The goal setting pradigm: between an unknown future and biased past

In the “professional development” and “self-hep” world, you often get pounded by how important it is for you to think strategically, be goal focused and prioritize according to these goals in order to push yourself to grow. I’ve been cheering for that camp for years; (although I’ve always struggled with how irrational the sunk cost fallacy sounded to people which I’ll explain later). Lately, noticing the frustration that comes with not achieving goals, I’ve been thought-experimenting with this idea of why do we set goals at first place ?

How can an individual (let’s name him Marc) Marc(t) make predictions based on the experiences of Marc(t-1) for Marc(t+1) ? Although Marc is still the same individual, in the context of time, they are two distinct people.

The blisscurse of the past:
Since the day you are born, you’ve cumulated experiences of failures and successes, feelings of joy and sorrow that make up most of your personality today. This is all basic psychology rules.

Marc(t) = Sum of ( Marc (i), from i=birth, to i=t ) [I]

This cumulative aspect of plays a huge role in biasing our goal setting process in two different aspects.

Remember the first day you touched a hot kettle when your mom kept telling you not to do so ? That’s the day after which you started developing this caution toward anything hot. Remember when you accidentally sent out the wrong email to the wrong people (just happened to me) ? That’s the day after which you swore to double check your sent tab in your email. We’re all conditioned in a way or another by our past. While that’s the reason why you may be still alive, healthy and not in jail your past can spread out a invisble fog made up of all the fears, risk mitigation aspects, people’s previous warnings, all making your decisions very subjective and biased. While some can really tune into their intuition and inner wisdom and really listen to their calling and figure out what to do next, that takes a long time of practice and is not the case for most people.

Sunk cost fallacy …
The day I heard Peter Attia talk about it, I was like “well there’s a word for such a thing”. Peter is a well rounded MD and one of the most interesting people that exist nowadays. He’s now one of the most famous people in the fields of preventive medicine, performance and longetivity. When he first decided to go to college, he wanted to specilize in aerospace engineering and enderwent a program where he studied mechanical engineering and applied mathematics to do a PhD in aerospace with an emphasis on control theory. By his senior year, he felt a nagging need to to something completely different with his life despite having a lot of scholorships to the best Phds in the US. After a lot of soul searching, he decided to pursue medicine at Stanford university. He then became a resident general surgeon at John Hopkins Hospital and conducted oncology research. Ten years later, he made another sesmic career shift, left medicine and joined a consulting firm to do modeling credit risk analysis. Now, he left it all behind to completely focus on practicing predictive medicine and longetivity science.

Peter was able to internalized what we call the sunk cost fallacy. People in his life have tried to convince him of not making such irrational decisions. The actual irrational rational is based on the emotional attachement one develops towards the investments they put into something/someone overtime. We tend to most likely stick to something if we’ve spent a long time doing it. “You’ve spent X years studying Y, you cannot just leave and do Z”. Similarly in relationship, people tend to stay at them regardless of how toxic they are simply because they’ve been in it for so long. Let’s flip this around.

Isn’t the remaining years of your life worth doing something you truely enjoy rather than sacrifcing them to make the X years investment worthwhile ? Why do we feel the need to carry one doing something when we’ve been doing for so long ? It never made sence to me.

Can you really predict the future ?

Going back to Marc.

We all know Marc(t) but have no idea about Marc(t+1). why would we make assumptions on the future of Marc(t) based on non fixed variables if those are most likely prone to change ? The whole idea of starting with the end in mind, as sexy as it sounds, looks like a big speculation we have to make about ourself. Do we really know ourselves ? Do we really know how we’re going to evolve? If our preferences will change ? if our interests will change? People who are talented at goal setting are real clairvoyants.

Jim Coudal said :
“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them. ”

We all enjoy the uneasy comfort of having a goal in mind and something to work towards. it’s an innate part of our being to have something to look forward to,it gives us meaning and a sense of fulfillment necessary to our well-being. But that doesn’t make it worthwhile.

Perhaps, instead of setting a goals far away in the future, we can make bettering our present the goal. Where we can make baby steps improvement and be better day after day. One of the most striking examples in the business and tech industry is Jason Fried who’s build a successful business with no expectation or goals. To Jason goal setting is living your life based on expectations and not enjoying the flow. The emotional baggage expectation carry makes it binary either you’ve succeded or you haven’t. He encouraged his employees to come do the best they can and improve day after day. He emphasizes on the subtle difference between predictions and expectations. When you predict you’re emotionally detached from the outcome and when you can be unsatisfied once it happens but when you expect you get so let down it may cripple you. For a better understanding of Jason’s point of view, you can check out his in depth interview with Tim Ferris or his blogpost.

I can, however, still see how goal setting can be an effective way to push ourselves to achieve more and do more. But should it be at the detriment of our emotional being ? There’s, I believe, a trad-off between goal setting and emotional health that we cannot deny. If you push yourself too hard, you may achieve more, sometimes succeed but other times fail so hard.

I still haven’t figured it all out …

~ IM

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