Dr Dinesh and the leap in! crew, smiling in a group hug.
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16 January 2024

Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM on goals: From little things, big things grow.

Leap in! Brand Ambassador Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM was Queensland’s first quadriplegic medical intern and the second person with quadriplegia to graduate medical school in Australia. So it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about setting (and smashing) goals.

Now an emergency doctor and a passionate disability advocate dedicating his professional life to working, teaching and researching health, Dinesh has a unique perspective on goal setting.

At a time of year when there is a lot of talk about New Year’s resolutions, we chatted with Dinesh about the role of goals in his life and why he encourages everyone to dream big.


What role has goal setting played in your personal and professional life?

I’ve had big goals and little goals. The big goals have historically been about things I am passionate about. They’re all about my purpose and my ‘why’. I think that’s the trick for all of us in life – to find what we’re passionate about and purposeful about.

One of the big ones for me was becoming a doctor. I went through some hardship in my early twenties. It was then I realised I wanted to be of service to people. I was on my way to achieving this big goal to become a doctor and then I had a spinal cord injury so there were more challenges thrown in the way. But having the goal gave me something to strive for every day.


Becoming a doctor is a big goal. How did you approach it?

It starts with knowing where you are going and what you want but the process is about taking little steps along the way.

Becoming a doctor was planted in the back of my mind and I set incremental goals towards it, like reading a relevant textbook for an hour every day.

Each day was about kicking a little goal, getting one per cent better or one inch closer to the big dream. Big things are a collection of little things done well and so the little goals matter.


How do you identify and prioritise goals that are truly meaningful to you?

Being a doctor and practising medicine is important to me. When I was experiencing depression during my undergrad degree, I had a doctor who helped me and inspired me to be a doctor myself. It all started there and I just knew that was right for me. Any goal or action that helps me become better at what I do is worthwhile.

There are things for all of us that feel really right. Either we are drawn to something, there is an activity that feels meaningful or something we feel super passionate about. You look for those moments where you just lose yourself and lose track of time because you love what you’re doing. That’s how you learn what you’re supposed to be doing. For every person it is different.

Then you just prioritise that thing. The trick for all of us is to find that thing and then spend our time and lives dedicated to it. Everything else just falls into place around that.


Do you try to set goals that are realistic and achievable?

I always wonder about the idea of being realistic. How do you know what’s possible if you don’t stretch yourself?

Once upon a time, the idea of going to the moon was considered unrealistic. It was because people dared to dream of what was beyond our limits that we were able to go to the moon. Think of all the things we would not have in this world if we only did realistic things – electric cars and mobile phones for example.

Even in some of the work we do in spinal cord injury research. For as long as humans have existed, we haven’t found a way to restore function but we are trying and dreaming so we are moving towards that.

Now, more than ever, humankind needs to be unrealistic in its dreams. What I want to do is keep pushing the limits and stretching myself to see how far I can go.


What daily or weekly routines do you follow to stay focused on your goals?

I wholeheartedly believe that big things are a collection of little things done well. So really it’s about going to work every day and doing the best I can every time. To do that, our routine is structured so I can do my job well.

We have a routine for the way the laundry is done, the way I get dressed, what we take to work, and what I eat at work and at home. Even my personal care routine in the morning is done in a certain way so there are no blood pressure fluctuations when I first sit up. We have fine-tuned lots of little things to make sure the day runs as smoothly as possible.

Over time these things add up and that’s what leads to success.


How do you measure progress towards your goals?

At the end of every day, I ask myself, “What was the one thing I did today to work towards my goal?” That’s it. Life’s about habits. Once you get into the habit of doing something every day or frequently, it adds up.

The other thing that helps me every day is being grateful. I know it’s become a buzzword but finding things to be grateful for every day, even the little bit of food that you have, I find that helps. We might have all these ideas and dreams for the future but actually, today is really good too. The moments in front of us still matter, we can’t live for that big thing at the end of the rainbow, we still have to live for today because it’s a gift.


Do you take time to reflect on what you have achieved at the end of each year?

I don’t often think about achievements. I think about mistakes or shortcomings but not in a bad way. It’s more about exploring if there is something I can do better or learn and that can happen at any time of year. I believe our existence on this planet is to see what we can improve about ourselves.

Going through a spinal cord injury forced me to think about time differently. A lot of friends, colleagues and people around me kept moving on with their lives and achieving certain things but my timeline became vastly different to theirs by virtue of the accident.

Time passed allows us to measure progress but I’ve also learned that it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you keep your own pace and do your own thing.


How do you connect your goals to your NDIS Plan and supports?

I’m really lucky that I have my Mum who has been a big part of this journey since the spinal cord injury happened. Mum has been instrumental in ensuring we weave goals into my NDIS Plan when we go to plan meetings.

Before the meeting we talk and confirm the direction we’re heading, my current goals and what we want to do. It might be things like how we structure every day to maximise the possibility of success. What steps do we need to take every day and how can my NDIS Plan support that? What kind of things do I need to do in my activities of daily living or on a weekly or monthly basis? And then what kind of contingencies to plan for along the way.

It’s like building a spaceship or rocket – what we see is the end product and culmination of a lot of work but there are many moving pieces, both human effort and parts. When we’re developing an NDIS Plan, it’s not so much the rocket or end result but how we build towards that goal and what do we put in place to get there?


What’s your advice to anyone unsure where to start with goal setting?

Do whatever works for you. We are all different. At this time of year, there is a lot of discussion about goal setting for the next year and approaches to life. When you follow a formula and it doesn’t work for you, sometimes you feel like you’ve failed.

We’re all different human beings, we all have different lives and things that work for us. We’re in a living lab so you can try different things, read different books and see what works for you and what doesn’t.

It might be about setting incremental goals and working towards them, it might be about setting certain timelines. There are so many different strategies but it’s never one size fits all.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do, what is or isn’t realistic or how you should live your life. It’s your life and they’re your goals. Be bold, live your dreams and make the most of this one chance so you don’t have any regrets.


Get your FREE guide to goals and the NDIS.

The goal-setting process is an important part of the NDIS. Setting clear goals as part of your plan meetings means you’re more likely to get the funding you need for supports to help you achieve your goals.

Leap in! has created a free ebook to help you navigate the NDIS goal-setting journey with confidence.

Download your FREE copy here.

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