- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

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 [1] or the failed-simulation effect [2]. 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 [3], 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:

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 [4].

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 [5].

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 [6]. “[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 [7]