Focus on Goals not Skills

Not all motion is progress

all mPhoto by Ethan Hoover on Unsplash

We all want to achieve something in our lives.

Once we are able to maintain the basics of food, shelter, etc our natural human condition drives us to seek more.

What that means is different for each one of us but is likely some combination of personal goals, career goals, and external goals for our family, friends, and society.

The trouble is that while we often don’t have a clear idea of what we “really want” we also know that what we are currently doing is not it. We wake up in the morning and go through a routine but don’t really derive any real satisfaction from our day to day activities.

The thing that makes this need for fulfillment more difficult to satisfy than our basic survival drives is that we don’t have to motivate ourselves for the latter.

Our animal instincts drive us to eat, sleep, etc. Once our hindbrain accepts that our survival is no longer in doubt, these core animal drives no longer need to be engaged.

The simmering sense of dissatisfaction with our lack of a higher goal doesn’t carry with it the same clarity of purpose.

In fact, unlike basic survival goals, the lack of these larger goals is actually demotivational. When you’re hungry, you will do what it takes to eat because your organism fears death.

But when you lack a meaningful goal, it’s actually more difficult to get motivated because we have all been conditioned to treat wasting our time as the worst sin. We are constantly told that doing something that you are not “passionate” about is the road to despair.

Add to this is the fact that to a large extent doing what we really want is inherently intimidating. Screwing up something we don’t care about is no big deal but really wanting something and failing at it could be devastating.

As a result we do nothing in fear of doing the wrong thing, the thing that is not our true passion. Simply coasting through your day not doing anything real at all feels like the lesser evil

However despite this resistance sometimes that pressure to fill the vacuum builds up, we must do something. One way we square that circle is to focus on building our skills. After all, surely that is something meaningful? Getting better at doing something?

Not necessarily. We focus on tactical improvements like learning a new language or building our skills in technology or business but without really tying those skills to a why. Why are we doing it? Learning another language or knowing how to code keeps us an immediate sense of achievement but is it really helping with the larger sense of satisfaction we crave?

While we may have some goal we are working towards, sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that we are making progress when we focus on developing skills without a bigger goal behind them.

But being skilled at something that you ultimately don’t care about is useless. Getting better at something or learning new things is definitely learning and growing but it is only progress if it gets us towards a goal that is meaningful to us.

Sure, when we don’t exactly know what the goal is, then that is itself the goal, to define our goals. And investigating an arbitrary new skill is a good way to experiment to find out what we like.

The trouble is that it’s easy to mistake motion for progress. The difference between the two is direction.

We eat, we sleep, we breathe, we walk around doing things. We do a lot of things but that is not the same thing as making progress.

Progress requires an end state, something that we are moving towards. It is defined by that end state. Progress is not defined by our actions but by our goals.

If we are in Chicago and want to go to San Diego then driving towards Denver is making progress but driving towards Boston is not. Both are motion and require energy and attention but only one path gets us closer to our goal.

Any particular action is either useless or not depending on what we ultimately want to do.

What makes a goal meaningful is how much it resonates with your core drivers. This doesn’t need to be something dramatic. Being happy and healthy is plenty enough of a goal but then that means that you have to really analyze how much of what you are currently doing is leading to happiness and health.

If you are building your skills to advance at a job you hate, that is not necessarily a good focus of your energies. However if part of your definition of happiness is that you are financially stable then maybe taking on more responsibility and building your skills in your job is a necessary part of that.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a happy everyday person nor with aiming for fame and glory. All that matters is doing what you really want to do, not what you are told you should do.

The key factor is conscious choice.

If you really like to sculpt but you have a family that you need to support then maybe your goal of avoiding the unhappiness of your family not being financially stable is worth more to you than the goal of being a master sculptor. It’s your choice.

And its not a black and white kind choice but rather a matter of priority, if you like to sculpt, maybe you still do that in your off time rather than going down a youtube rabbit hole watching videos of puppies. But no matter what, you need to be aware of why you are truly doing something and what you are truly after in doing it.

This means you need to spend as much time getting to know yourself as you do in finding something to do. You have to develop self-awareness to decide what your true motivations are. It doesn’t matter if those motivations are not noble or grand.

In fact, it matters less why you want something than it does that you are honest with yourself about what you want. That honesty will most often be enough for you to realize that the skills you are focusing on really aren’t solving the problem of progress.

So the answer to what do you want to do with your life is to not force our goals to be dramatic, to not distract ourselves by developing skills without some thought as to why, and to develop the self-awareness to know what our true goals and the courage to own them. — Sentience > Intelligence — Being effective, ie getting the results you want, depends on clear thinking rather than brains.

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