Why do people run marathons? Completing a marathon has few outside benefits. Do marathon runners finish all twenty-six grueling miles just to boast about it later? Is it trying to achieve an Olympian status of physical excellence? Or is it a mark of status, giving you pride over your discipline and ability to conquer pain for a few hours.
I believe the real reason is challenge. It’s also something easy to miss when setting goals.
I’ve never been a fan of simply setting goals for external benefit. Sure you can get the big paycheck, the beautiful spouse or respect from your peers, but then what? The short twang of achievement is usually far more brief than the intense build up to it. And after you have everything you want you simply end up bored.
I think more people should set goals for the same reason some people run marathons. For the challenge of it. From this perspective everything you do becomes part of an interesting game.
Tuning Goals for Challenge, not Achievement
Most goals are tuned for your desires. You want to earn a six figure income so you strive to earn at least a hundred thousand dollars in a year. There will be challenge towards this goal, but that is a consequence not the objective. Depending on your skills and luck, the goal might be relatively easy or it might be impossibly hard.
Another way to tune goals is for a specific level of challenge. This is to take goals where the end result may be desirable or neutral, but that is a consequence not the objective. The real objective is to strive towards something challenging. A worthy opponent that requires your complete focus, but isn’t impossible to achieve.
Ideally a goal should satisfy both challenge and achievement. But by tuning for challenge, you start by seeking goals that could provide an interesting game. Rather than starting with a specific end result and working past the obstacles, you begin by marking out a challenge to overcome.
Reformat Your Day for More Challenge
The first way to use this approach to goal setting is on the little goals in your life. Instead of just trying to get things done, strive to find games in the things you do. Here are a couple ideas to start with:
- Exercise – Know your records and constantly strive to beat them. Try to run longer or faster. Lift a bit more weight. Do a few more reps. Anything to feel out the boundaries of what your body can do.
- Productivity – Strive to get a bit more done, be a bit more organized or efficient. You need to balance this with regular rest, but I believe it is better to oscillate between pushing too hard and recovering than to simply sit at the same level each day.
- Learning – It sounds a bit cliched to say “learn every day.” I don’t strive to learn, I prefer to consume. Learning needs to be a process more like feeding, where you strain yourself to absorb information then actively digest and sort it.
Reformat Your Life for More Challenge
I find daily challenges somewhat lacking. You can push yourself a bit harder every day, but that makes the game rather limited. Instead, I prefer big challenges, spanning months at a time. The difference in the challenge comes from complexity. A five-minute game can only have limited challenges. Tic-tac-toe easy grows boring because it is too simplistic. But a game that takes hours, months or years can have enough complexity to keep your mind engaged.
Since I started this blog a year an a half ago it has been an exciting game. Requiring me to learn marketing, writing, how ideas spread and how to network with other people there is an abundance of complexity to make it interesting.
My preliminary goals for the blog are only to reach a point where I could live off the income and therefore be able to devote more time to the game. Nearing that point now I believe my future goals will be entirely devoted to new challenges of which more income may only be a byproduct.
There are many other challenges I’ve taken up from retooling my habits, reading more books, learning different programming languages and practicing my public speaking skills. Rarely does the end result fully justify the effort required. Sure each of these steps made my life better, but the benefits are often disconnected from the actual work.
This is the real problem with self-help. Most of the self-help I’m seeing today falls into two basic camps: making you feel better about a crappy life or making your life a bit less crappy. The problem is that the perceived crappyness isn’t that important.
Getting Over the Existential Boredom
Not just feeling bored with an activity, but being bored with the basics of life. Conquering existential boredom is the purpose of finding challenging games. Not striving to achieve things, but striving for the sake of striving. Just because striving feels good.
Challenge has a negative connotation because it is usually externally enforced. Your parents want you to get good grades so you study hard. You go to work because you need the money. You exercise because you don’t want to be fat. External challenges are in some ways the opposite of internal ones. They don’t silence the boredom, they just replace it with oppression.
Picking Your Game
The answer is to pick your own challenge. Set a goal for yourself, not to fulfill the expectations of another person, not even for a reward at the finishing line, but just for the game. It will definitely be hard, and sometimes you might question why you did it in the first place. But as a whole, I don’t believe it is an experience you will regret.
You can tell you have picked a good game when it resonates with you internally. You almost lust after the challenge and you know it has the power to get you out of the bed in the morning. Here are some qualities you should look for when choosing a potential game:
- Unique – The challenge needs to resonate with your individuality. When I pick challenges I try to do things I don’t believe anyone has done before. Or if it has been done before, I try to add my own twist to personalize it.
- Concrete – Your game needs to have a defined status for winning and losing. Even if life is continuous, making each challenge discrete forces you to work with those constraints. Without strong rules the challenge loses meaning.
- Creative – The game should require more ingenuity than brute force. I always find a good game feels like the light coming into a dark room from a door slightly ajar. You can’t feel all the solutions that new challenge might contain, but you can see just a glimmer of them and you are curious to find more.
- Bold – Try taking on challenges that initially seem like they cannot be done. When I started this blog everyone around me (including myself) were certain that a 17 year-old kid couldn’t create a successful personal development blog. Playing games you have no right to think you will succeed is a good way to inject enthusiasm into your challenge.
- Beyond Your Skills – The ultimate measure of a good challenge is that you aren’t sure you can handle it. Once you build your skills to a certain point, challenges that once scared the hell out of you are manageable. Take time to pick games that give you an adrenaline rush and don’t settle for what you’ve already done before.
Why do people run marathons? Perhaps a better question is why aren’t you running a marathon? Not just a forty kilometer run, but your personal marathon. One that wakes you up with adrenaline every morning and throws you into bed with bone-aching fatigue each night.