What Should Your Goals Be?

Often I get emails asking me how to learn better or be more productive. I can’t always give a good response. Presumably, if my articles failed to satisfy that curiosity, I don’t know how much better advice I can give to a stranger via email. But, I at least understand that desire—I write a lot about learning and productivity, so it’s not strange that some people might want personal advice.

But some people, instead of asking me how to study or be more productive, ask me what goals should they have. What should they try to learn? What should they focus their life towards?

This type of question always baffles me, because I’ve never much trusted formal processes to arrive at what goals you should have at life, and I’ve certainly never trusted strangers to tell me.

How to Figure Out What Goals You Should Have

At a certain level, I understand this desire too. Life is full of uncertainty. Especially the uncertainty about what kinds of things are worth pursuing in life. There’s a bias to reach out to people you admire and hope that, perhaps, they can eliminate that uncertainty by simply telling you what to focus on.

But I think this is a backwards process for two reasons:

  1. I believe that formalized, calculated thinking is the wrong way to get answers to the question of what your goals in life should be. Intuition, experiment and play are much better tools for arriving at that answer.
  2. Asking another person for advice is almost guaranteed to produce bad results because you’ll expect them to give a rational response with justifications, thereby using the system I’ve already said is bad for this task. Second, this person has no access to your intuition, experiences and emotions which means it wouldn’t be possible for them to use it, even if they wanted to.

Asking someone what goals you should have is very likely to fail. Instead of getting a good answer, you’re much more likely to get some reflection of this person’s calculated rationale for why certain pursuits are good, and much less of the real reason they’re driven to pursue them.

Why Calculated Thinking Fails

I’m a big fan of careful, analytical thinking (perhaps too big a fan). I like thinking hard about the processes that go behind achieving a goal, being productive, learning better and establishing habits. That’s part of the reason I write this blog.

It may sound surprising that I don’t similarly apply that reason to the higher-level task of dreaming up goals, directions and high-level projects to pursue. But the truth is, I’ve always felt that this kind of analytical thinking often fails as you move away from concrete, well-defined situations.

One of the reasons for this failure is simply that we don’t yet have a really good understanding of rationality at this level, and perhaps it’s not possible to have such an understanding in the form of an algorithm that a person can execute deliberately. While rationality works well with constrained problems with clear goals, rules, scope and limits, it doesn’t work as well with vaguer problems.

Side note: This is one reason I’m skeptical of the idea that when we invent AI it will take over humanity. The standard worry that an AI might optimize the wrong things and turn the world into paperclips, seems wrong to me because that’s a symptom of a relatively unintelligent algorithm. We don’t really know what is required for high-level intelligence (which is why we haven’t made it yet) and so we also don’t really know what kinds of problems it will have when we build it.

Another good reason for skepticism about overly deliberate processes to goal selections is that this is an activity where human beings are incredibly self-deceptive about the basis of our motivations. We seem hardwired for this kind of deception as a kind of PR stunt of the brain—so that we can honestly tell our compatriots we’re motivated by high-minded activities, but we are really motivated by baser ones.

If this latter, pessimistic view of humanity is true, then a calculated process for figuring out which goals to pursue won’t merely fail because of the insufficiency of human rationality, but because we’ll end up maximizing the things we say we want instead of the things we actually want. Our intuition will, correctly, notice the discrepancy and sabotage our ability to pursue those goals.

How Should You Pick Goals Instead?

My process for picking goals and projects tends to be twofold. First—I use my intuition and imagination to come up with ideas. Then, I use a combination of further reflection on that intuition plus rationalizing to eliminate enough ideas until I’m left with about the number that I actually have the ability to pursue.

The first stage has no procedure. Just think of goals, projects and plans that excite you. It could mean getting in shape, becoming rich, learning French, traveling the world, making video games, starting a business or writing a book.

The key here is to be open and creative when you’re doing it. There seems to be some balance of enthusiasm and anxiety that exists in each of us. When the needle is pushed too far towards the latter, you block yourself before the ideas even get to be explored a little. It’s as if, even in the space of ideas, the stress of the consequences start to overwhelm you.

Once you have ideas, I don’t think you should act on them right away. Let them incubate and see if they grow or wither. If they grow, it probably means there’s something interesting worth pursuing there. If they start to fizzle out, they might not be robust enough to consider seriously.

After an idea has stuck with you (sometimes for months or years), you can probably say safely that it’s at least aligned with what you should be doing at a high level.

Armed with this information, you can now start vetting the idea. This is when you shift from enthusiasm over to analysis. You start breaking apart the idea. What would be required to complete that goal? Does it align with what I’m doing in life? Does it make sense?

I’m not saying you can never pursue goals purely based on whimsy alone, but I feel a solid idea should survive some onslaught from rational dissection. If, after reviewing all the places it can go wrong, you still feel like you want to do it, that’s also a good sign.

After you’ve gone through this process, you can now plan it out and execute it.

Why This Procedure Works

This procedure works because the difficult question of what kinds of projects should you be pursuing is not a question you can easily provide a rational answer for. By filtering it through a creative process, you’re much more likely to get an answer that meshes well with both your interests and the hidden motivations you aren’t entirely aware of.

On it’s own, however, this creative process can sometimes generate too many ideas, in too many directions. That’s why a somewhat more rational process of culling is useful. It helps you vet the ideas so you can scrap ones that don’t make any sense.

Interestingly, even though this tends to be a more deliberate process, I find that the ideas I end up pursuing often have a lot of “problems” with them as well, just that I’m interested in them enough to push through the problems. That, too me, seems like another process of intuitions where the vetting isn’t really adding information but simply testing you to see how compelling your goals really are.

I think it should also be clear, given this process, why you shouldn’t ask other people what goals you should pursue. The other person has no access to this system! So how could they even try to guess what your goals should be?

Fluency vs Mastery: Can You Be Fluent Without Being Good?

One of the things that surprised me the most during the year without English, was how quickly it became fairly easy and natural to live your life completely in a new language. In Spain, for instance, after a month of speaking only Spanish, it didn’t feel much more effortful than speaking English.

However, after just one month my Spanish was decidedly not good. Perhaps good for having studied only one month, but bad in an absolute sense. I didn’t know many basic words, I couldn’t understand movies, overhear conversations or read most books.

My perception before that experiment was that “Spanish feels easy” would roughly correlate with “I’m good at Spanish”. However, the two seemed to be fairly disconnected, as the feeling of easiness came much earlier than anything resembling true proficiency.

I find this phenomenon—that you can have ease without proficiency or vice versa—to be very interesting. Although languages is an obvious place to start, it seems to pop up in other areas too.

Can You Be Fluent Without Being Good?

A common definition of fluency is simply mastery of a language. If you say you’re fluent in X, that usually means you have a high degree of proficiency. This is the standard I typically use (and why I hesitate to claim I’m fluent in any language other than English). However, the word fluent itself shares a root with fluid and flowing—suggesting that an alternative definition of fluent could simply means general ease of speaking rather than native-level proficiency.

By this (admittedly non-standard) definition, my Spanish was fluent far before it was good. I could speak quickly and easily, without much hesitation or thinking for common topics. Of course, my lower level of skill in Spanish would quickly become apparent when pushed into novel situations, but for 95% of my day, that incompetence was invisible.

I compare this situation, fluent yet unmastered, with the much more common language learning situation—knowledgeable but disfluent. This happens when I see students who have studied a language for years, but have rarely exercised it in an immersive situation. On paper, their knowledge may be quite large, but they tend to fumble when they speak.

Fluency vs Mastery

Obviously in most cases fluency and mastery go together. However, it’s also clear that sometimes one can run ahead from the other depending on the learning approach used.

Fluency seems to be best seen as ease of processing. If you learn a vocabulary word one time, you may “know” it in some sense, but it is not easy to recall immediately. If you learn it five times, you may unequivocally “know” it, but still not say without hesitation. If you use it a hundred times, however, it’s probably very easy to use that word.

Mastery, again to the extent that it’s a separate phenomenon from fluency, could be described as the breadth of knowledge. Knowing a lot of words, even if your fluency with any particular word is low.

How do these fluent but unmastered or mastered but disfluent situations arise then?

My guess is that they come when a small minority of words or situations comprise a large proportion of the useful situations. In that situation, having a small vocabulary, but having mastered it very deeply will result in apparent fluency much of the time. Whereas having a large vocabulary, poorly mastered, will result in disfluency, but technically have broader functional coverage or usefulness.

Fluency/Mastery Distinction in Other Subjects

This isn’t restricted to language learning.

Programmers can have fluency/mastery discrepancies. I’ve met programmers that can quickly output simple programs to do things, but have a poor underlying knowledge of how the language works or the algorithms behind certain functions. I’ve also met programmers with extensive knowlege, but who are slow to write actual programs.

Of course, these differences tend to be exaggerated because mastery and fluency tend to go together. Broad knowledge correlates with deep knowledge, so finding extreme cases is difficult. Still, you can often quickly assess when someone is relatively more mastered or fluent compared to those with similar averaged skill.

Another might be art. Sketching seems to be an act of fluency more than doing an extremely accurate, time-consuming piece. In this sense, I feel like my drawing skill is more mastered than fluent.

You could see a fluency/mastery discrepancy in mathematics. Some people have broad knowledge of math, while others can quickly work the algebra or calculus, even if their knowledge is more limited.

Which is Better Fluency or Mastery?

Ultimately I think you want both fluency and mastery. Learning in general tends to improve both, so if you learn a lot you’ll probably become both fluent and masterful in a particular skill.

However the short term matters too. For some skills, focusing on a learning style that emphasizes fluency first will make it easier to get into later learning opportunities that can accelerate further learning. For others, mastery might be the way to go as a starting point.

For language learning, it seems clear to me that fluency is more important than mastery early on. Being highly proficient, even in a smaller box of environments, opens up avenues for further immersion better than having moderate proficiency across a larger range.

Programming too seems to benefit more early on with fluency than mastery. If you’re fluent, adding +1 to your skill is easy within the context of existing work and projects. If it’s mildly frustrating for you to do anything, then it might be harder to get started.

I can’t think of a specific situation where mastery-first makes more sense, but I suspect that’s just because I haven’t thought about this long enough yet.

How to Use This Distinction to Learn Better

My feeling is that this distinction should play into how you think about learning in two ways:

  1. Recognizing that certain learning activities will bias more towards fluency and others more towards mastery. I feel like book studying tends to lean towards mastery. Immersive use tends to lean towards fluency. In languages, I’d wager that reading/listening lean more towards mastery, conversations lean more towards fluency.
  2. Understand that a fluency/mastery discrepancy can at least partially explain why you can feel bad at something you’ve actually spent a long time learning, or (the rarer) feel like something is very easy even though you’re objectively quite bad.

What are you learning? Is there anything where you feel more fluent than mastered or vice versa?