Over the last six months I’ve started using a new approach to goal-setting that I’ve found to be effective, enlivening, and motivating. I’m still ironing out the kinks in the system, but I’m far enough along that I want to share my approach and my results so far.
As I’ve mentioned before I consider myself to be (in role-playing game nomenclature) a “multi-classed character”. I have many interests and ambitions, and I find it difficult to pursue one at a time. I’m probably in the majority; it’s a rare human being who naturally has a single-minded pursuit or singular quest throughout their entire lives. Most people have many interests, like to do many different things, and want to acquire a wide range of experiences. Overall it’s an effective strategy — the multi-class character ends up with multiple skills set and diverse social networks, and is thus less vulnerable to economic downturns, changing popular tastes, and other vagaries of modern life.
The drawback of going broad, in life, is that you don’t necessarily get to go as deep (or if you do go deep, it takes you longer to get there). It takes longer to level up (to acquire achievements, recognition, mastery, and so forth).
So that’s one reason I’ve been refining and developing my goal-setting system; I want to go deeper and level up in certain areas. But it’s not the main reason. The main reason is …
Effective Goal-Setting is the Autobahn for Your Brain
The average brain is immensely powerful. Human beings — almost all of us — have evolved to be clever, wily creatures with vast capabilities for planning, foresight, and problem-solving. For the most part, we’re here because our ancestors were bright enough to not only avoid getting eaten by the predators, but also to attract a fertile mate. Neither is easy — we’ve all got smart ancestors!
The problem is that many of us are driving a Lamborghini on city streets, in a school zone. The demands of life (at least middle-class life in the United States) just aren’t intense enough to fully activate the machinery most of us have at our disposal. We need some way to open up the throttle and burn the gunk out.
Effective goal-setting encourages brain remodeling and intelligence increase. Setting a goal defines a problem, and our minds immediately go to work (consciously and subconsciously) at solving that problem. That means new connections in the brain, and more of the neurons that are constantly generated in our hippocampal region being put to use.
Poetically, effective goal setting lights a fire in the mind. The subjective experience is a near-constant feel-good buzz … the mind is overflowing with ideas, aspirations, and connections. It’s hyperthymia but with fewer manic elements. It’s the reason that Oliver Sacks, after discovering his calling, stopped using mind-altering drugs [subscription required for full article].
Effective goal setting also elicits a strong hormonal response. Goals that have a personal element and are tied closely to our emotions (and emotional motivations) will “get the juices flowing” (sex hormones, stress hormones, etc.).
So what, exactly, is effective goal-setting? I’m still figuring that out, but I’ll share my insights so far.
Addressing Reservations: What About Destiny?
I have talked with people who resist the notion of setting goals altogether. Some people just don’t think about life that way. I accept that. Not everyone is like me.
But there are some people who I think could benefit from adopting a goal-setting system, but resist the practice for various reasons.
Maybe a person thinks the universe or God “has a plan” for them, and to actively set their own life course would somehow be to go against that plan. That person prefers to “go with the flow.”
I can’t think of any way in which this attitude makes sense or could be helpful. From a theological perspective (if you believe God exists) doesn’t God grant free will? From a scientific perspective, complete predictability (and therefore determinism) fails on the quantum level (probabilities are determined, but not outcomes) and all the way up. Life presents choices and options, and we make them, or take advantage of them, or we don’t. If we choose to “go with the flow” then inertia (existing habits), entropy, and the agendas of other people control the arc of our lives.
I thought I was free of this kind of thinking, until I read this short post by Ryan Holiday. He points out that buying into any kind of “narrative arc” thinking about your life can be a trap. Your life is not determined. There is no arc. You are not “destined for great things,” nor are you “destined for failure.” There is simply what you do every day, and what happens as a result (days or weeks or even years later).
I think I had fallen for what Holiday calls the “narrative fallacy” in several ways. As a child I always imagined myself as a writer, but I went for decades without getting down to the business of writing every day. One does not simply “become a writer” by telling yourself a story that you will one day become a writer. There is also a great deal of writing involved.
I was holding myself back in a different way re: music. In my twenties I had success and recognition as a dance music producer, at least in certain underground scenes. Through my thirties, I continued to produce music, and co-promoted one of San Francisco’s most successful club nights (Qoöl at 111 Minna). When I hit forty, I started to wonder if that “arc” was over, and if I should just find something else to do.
But looking a little deeper, I discovered I still had a hunger to create electronic music, to explore new forms, and to “stay in the game.” I no longer identified with club kids, but in fact I never did (even in my twenties). For me it was never about the scene — it was always about the music.
Telling yourself stories and thinking about yourself in the third person can be a helpful tool (as I explore in this post), but that’s different than believing your own hype (or anti-hype). There is desire, there is work, and there are results, and any story about “talent,” “destiny,” “luck,” or factors outside of your control is just that — a story. You are neither blessed nor cursed. Nothing is decided. We make our own luck.
Addressing Reservations: Is Ambitious Goal-Setting Selfish and Obnoxious?
When other people start talking in detail about their goals and aspirations, I quickly get turned off, and often feel quite bored. Other people’s ambitions usually aren’t that interesting. I’m more interested in other people’s opinions, habits, and creative skills than their ambitions and aspirations. I’m wary of “goal talk” because a lot of it is just hot air.
But that doesn’t mean that setting goals is obnoxious. In fact, setting goals and working towards them is often the opposite of talking about them a lot (as Derek Sivers explains in this video).
Another part of my mind resisted setting ambitious goals because it seemed distastefully “go-getter” — overly ambitious and selfish.
But thinking about it further, I realized that setting an ambitious goal for myself wouldn’t prevent me in any way from fulfilling my responsibilities in the world (to my family, my friends, my clients, my city, my nation, humankind, planet Earth, etc.). Meeting my responsibilities is simply the minimum I can do in life, in terms of being a good person.
In addition, while a goal is personal by nature, the content can be as selfless as you want it to be. And even if you choose a selfish goal (some kind of personal achievement or even hedonistic ambition) you’ll find that having a singular goal (as long as you pick it right) will fill you with so much energy that you’ll be able to fulfill your responsibilities (even those that are boring or mundane — and we’ve all got some) with more vigor and efficiency. At the risk of stoking the ambitions of some evil-doing sociopath who might be reading this, I’ll say this; pursuing your own happiness will usually make you a more valuable person to others and society. It’s a similar thought to the Bertrand Russell quote below.
In my next post, later this week, I’ll get into the details for my five step system for exploring life purpose and setting a primary goal.