Do you think it is easy writing all these thoughts for this blog/email? It’s a strange experience for me. The writing is really easy—I’m just tapping some little keys and moving a few ones-and-zeros—and my brain has never not been full of thoughts and questions. The writing is really hard—for over a decade I’ve been crafting digital output in various forms for this site, using various systems and routines but it’s an endless task.
So what [is it]? What determines success? Hard work or good fortune? Effort or randomness? I think we all understand both factors play a role, but I’d like to give you a better answer than “It depends.”
~ James Clear from, https://jamesclear.com/luck-vs-hard-work
The odd thing is that whether I think the writing and all the web site work is hard or easy depends on what I think I am trying to accomplish. To be widely read? …to generate income? …to help others? …to write a certain amount, or for “the most years”? —yikes, this is extremely difficult and arduous work. If my goal is a bunch of stuff over which I have no control, ouch.
On the other hand, when I manage to write because I enjoy fiddling with technology, because I’m curious and love to see/hear others be curious, because thinking and writing and thinking more lead me to clarity and insight… well suddenly it seems so easy.
Why is it so difficult to make choices that we know will be best for us in the long run?
~ Peter Attia from, https://peterattiamd.com/hyperbolic-discounting-friend-and-foe-of-goal-achievement/
Sorry for the titular word play. This should be read foremost to understand exponential versus hyperbolic decay, and then to understand how to get your future self to do what your current self wishes. Attia explains it in the context of imagining future rewards. It turns out that using one (to assess the value of future rewards) makes actual sense, and the other turns out to be how our brains work (because: survival drove evolution).
Snoring? No really, go read it. Because if you understand the two methods you can hack yourself by setting up your goals to play into your mind’s predilection to make the wrong value calculation. In effect, rather than set things up the way that makes sense which frequently leads to failure thanks to our brains, we set things up in a more complicated way to fake ourselves into getting where we want to go.
The end for self-discipline is personal improvement; the end for discipline lies beyond the self. This distinction helps explain why individuals can be incredibly self-disciplined and yet see very little external achievement as a result. Sure, they never miss a day writing in their journal and never lose their temper, but those displays of self-mastery don’t automatically lead to outward success.
~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/are-you-disciplined-or-just-self-disciplined/
There are lots of ways to talk about this distinction; the particular way described by McKay comes from an author he’s interviewed. I’d never thought about is as “discipline” versus “self-discipline.” I’d always thought of discipline as a thing, and then the “self-” prefix in “self-discipline” means that thing done to myself. And I’m not going to change how I use the words, “discipline,” and “self-discipline.” I see why they’re using “discipline” and “self-discipline.” I think I’d prefer to use, “inward-directed,” and, “outward-directed,” discipline. Everything I do to myself is self-discipline, but when my goal is to change myself, then it’s “inward-directed,” and when my goal is to change the world, then it’s “outward-directed.”
But the point of the distinction is very interesting. Do I actually have goals which are the, “why?” behind my self-discipline? Are those goals an appropriate mixture of inward- and outward-directed?
I read and hear a lot about how excessive “screen time” is bad. But there’s a distinction that has to be made: Is the “screen time” tool-use to accomplish something meaningful? …because tool-use is not bad for you. We don’t begrudge the time a mechanic spends wielding his tools; we call that “working.”
Today I spent nearly every waking minute in front of one of four different computer screens. For reasons of sanity and physical health, sometimes I was sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes indoors and outdoors for long stretches too. I also take intentional “vision breaks” to allow my eye muscles to relax—literally relax to infinite focusing distance, which they would otherwise never do facing a screen, or anywhere indoors.
What did I do? I did an enormous number of things. Here are a few examples from today: I submitted a presenter application for an in-person event in September. I worked on my presentation notes for a different, in-person event in 2 weeks. I researched and experimented with exporting the contents of a WordPress site, and then read and interpreted the massive data which was output, to verify that I could later write a program to parse it. I then planned out the work needed to disassemble the project, of which that WordPress site is but one piece. I estimate I spent three hours reading text articles I’d previously queued up to read later. I helped a member of a community sort out a problem they were having.
I, truly, don’t know about you. I however, am an excellent mechanic, with the finest tools, and there remain far more things worth doing than I can ever get done. My problem is not, “screen time.”
Understanding an entity’s metabolism is fundamental to understanding its role within an ecosystem of competing entities and the selective pressures it is under. An entity with a successful metabolism survives and grows; one that fails in its metabolism is eliminated. Over time, through natural selection, an ecosystem becomes dominated by the entities with successful metabolism. Different entities can have different designs and make different choices, but the laws of nature decide which of them thrive.
~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/organizational-metabolism-and-the-for-profit-advantage
There’s good and evil, and moral and immoral. There are associations [in the most general sense of the word] of people working in a myriad of structures, trying to achieve many different goals which are good, evil, moral, and immoral. The first thing I had to get straight in my head was that the variety of the association doesn’t tell me anything about the goals, or the morals, of the people. Because it’s those people that matter.
People can use, or abuse, any structure. (Just like they can any tool. A structure of association isn’t magical; It’s a tool.) So what is the difference between “non-profit” and “for-profit”? …which tool is better at enabling people to work towards their goals?
It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.
~ Chuck Palahniuk
I continue to practice shifting my perspective. Instead of “pain” and “pleasure” though, I struggle with “failure” and “success.” The danger of setting clear goals, is that it’s equally clear whether or not they are achieved. Not reaching a goal is clear, and real. And to pretend otherwise is foolish.
The trap is that I forget that each goal contains a degree of arbitrariness. Success (reach the goal) and failure (not reach the goal.) Do not admit of shades of grey. But I systematically make the error of moving those adjectives onto my own self-assessment. Did I reach that goal? No. Then: I’m a failure.
A friend of mine once said that it takes a special person to be able to set a goal they cannot achieve. The cleverness—in my opinion—in there is that to be that special person, you have to set a goal that you believe you can achieve… and then discover your belief was wrong. I had a belief—some piece of a model of reality, a map of a territory, a piece of knowledge—and I’ve now realized, as I fail to reach a goal, that I was wrong. That’s literally learning.
…so really, every time I fall short on a goal, I’m literally learning and getting better. Every time I set a goal and “succeed,” not so much.
In fact, some of the best advice comes in the form of clichés. Be yourself. Seize the day. Fake it till you make it. Despite how trite these phrases sound now, they are still deep, paradigm-shifting insights about being human. They’ve undoubtedly changed countless lives, which is how they became trite. Precisely because these principles have been discovered and expressed many times, in many contexts, they’ve become too general and too familiar to revolutionize how someone does something.
~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2021/11/advice-gets-good-when-it-gets-specific/
Everyone knows by now that the ‘S’ in SMART goals stands for “specific.” I completely agree with Cain. My experience has been that magic happens if I can—when appropriate, when asked—give both the generic cliché and a specific example. For example, “Fake it ’til you make it. People can detect confidence. So work to overcome your nervousness and self-doubt by keeping your communication as simple as possible. Simplify until you have clear, simple statements and clear, simple requests.”
Nothing will change your future trajectory like your habits.
~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2017/06/habits-vs-goals/
This article is a great overview. It’s basically the article I wish I could have written… or at least one that I could have found decades ago.
I don’t think that anymore. Those fantasies are silly really. As the character Judge Smails played by Ted Knight in Caddyshack so aptly put it, “The world needs ditch diggers too.” … Accepting the fact that you are a contributor to a larger community as opposed to being a Demi-God uberman is not just humbling…it’s a huge relief.
~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2014/10/old-dog-new-tricks-2/
But my biggest challenge is the closely-related problem of continuously thinking about all the things I “should” do. Where, “should,” is a self-evaluated judgement that arises from my thinking about all the things I could do. …and HFS I could do all sorts of things.
Having happily set down all the Big Picture “shoulds,” I’m currently trying to pick off all the true “shoulds.” I’ve learned to stop looking to the stars, and to instead set my sights on the next hilltop. I should put the finishing touches on the garden we built last year. I should get that tree trimmed professionally so it’s good for another 10 years. …those aren’t so bad. But some: I should finish going through all this photography. I should find a home for this pool table. …I’ve been trying to get done for like 10 years.
Overall, there’s a pretty big list, but importantly, the list has not been growing in recent years. On the other hand, it weighs on my mind none the less.
A distinction I’ve been making in recent years:
A goal is something specific. It will be clear when the goal is achieved. For me, goals should always be the classic specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time dependent, sort of SMART goals.
An aspiration is something directional. It will be clear when progress is made in the direction dictated by the aspiration.
The more goals I set, the worse my life becomes. I set great goals… big challenging, self-stretching goals. They pile on like dead weight and drag me down. Lose 10 pounds. Read an hour a day. …and so on.
Aspirations, being open-ended, don’t feel so daunting. Provided the aspirations lead to actual action, then I don’t need to worry about tomorrow. I can simply do the things—today, now—which are guided by my aspirations. Be someone who moves. Be exposed to lots of fresh ideas. Be someone who helps others. Be someone who creates value. Be someone whose mind works well.
What aspirations do you have?