Don’t Know What You Want?


Bunker Hunt supposedly had a two-step policy for success:

  1. Figure out what you want, and the price you’ll have to pay to get it.
  2. Resolve to pay that price.

I guess his philosophy is a bit more nuanced in implementation, but taps on a common theme in life-advice, that the first step to achieving anything is to figure out that you want it. To quote Zig Ziglar, “How can you hit a target you don’t even have?”

I don’t follow this approach. I think short-term goal-setting is probably a good idea. But applying Hunt’s two-step policy to the broader questions of life creates problems. There’s a better method, one where you can get more of what you want from life—even if you don’t know what that is yet.

The Problem with a Two-Step Policy

There are two major flaws in Hunt’s two-step success philosophy:

First, for the people who can’t pinpoint what they want, there is anxiety and depression. After all, how can you resolve to pay the price when you don’t know what you’re buying into yet?

Second, even if you can decide, there’s a good chance you’ll get it wrong. Our decisions, and even our imagination, about what we want from life are necessarily constrained by our experiences. I had zero interest in entrepreneurship before I stumbled across articles written online business owners.

This second problem is made worse by competition or the failed-simulation effect. Competition tends to weaken the most obvious opportunities, so bold commitment to an initial desire is typically worse than flexible commitment to a range of possibilities. The failed-simulation effect creates problems because the biggest accomplishments are often the ones impossible to imagine in advance, making Hunt’s formula useless.

If you can’t decide what you want, you’re stressed. If you can decide, it’s probably not the right choice, anyways. Is there a better alternative?

An Alternative to Goal-Setting

The way goal-setting is typically presented is as a dichotomy: either you set goals and go after what you want, or you wander around aimlessly.

But this isn’t really the truth. Even if you aren’t sure what you want specifically, you know some activities will bring you closer to what you want generally. Improving my writing skills, for example, will lead to more opportunities than improving my video game skills.

The alternative to Hunt’s ruthless dedication is to pursue the activities that will make achieving any goal easier. Brad Bollenbach calls this bottom-up growth, which isn’t motivated by a mission from the top, but the deeper desire to improve generally.

A focus on growth means trying to invest in skills, habits and experiences that will pay out in a wide range of future possibilities. With a purpose, every action is a step to some eventual goal. With growth, the focus is on investing to give yourself better and better opportunities.

Routine, Adventure and Standing on the Edge of Incompetence

The key to a growth mindset is to try to maximize the time you spend either:

  • Getting better at something you know
  • Learning more about things you don’t

Another way of looking at these two types of investment is vertical (building) or lateral (exploring) growth. Any job, task or project that allows you to grow in one of these ways will expand your opportunities in the future. Lateral growth makes you aware of more opportunities and vertical growth makes you more successful when you undertake them.

Of course, as a default, most of our tasks don’t fulfil either one of these goals. The natural human tendency is toward routine. It takes a deliberate effort to shift towards that edge of incompetence.

Resolve to Sacrifice Less

The need for personal sacrifice to reach your dreams is so engrained that Hunt made it the entire second half of his advice. Resolving to pay any price is a common thread in our culture’s attitude towards achievement. So much so that it’s believed anyone who is wealthy, athletic or accomplished must have sacrificed the best parts of their lives.

There’s a different attitude when you’re building your life from the bottom-up. Pursuits are no longer just prices to be paid, but have intrinsic value as well.

Yes, hard work and discipline will always be required. But there’s a key difference between the discomfort from standing on the edge of your abilities, to the pain of giving up your life to reach some goal, sometime in the future.

Building Life From the Bottom Up

The problem facing us today isn’t the lack of choice, but the excess of choice. Where to live, what to work on and who to be confront us every day. With infinite choice, figuring out what you want specifically can make you crazy.

The good news is you don’t need to follow the two-step policy often suggested by society. You can take steps to improve from the bottom up. The surprising truth is that approach often leads to getting more of what you want anyways.

Edit Nov. 20, 2010 — If you like this idea, you’ll like Paul Graham’s article, What You’ll Wish You’d Known. “[S]peakers all over the country fire up the Standard Graduation Speech, the theme of which is: don’t give up on your dreams. I know what they mean, but this is a bad way to put it, because it implies you’re supposed to be bound by some plan you made early on. … These speakers would do better to say simply, don’t give up.”

Image by combust

  • Stanley Lee


    Sacrifices are very short-sighted. Part of the problem is society rewarding sacrifices in the past (in the form of our parents making sacrifices for their kids to have better chances of succeeding in life than they did, having experienced poverty). Society pressures us to reciprocate the sacrifices (doing otherwise is labeled as selfish), where the fact of no one taking care of you but yourself is shoved under the rug. Sacrificing less is a sound strategy, b/c it’s often not worth the act (considering the non-renewable resources you’re expending), especially if you don’t know what you want or setting the wrong goals (dictated by outside pressure) most of the time. We need more truthtelling like this post to debust the doublespeak going on in the media.


  • Stanley Lee

    The doublespeak link is here

  • Matt

    I enjoyed this post. Could you expand on what you mean by ‘building life by the bottom up’? I know what I would mean by that, but I’m curious as to how you see it.

  • Scott Young


    As I said in the article, I feel it’s a combination of vertical and lateral growth. More specifically it could be a lot of things in a lot of situations. It’s more a process of deciding what to do based on how that activity expands you instead of just how it fits into the big picture of a long-term plan.


  • Ryan Niessen

    Great post! You communicate your points very proficiently, and you have much wisdom for your age!

    I’ve never heard of this bottom-up growth and Brad Bollenbach, but I find it to be an interesting discussion. I’ve learned about many forms of goal setting, none of which have perfectly served me.

    I’m also in my fourth year of university; its great to see someone else my age as passionate about lifestyle design, motivation, and business as me! I look forward to following you further!

  • Cal


    I really enjoy this topic, and like the way you emphasize the importance of both vertical and lateral growth. A related perspective on these issues is that you have to gain some altitude (i.e., vertical growth in a field) before you’re explorations will turn up much interesting (i.e., lateral growth). The analogy being, you have to get to high ground before you can sight interesting opportunities off in the distance.

    Put more concretely, interesting opportunities are valuable. To earn them, you need something valuable to exchange in return, which, in the marketplace of talent, is almost always a skill in something useful.

    One of the reasons I like this post is that tension between vertical and lateral is subtle and tricky to balance just right. It’s great to see it explicitly defined.

    – Cal

  • Al fred Hung

    my first time to see the top-down vs bottom-up approach applied in such context……

    very original concept……

  • Andrew Ramirez

    Scott, this is such a great post. I’ve spent the last few year beating myself up because I can’t find that one thing that I really, really want.

    After reading your post, I now feel much better of the road I’ve been down. I look from the bottom up and see that I have developed new skills and talents along the way that will benefit me when I do find the thing.

    It is such a great realization to actually for once give myself some credit. You made it clear! Thanks!


    By the way, have you ever thought of putting a “Facebook Like” button or something along those line? I am going to share this post and I though it might be easy for your readers just to “click and done”.

    I know you said a while ago that you only wanted Facebook for your friends and stuff, but I think a Like is a little different than friending. Just a thought.

  • Scott Young


    I agree, I should have a “Like” button somewhere. Despite being a Gen-Y-er I’m painfully slow on the following of new marketing innovations.


    Agreed. Finding the balance between vertical and lateral is a completely different issue, in this article I was mostly commenting that both are necessary and preferable over the majority of “zero-growth” activities we engage in.


  • Simon

    This post reminds me of something that Paul Graham wrote in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” (… ), a speech written for high school students (that was ultimately rejected). He says to “Stay Upwind,” which essentially means instead of identifying a goal 10 years into the future and working backwards from there, you should instead work forward from promising situations. For example:

    “Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.”

    Similar advice is in Cal’s recent Ira Glass post too.

  • A.H.A.

    Very cool post. I name this approach “goal-stumbling” 🙂

  • Scott Young

    Simon–excellent link, I’m going to add it to the post!

  • Kirsten

    Great post! I’ve approached a similar concept by saying that my intent is to enjoy what I do instead of worrying that I could be getting more enjoyment. Goals and sacrifice certainly have their place, but if you don’t have a clear idea of the goal, going after it does you more harm than good.

    I’m new to your blog, but I’ll be sticking around. You got me with the post title “The Goal of Learning Everything.” 😀