06/17/2011 02:09 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011

The Unifying Goal or the Goal of Everything

We've come a long way, baby, as the old Virginia Slims ad says, but women are still champions in the field of underestimating our capabilities, at sidelining our ambitions, and then when, in spite of ourselves, we actually achieve something, we are also great at diminishing our accomplishments and far too apt to give away the bits and pieces of our achievement to everyone around us.

Read Judy Elder's speech, given to the Toronto Board of Trade as part of the Women's Television Network 'Gift of Wisdom" series, for an eloquent commentary on this.

Sports, as I've said often (one of my hobby horses, yes, I know), are a place where women can show themselves just how much more they are capable of than they thought possible. Sports are a place where women can train themselves to own their ambitions, to feel what it's like to really go for it. And sports are a place where we cannot give the credit for our own achievements away. When we cross that finish line (whatever our version of the finish line is -- from a race, to mastering a particular golf stroke or yoga pose), the achievement is concrete and undeniable. You did it. Yes, of course, there are people who supported you, who trained you, who enabled you... but they did not do it for you

To achieve athletically we have to set goals. Nothing substantial happens in the way of accomplishment without our wanting it to happen, without our making it happen -- not in sports, not in our career, not in life. Setting ourselves a challenge forces us to be our best selves. A goal is how we own our ambition -- assuming the goal is ambitious, of course. Not just owning, but "owning up to," our ambition, those are good things, worth practicing. After all, we only improve at things, even such things as being ambitious, when we practice.

What are we practicing? Well, for starters, we are practicing identifying what we want. Don't know what you want? That's going to make it hard to get "it." Sports can make the "what it is" bit easier -- I want to learn to kayak a mile, run a 5k, ride 50 miles, be rated a 3.5 in tennis. Once we know the "it," then there's the practice of discipline and focus. Having a goal provides the motivation.

We're also practicing failure. Because when we set ambitious goals, we won't meet them all. We can't. Not if they are truly ambitious, truly a challenge to what we've done before. Failure is, as so many have said before now, a station stop on the course to our success. The more we allow ourselves to fail, the more likely we are to achieve. And when we do achieve, we practice owning it. A tiny bit of boasting might be in order, yes?

Bravo. We're all setting goals like mad now, amped on motivation we're disciplined and focused, moving past failure and basking just a wee bit in our own glory.

New motto: Must have a goal for everything.

Not so fast. As important as goals are, they are not the magic bullet, nor are they appropriate in every instance. Goals are great tools, but they should not be crutches. Goals provide foundation, but they are not scaffolding. Oh yes, if you know me, you already know where I'm going -- because crutches and scaffolding are signs of an imbalance -- after all, we should be able to stand up on our own. When we can't motivate to keep ourselves physically fit and active in the absence of a looming race day or tournament or game or weight loss goal, we need to check back with our balance.

Like too much of almost any good thing, goals have their dark side, too. All of life should not be about meeting a stretch goal. If we're mono-focused on constantly achieving at ever-higher levels, we forget to smell the daisies and risk tipping over the uneven keel of our life. Processing disappointment is all that much harder, when the goal is all we have. In sports, loss of balance translates into injury and burnout, worse still, loss of playfulness.

Bigger, faster, stronger, more flexible, more accurate, more skilled; more, more, more... is not always better. We can work ever tirelessly toward the next promotion, the next pay raise, but in the end, we still need to get something more than accumulated seniority and more money out of our work. A race, an event, a game, even a season? -- important, yes, but also fleeting and unstable, like seniority and money.

Behind every goal we set and every goal we don't set is what physicists might call, The Unifying Goal or The Goal of Everything, that is, the goal that ties all our other goals together, that underpins everything we do; the goal that isn't really a goal, but just is. The lights go dark. The curtain rises. And out she walks, without fanfare, no pomp and circumstance, no fireworks, no designer outfit, unprepossessing, the girl next door we overlooked. Some call her happiness, though she'll answer to the name of balance, too.

Because that, I believe, is why we're here, to be happy and to bring more happiness into the world.

So set those goals, own your ambition, surprise yourself with just how much you're capable of and let the world know; and then? -- let it all go, live lightly, play, be happy and share that happiness with others.