Question from a reader -
Hi! Interested to hear your thoughts about this: where do you draw the line between impossible and huge-effort-possible goals?
First, I'll be honest. I don't have a perfect neat answer for this that's epiphany generating... I'm going to try to work through it on paper, and I appreciate feedback from everyone in the comments if you have related ideas.
Let's get started. First and foremost, I can't say this enough - study history! If you don't study history, you don't know what's possible. Period. You need to study history if you want to know what's possible.
Here's some good people to brush up on. Now, most people's reaction is, "I couldn't do that! He did so much!" But trace their steps, these men often came from humble origins and suffered much. Don't say "Wow." Ask, "How?" How did they do it?
Here's a few people I admire, there's lots more, but this is a good starting point.
You'll see something in common with people I admire - they raised successful families and accomplished in multiple domains. There's plenty of people with great military, commercial, or governing accomplishments who had unsuccessful families - that doesn't make any sense to me personally (though I do admire some of those people's accomplishments). I study great artists and authors, though it's rare that they had successful families too. Charles Darwin would be an example of someone who was a good scientist, writer, and had a successful family, and I admire him a lot. I admire da Vinci a lot and study him too, but no kids. This is just by my own ethics, sooner or later I'll write a post on why I think kids are very good and important. If you're looking to make other contributions to the world without having kids, well that's not my way, but I guess that's okay too.
I am a big believer in mobility. Whenever I don't know what to work on, I try to increase my mobility. That means getting good habits, knowledge, becoming more comfortable traveling and shifting gears, and building up resources and resourcefulness. If you don't have huge goals yet, start building mobility and wealth and skill and knowledge. Later you'll find something important to you, and be glad you've done so.
I think it's important to have tangible milestones. One of my goals is to become the greatest strategist of our generation. But, honestly, I still don't know exactly what that would look like. And this is going to take me 15, 20, 25 more years. In the meantime, I've got goals to write and publish my first five books, most of which are related or tangential to strategy. I also write on strategy and read strategy and history regularly. One thing I should do at some point is make a list of all the key governance and strategy documents ever written, and go through the ones I haven't read yet. Things like that - tangible, smaller, doable goals while pursuing the big goal.
This is related to what I wrote in "Steps to Achievement" - now, Steps to Achievement was unfortunately a flawed post. It was too long and too dry. The people who read said it was amazing and they got a lot out of it, but I failed to entertain and captivate people enough with it. Still, if you're serious about figuring out how to set goals and achieve, work your way through it. You can get through in 20 minutes or so, and I think there's something very valuable in there - it goes through all the costs and requirements of setting and achieving a goal. Here's an excerpt about the "Identify" stage, which is what we're talking about:
Identify - the first stage to accomplishing a goal is to identify a goal. I believe this is one of the hardest stages, due to the subjective nature of it. There is no right answer. There are other potential pitfalls – people who are fatalistic (“things are already decided”), nihilistic (“nothing matters”), or believe they can’t achieve will have problems with this stage. Additionally, people in this community might have another problem. People who have identities based on being intelligent tend to not want to confront goals they can fail at. The article, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the Inverse Power of Praise” describes a study based on praising kids for innate ability (intelligence) vs. effort.
Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” … Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.
Potential Pitfalls in the “Identify” stage: Fatalism, nihilism, low self esteem, fear of failure, or identity being wrapped up in success/intelligence can dissuade people from setting goals. Also, just plain not seeing the value in setting goals.
Costs: This stage is one of the most expensive intellectually and emotionally – this is where you are choosing to dedicate your time at the expense of other things. It’s a subjective judgment with an high opportunity cost, almost by definition.
Requirements: Introspection about what you want to achieve, patience, working and re-working at goals, and taking the time to describe and elaborate what success would look like.
Timeline: Varies, but I find the loose threads of identifying goals can take a year, two years, or more to start to come together. After actively planning and beginning to identify goals, coming to a really great definition can happen fairly quickly (10 to 30 minutes, for fairly straightforward goals) or can easily take one to three months to flesh a goal out.
Where's the line between impossible and huge effort barely possible goals? It's hard to find.
Here's what I think:
1. Read history
2. Build mobility
3. Have tangible smaller milestones
Then think a lot. Also, read about people who over-stretched themselves and lost because of it. Read about Alexander the Great, who died and whose empire dissolved (Alexander impresses me a lot less than most people). Read about Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who unified Japan but then lost. Read about Septimus Severus, the Roman Emperor who did things almost entirely correctly, but made a few big mistakes and was largely entirely destroyed 50 years after his death. Read about any number of people whose would-be accomplishments came crashing down because they over-expanded and tried to do too much in one lifetime, or didn't spend enough time raising up their family, or whatever else the cause may be.
What's possible? I think a lot, a lot more than most people realize. We've got tools millions of times more powerful than the ancients did. I do not have to be as skilled as Thomas Jefferson to accomplish along the same lines - I can arrive anywhere on Earth in 24 hours for $2000; previously a journey around the world would be by ship, take a life's savings, take many months, and often be fatal. You can send free messages to almost anyone on the planet by email, use Skype to talk across continents for free. Wikipedia overviews all of the world's knowledge, and you can find summaries of almost every book ever written.
What's possible? A lot. A whole lot. In the meantime, I'd say start studying history, building mobility while you're still unsure what you wish to achieve, and starting setting and accomplishing smaller milestones. Think and meditate on what's possible - I think it's more than anyone realizes. In the meantime, read about people who have achieved, work on tangible things, and build your mobility.
Kids for me is a HUGE topic. I have 12 year old and 1.5. My dilema is how to do it right. By right I mean, basic knowledge of science I can't teach them and lack of communication between her peers. I put my Older one to public Chinese school for 2 years. 10 year old sat in the same class as 6 year old kids. The only white girl at school and the hood. To make a long story short, She speaks and writes Chinese but now she hates them. I mean most chinese people. Serious anger management problem. She enjoys to be rude with them because they were rude with her when she couldn't speak a word. She had to fight and after 2 years I actually put her in one private international school part time (ridiculously expensive). I see her being happy there. So from one side She can Speak and right Mandarin and had a boot camp, on the other hand I see how happy she is with other couple girls laughing and chatting. Just started questioning myself. Anyway. Didn't meet a successful entrepreneurial family yet. Would love to meet one. Love your 1,2,3, Sebastian. This is SO true. Actually neither kids, nor you need much. Teach, Play, Feed. Really cool.
"1. Teach your kids
2. Play with your kids
3. Feed your kids"
A few comments:
"You need to study history if you want to know what’s possible." Followed much later by: "We’ve got tools millions of times more powerful than the ancients did."
These kinda contradict each other. Sort of. I can see a way around it, as in the first comment talking about 'being great' or 'doing great things' when people didn't think it was possible. As per the second, Genghis Khan had no chance to go to the moon because it was technically impossible. This gives us different kinds of impossibility.
"1. Read history
2. Build mobility
3. Have tangible smaller milestones"
All are important, though I would word the second to say 'Build Potential Mobility'. I want to be part of a community, and nit just through the internet. This means that I need to find a good place to live with a diverse bunch of people. I say 'potential' mobility as I like to travel on occasion. I would also want the ability to move again if my community changes too far beyond what I want.
I like how you admire people people with families. That's something I want out of my life as well. But this also conflicts with your mobility value, to a degree. A child needs some stability in their life, such as nearby relatives or a close friend. Constant moving around has some advantages, but some drawbacks when having a family. That's another reason why I would change it to 'potential' mobility.
Thanks for the reply as well! Just as useful as the post.
I'm originally from Lund, in the south of Sweden. But I studied in Gothenburg (the second largest city), and recently stayed in Stockholm for work (which is, in fact, the best part of Sweden). Glad you liked it too!
Question for next time is how to deal with the realization that one life-time is not enough.
Sebastian, you read a lot I must say, that is really really good! And you are right, we should never under estimate the charismatic of a leader. Some guys are just really good at getting good people to work for him, but we only can judge of what have been done, and historical analyses does shows that if Zhuge-Liang was the consultant for the opposite side who is kind of a bastard , the deal would be sorted ways before and as the result a lot a lot of soldiers would not be wasted. But we are human, a complex figure of emotion and intellectual, we can not calculate as far. Therefore strategy is relative in its own right.
About the parenting skills :), I don't have such a high ambition as yours to build a dynasty :) :) My family scale is much smaller. I have a son and he is 2 now. I met my partner and it changed my life. Now I can tell you for sure, without an amazing women in your life, the idea of having kids and strong family are just nonsense. You can think of many good education systems, but as I said before it still could turn another way. Then you would be very surprised !!! The principal of ''feeding, playing, teaching'' are fine, it is kind of a must. But to build a good family, you really got to look at it as a whole. Every person in this world is made out of different stuffs, and I really believe the good parent are the one who can forget about the system sometimes but really try to understand what is their child made of. Please don't force kids, it is very bad ideal. Let them grow in the most nature way. At the same time, be strict and be an adult-tell them stuffs that they don't know. Every good creation is an art that you must apply different principals. It is like a painting, you got to work on it everyday, be skillful, sensitive, patient although you may never really know the outcome.
Hope this is useful!
I have noticed you are also a fan of Zhuge-Liang, he is truly an important figure in Chinese history- a most skilled strategist of his time. But I wonder have you read the story of 3 kingdoms? It is just beautiful literature for generations to admire. Zhuge-Liang although is known for his wisdom, chose to be consultant for Liu Bei who is kind of a moron actually, a nice guy but believes in things that just way too unrealistic. The battle was going on for long times between two side of opposite ethics off course, but neither of them won. The guy who united the kingdoms is just simply some one who caught in the right time of history and understood the battle, he didn't even waste his army. The lesson we learn is rather painful of what you maybe a skilled strategist but chose to serve for a wrong side, history is gone another way but you are not in it.
My personal thinking, all extremist are wrong, because everything is relative. There is a time when every thought is right once. You know Steve Jobs right, the guy got kick out from Apple, he was hurt for sure- he invented Apple. But that failure was the key turning point for a big hit that we all knows what happen 'neXT'. Belief sometimes fail you but then loves save you. You can make as much calculation as you want but the results still can turn another way. Why? because we are all live in time that soon be history.
Also you said you want kids, it is important to have kids and so on... Great! I have kid too, it is awesome but I think to say kids are good and important is too personal view. Some great people have kids, some don't, and some great people have bad kids, it makes things even worse. You are talking too much about the system while keep forgetting about the oil. If you do write about this, I would love to know your opinion of what is the important factors to create successful family.
I'm a new reader of your blog and just wanted to say this is the type of thing I've been looking for - goal-oriented, inspiring, and all about self-improvement. Keep up the great work.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to ponder my question -- and for penning down an answer!
I don't believe in epiphanies, so I find your answer very useful. Especially stressing the importance of history, and I'll go through your list of people to look up to. Right now I'm reading Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, a truly fantastic biography that I'm sure you're well aware of.
Also, a question within the question I think is where to draw a cut-off line between reaching success and not. For example, even though Alexander the Great's empire crumbled, he still reached great fame and victories. One group of people I would like to reach, are those who aimed high but didn't really get off -- who didn't even reach enough success to be turned into a great defeat.
Anyway, history. I'll pick my literature with care. Thanks a lot!
I just posted a new article at Less Wrong - "Steps to Achievement: The Pitfalls, Costs, Requirements, and Timelines." This is a little bit longer and more dry than I write for my blog, but I think there's some very important things in here.
If you're interested in goals and achievement, there's quite a lot of meat here. I'm putting the full version up here and please feel very welcome to comment here on this topic, but also consider heading over to Less Wrong, grab a free account, and start participating there. As I described in "You Should Probably Study Rationality," it's a wonderful community.
Reply to: Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic
In "Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic," Anna Salamon outlined some ways that people could take action to be more successful and achieve goals, but do not:
The picture above contains ambiguous text from a fictional government document in my early and obviously unfinished manuscript of the science fiction novel I have in the works. But that's not all, let me tease you even further.
This is a poster I created for the single purpose of teasing you all. I've been asked repeatedly for information about the novel I've been writing, so there you have it. The poster as you can see contains a direct quote from the book--good luck trying to figure it all out. I've disclosed just enough information to satiate the hunger of my extensive fan club (if you consider approximately 10 people extensive) without spoiling the exact plot, leaving room for speculation.
Let me clear a few things up just to avoid confusion: