several businesses in Cayman. My list of 'pasts' include past chairman of the Cayman Islands Special Economic Zone Authority, past president of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman, and past president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.

Please note: I moderate comments and reserve the right to delete or edit those that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “What Comes First: Goal or Aspiration?

  1. Loved this (and many of your other “musings”) that I have read. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights! Was delighted to see on your list of suggested books some I have enjoyed and one I just finished reading (Start With Why…). How blessed is your family to have God at the helm with you listening closely to Him and doing His will David.