Last week I wrote two articles about measuring  and building your persistence levels . I started on the idea that your level of persistence is your ability to keep going without any positive feedback. Ideally, your persistence would be unlimited, and you wouldn’t quit, even in the face of a complete lack of reinforcement.
While more persistence is generally a good thing, I’ve found that there are pursuits which work best with a complete lack of commitment. And in these cases, going in with the mindset of unfailing persistence can actually be dangerous.
Separating Your Experiments From Goals
I try to be completely uncommitted when trying new things. If I want to start visiting an art gallery, pick up a hobby or read a few books on a new subject, I don’t go with the goal of committing my entire life to it. I’ve cycled through many minor interests and I think that cycling is important, if you hold back on trying new things until you’re 100% committed, you’ll miss out on opportunities.
I like to separate pursuits into two broader categories: experiments and goals. Experiments are the activities you take with almost zero commitment. The very idea of an experiment suggests that you aren’t sure about the outcome. Last week I started a martial arts class. At this point, I’m focused only on trying the new experience, I haven’t already planned out a thirty year commitment to get my black belt and start up a dojo.
Goals, are beyond the stage of experimenting. This is when you’ve had enough experience in an area that you want to accomplish something important within it. Once you reach this point, you need to flip mindsets and build your persistence towards the goal.
At this point, I’m sure I haven’t introduced anything new. The question I’d like to ask is, when does an experiment turn into a goal? How do you know which perspective to use? Most importantly, how do you know when you have too many experiments and too few goals, or too many goals and too little experimentation?
Lateral and Vertical Growth
An idea I’ve referred to frequently on this blog is vertical and lateral growth. These are two distinct directions of self-improvement, but both are important. Vertical growth is about discipline, focus and goal-setting. Lateral growth is about curiosity, learning and experimenting.
If all of your energy is invested in vertical growth, you may become extremely good at a few things. However, you may lose opportunities because of your relentless focus. In the book, Goal Free Living , Steven Shapiro mentions a study where participants were asked to watch a video of a game and to keep track of the score. Because of their extreme focus on the task, not one of the participants noticed that midway through the video a man in a giant gorilla costume walked into the screen.
Complete vertical growth may help you keep track of the score, but you may inadvertently miss the giant gorillas that walk around.
Total lateral growth also has its downside. You may not invest enough in one pursuit to become great at anything. As a result, you become a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.
Experimenting can be seen as improvement in the lateral direction. More experiments with less commitment means you’re more open to try new things. If you’ve only tried 10 pursuits, you’ll have a lot less knowledge about what you truly want to do with your life than if you’ve experimented with 1000.
Goal-setting is acting in the vertical direction. By having unrelenting focus on one pursuit, you can become far better than if your energy is spread haphazardly over a dozen different goals.
Experiment to Get a Feel for Process, Set Goals to Get Results
The question is, where do you draw the line? If experiments are useful with nearly zero commitment and goals are best with total commitment, how do you decide? The answer isn’t to split the middle and do everything with a half-commitment. This way you won’t stay fixed to your goals and you’ll become too narrow in your experiments.
I think the decision to experiment or set goals depends on the purpose behind it. Experiments are good for getting a feel for the process. They can give you hints about whether you might develop a passion for something. They can also open you up to new ideas that you may want to use in other areas.
Goals are best for getting results. Although I dabble in some things, this website hasn’t been the result of dabbling. I’ve committed over two years and nearly 600 articles of work to building it. If you add up the total content, it would equal a few average-sized books. The website still has a long way to go, but I’ve been very happy with the results this far.
If your purpose is to get more information, or to get a feel for the process, start with an experiment. If your purpose is to achieve something meaningful, set goals and commit yourself to them.
Interests That Become Commitments
The purpose of an experiment is to gather information. At some point, you’ll have most the information you can get. It’s at this point you need to decide whether you want to set goals and focus on that area, or whether you want to leave and try something else.
Be careful about getting caught in the middle-zone. This is an area which is no longer an experiment, but you don’t have the focus and commitment to achieve anything meaningful. Lots of activities in this middle-zone means your wasting a lot of your energy that could be better spent achieving something important or finding new opportunities.
One reason I like the 30 Day Trial method is that it makes this deciding point easy to recognize. After a month of experimenting with a new idea, you’re forced to decide whether you will continue or leave it entirely. This could be something simple as starting a habit to exercise, or something broader like a new hobby.
I tend to be fairly limiting on what interests make the way to complete commitments. Focus is a scarce resource, so having ten big goals often means you accomplish less than having just one. Some of the criteria I use to decide what makes the cut:
- Payoff in other areas of life. Can the pursuit become a career? Will it help my relationships? Will it improve my health? Will it benefit any other skills?
- Fit with long-term vision. I’ve mentioned previously my goal to live a digital life . Working on this online business meshes well with that vision. Practicing my painting skills might be fun, but it doesn’t fit into the bigger picture.
- Intense passion. If I’m incredibly motivated by an area of life, that in itself can be a good reason to pursue it. Passion isn’t easy to manufacture so I take advantage of areas of life that fuel me.
Mistake: Experimenting to Find Results
One mistake I think you can make, is running a short experiment and using that to judge the results of a new pursuit. Blogging for three months won’t tell you anything about whether you can make it as a successful blogger. After three months, I hadn’t made a single penny and had only a few hundred readers.
Experiments can give you information like:
- Am I passionate about this?
- Does this activity fit into the lifestyle I want to create?
- Is there room for growth if I continue to work at it?
- What are ideas I could take from this field and apply elsewhere?
But they can’t normally tell you whether you will be successful. Statisticians know not to use small sample sizes when making predictions. When n = 3 weeks, you don’t have enough information to see the entire picture.
I think if you separate your experiments from goals you can overcome this problem. Rather than seeing the two as being on a continuum from zero to total commitment, look at them as two separate categories. Experiments to find out more about yourself and the world. Goals to get things accomplished.