Jan 092009

This is a question that comes up in various forms: “How do you select which goals to set?” The common response is lobbing another question back, “Well, what do you want?” This is an absolutely bullshit answer.

“Want” has so many meanings it has no real use anymore. It can be used to describe a passing preference between white shirts over light blue shirts or a really deep desire to save the life of a loved one. It can refer to a desire for an emotional hedonistic experience or for a deep spiritual connection. The feeling of desire can often be made stronger or changed, so its not exactly fixed. The situation is made worse when people say, “what do you REALLY want?” This question means that on a scale of 1-10, your desire has to be an 8 or 9 (a real burning desire) without regard to the fact that your desire can be stimulated.

So, I generally simply decide what I want. If I have a passing preference for one state or the other, I simply pick one, decide I want it and commit to it. This doesn’t work in all cases but it works often enough. If I find something better along the way, its usually not too hard to switch over to it (low switching cost). I’m more likely to find out what I like and I don’t like in motion, and its easier for me to change course along the way (often) than it is to stand still and try to figure out what I “really want” before I get started. Just set a goal and get moving! If you’ve to make a big decision like choosing a career, set smaller goals like job shadowing two or three people in the fields you’re considering, or just taking them out to lunch.

Another way to choose goals is to pick goals that if someone came up to you and said they had done it would impress you. I’d recommend more “doing” or “being” goals rather than having goals. Such as, someone with an Aston Martin is impressive but if you’re genuinely impressed by someone who’s written a book or who can speak three languages.

Yet another way is to choose goals based on how they make you feel in the present moment, as Steve Pavlina recommends. He suggests setting hairy, audacious goals that really challenge you and push you to your limits. The goal is personal growth, after all. They have to make you feel absolutely excited, just as Tim Ferriss puts it. Remember, you can choose to look at failing in that situation in two ways: either you weren’t good enough, or that you’ve learned your limits and you can work on improving your limits.

Sometimes I’ve caught myself spending way too long in a state of analysis paralysis, trying to figure out what I “want” more, or what I want exactly. But if you wait too long to decide, you often don’t get anything at all, or your time to enjoy it has lessened. Have fun!

Main Points:

  • Sometimes you can just decide what you “want” and commit to it.
  • Pick goals that impress you in some way, or would impress you if someone else told you they’d done it.
  • Pick goals that cause you to feel excited right now. They push you and challenge and are right at the edge of your abilities/imagination. If you fail, you’ve learned about a limit of yours and you can improve it.
  • Stop sitting around trying to figure out “what you want”. You can figure out what you want and adjust course along the way.
Nov 182008

There’s fascinating data out there suggesting that you don’t actually have most of the emotions you feel you do. You have a response in your body and later call that response an emotion. This is called the Singer-Schachter theory of emotion. I’ve written about an experiment about it here. In the same blog entry, I talked about Tim Ferriss‘ reattribution of certain physiological states. In my memory, there’s two he does, the first is about eustress (positive stress that helps you grow) vs distress (negative stress that weakens you), and the second is when he’s fidgety before a big dance competition. Most people would look at his behaviour think about how we’d be feeling in that situation and say that he’s nervous, but he asserts that he’s not nervous, he’s excited. And he’s perfectly right, because if I recall correctly both nervousness and excitement feel the same way, but I’ve been trained to act, think and feel a certain way about each that’s very different. If I attribute my physiological state to nervousness, I’m supposed to be worried, however if I attribute it to excitement, I’m suppose to be happy and at my best.

Steve Pavlina recently did the same sort of thing in a recent blog entry called Fanatical About Growth. He wrote:

The goals that interest me most are the ones that cause me to say to myself, “Wow… I’m really not sure if I’m cut out for this. This looks pretty damned tough. I’m going to have to push myself to a whole new level in order to make it to the end. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this off.”

But then I think to myself, “What if I fail? No big deal. At least I’ll know where my limits are. But what if I succeed? How awesome would that be? I’d gain an incredible new reference experience for the rest of my life. I’d have an amazing experience to share with others. And what new challenges might I tackle beyond this one?” That’s the kind of thinking that excites me.

I find this interesting because if I was in the same position, I’d have very different self-talk. It would be more along the lines of, “What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not good enough? I’m not sure I can handle that.” Notice, oddly enough, my self-talk isn’t specific, it’s universal about all of me rather than, say my level of self-discipline, and it doesn’t include anything about being able to improve things, as if failing this once means that’s the end of the game and that’s only as good as I can ever be. That’s the epitome of taking it personally. Additionally, I wanted to point out that I asked “what if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not good enough?” while Pavlina said “I’ll know where my limits are.”

According to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, at the bottom of every one of your fears is that you can’t handle what life throws at you, or what you throw at yourself. In the above example, Steve Pavlina has turned a physiological state of arousal into an exciting challenge. I might have seen it as a fear of the unknown, but he sees it as excitement and discovering and mapping out new territory.

I’ve been exposed to a new theory of what emotions might be. They may be a way to size up a situation or a problem quickly, formulate the problem and then try to solve it. However, you can obviously size up things differently and your emotional gut reaction might be different from the one that you might choose consciously. So, I suggest you question your initial gut assumptions and sizing up of a situation, perhaps you will find that what you interpret as a fear or failure or a fear of the unknown into excitement over discovery or exploring new territory, knowing that as you explore, the territory actually grows bigger and there’s more to explore.

What I want to emphasize with all of this is that your emotions are not just your emotions and they’re not all-knowing and always “right”, you can have some conscious control over them. You can see things not as fear inducing, but as exciting, and they’re both “right”. I would choose exciting because that is simply more empowering for me. I hope this helps, and I’d really appreciate your thoughts in the comments to let me know someone’s reading. :-p