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:
- 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.
- 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?