5 Goals vs. 25 Goals

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 6, 2017

Grit-by-Angela-DuckworthI’m reading a wonderfully inspiring book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant, pursued several interesting careers, and is currently a teacher focused on helping students find their true passions, showing how grit will get them what they want. The book was often praised in 2016 book reviews, getting on several best-of-year lists, and was featured on PBS’s NOVA program “School of the Future” (also at YouTube). Grit is Duckworth’s first book, and continues to blaze the trail set by other books I’ve admired on the same topic: The Outliers, Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code. They all preach effort counts more than natural abilities. Duckworth observes people who apply themselves persistently getting ahead, a quality we know as grit. Since I’ve never been a particularly gritty person, I love reading this book.

Duckworth profiles many successful people, and I was particularly taken by a story she heard about Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. Buffett’s advice was to write down 25 career goals. Then do some soul searching and select the five that matter the most. Finally, look at the leftover twenty, and accept they must be ignored at all costs. This bit of ambition triage is a common advice among productivity gurus. It’s old wisdom about focusing. However, I was intrigued by applying this advice to my general goals. Could I boil them down to just 5?

We all want too much, own too much, do too much, befriend too many people, consume too much. It’s much easier to narrow our desires down to a manageable number. But is 5 the right number? If we list everything we want out of life, it will tally more than 25. Now Buffett was specifically referring to career goals, but I want to use his advice for general ambitions. To apply his wisdom holistically.

Rationalizing Buffet’s Advice – Approach #1

I’m also going to do a bit of cheating. I could say my goal is to finish reading Grit. That’s something I can accomplish. But is it what Buffett meant? He meant something bigger. I could say I want to read 52 books a year and I want to get good at math. That would be two goals. Is it cheating to say I have a goal of being well educated and combine my reading and math goals into it? Reducing two to one?

Let’s say we have sixteen hours a day to divvy up between our goals. That’s a little more than three hours for each if we have five goals. But if you have to work, that has to count as one of the goals, and it takes up over half of the day, leaving little for the other four.

Now that I’m retired, I won’t have to waste one of my goals on working. Because of aging, my biggest goal is health. Staying healthy means I can pursue my other goals. Should it count it as a goal? Shouldn’t it just be part of living? I say yes it does count as a goal, because pursuing my health is hard. I show the most grit in life when it comes to staying healthy. I have to, because it’s so easy to careen into unhealthiness.

If I listed every last thing I want to do each day, it would run more than 25 items. But, if I list goals by their intent, I can get them down to 5 items:

  1. Constantly work at improving my health
  2. Constantly work at improving my writing
  3. Constantly work at improving my relationships
  4. Constantly work at learning more about reality 
  5. Constantly work at making the world a better place

Notice that all my goals will never be accomplished? And to be honest, I do very little towards number five. And because I’m getting older, and my mental and physical abilities are in decline, means my ability to work harder is declining. All my goals are losing battles. I can’t stop and cross off any as finished.

Below are many goal categories that could cover countless specific goals, but in general, they are goals that do have finishes. For example owning a new car or learning statistics with R.

  1. Possessions
  2. Careers
  3. Pleasures
  4. Hobbies
  5. Entertainments
  6. Skills
  7. Games
  8. Accomplishments

Improving my health does require many sub-goals like eating better, exercise, taking medicine, going to the doctor, learning to cook healthy meals, shopping for natural foods, etc. I no longer eat for pleasure, entertainment or even socializing. If I was a gourmet, I’d have to list it as one of my main goals. If I loved cooking or growing food, they would have to be a separate goal too. If I loved playing golf or cross-country biking, I couldn’t count them under health as exercise, I’d have to count them as sports goals. If I pursued both passionately, they would count as two.

I don’t know if this is cheating on Buffet’s advice or not. I think of a goal as a specific quest, but all the things I’ve defined as goals can’t be finished. Buffet might have been thinking of something that could be accomplished, and scratched off a list – like making a million dollars. My goals are states of being I constantly strive to attain and never abandon.

With all my present goals I could show more grit. I would be much healthier if I could lose weight, and that would take some severe persistence I haven’t shown in a long time.

My shifting away from specific goals is due to aging. Take for example games. I’ve never really cared much for winning games, and generally when I played them it was to be social. When video games first appeared in arcades I felt challenged to get high scores, but tired of that after turning over Space Invaders. Now I play games like crosswords to improve my memory and focus. Pleasures like eating, drinking, drugs, travel, are becoming pointless because my body can’t handle them. My plant based diet isn’t miserable, but it’s certainly not something I desire. Eating for fun only hurts now. My only indulgence is dark chocolate covered almonds. It meets the requirement of the diet – barely, and I enjoy them, but it’s hardly a goal of eating gourmet food.

My main goal after health is writing. I could call that goal seeking identity. We all need a goal that defines us, where we find a sense of identity by pursuing. I think of myself as a blogger. When I worked, I thought of myself as a programmer. I can say that blogging also applies to my goal of health. Regular writing exercises my brain. Writing also gives me to look forward to and to get up and do each day.

I put friendships and socializing as my third goal, even though being social is also part of staying healthy. I’m mostly a hermit, but I do feel a certain need to socialize. At one time I would have put movies and television as two of my major goals because I loved them so much, and spent so much time with them, but I use both now as methods of socializing. I’m slowly fading away from enjoying fiction as a solitary pursuit.

Number four is about education. My reading is veering towards learning, and not pleasure. Nonfiction might be my new entertainment. Learning has become my new fun, maybe even my escapism. And in this crazy world of Donald Trump, learning to tell shit from Shinola is more vital than ever.

My last goal, and one I spend almost zero time on, is helping the world. I suppose if I wrote something useful, that could count, but if I’m totally honest, writing is for me. I work a recycling, conserving energy, consuming less. I try to be ethical in my behavior. I donate a little money here and there. At minimum I try to do no harm and maintain a small footprint on the environment. I’m 99% selfish though, and I think most of us are. I think all the problems in the world are due to selfishness. We all should give more time to altruism. I admire people who spend a great deal of their time being selfless. This is where I show the least grit.

Following Buffet’s Advice Without Rationalization – Approach #2

  1. Get a book of nonfiction published
  2. Get a novel published
  3. Get an essay published in a print magazine
  4. Get a short story published in a print magazine
  5. Learn to draw simple scenes of nature
  6. Learn to program digital music
  7. Digitize all my photographs and store them in three cloud locations
  8. Relearn math through calculus, linear algebra and statistics
  9. Write a blog about the best albums that came each year since the invention of the LP
  10. Become a really good minimalist
  11. Live in New York City for a year
  12. Build a parallel processing super-computer out of Raspberry Pi modules
  13. Write a program to produce meta-lists from multiple lists
  14. Sell the house and get a perfect apartment in a high-rise in a 55+ community
  15. Learn to travel cross country and not be afraid to travel alone
  16. Create a blog post that outlines the history of impressionistic art
  17. Learn to grow plants indoors for healthy air, herbs and maybe fruits and veggies
  18. Write an essay about the best jazz albums of the 1950s
  19. Learn Python and get into machine learning and text processing
  20. Learn R and statistics
  21. Decorate the house so it reflects my personality
  22. Move to a city where I can live without a car
  23. Build a robot that does something interesting
  24. Move to a foreign city for a year – London, Paris or Tokyo
  25. Take up bird watching

These are 25 things that popped into my head that I want to do. I could list a lot more. If I opened my folders of unfinished essays, novels and nonfiction books, I’d have hundreds of items to add to the list. What Buffett really meant was to pick 5, and to stop thinking about all the rest. What Duckworth’s book is all about is finding the few goals that align with our passions and persist at working towards those goals hour after hour until they are finished.

What I need to do is figure out which kind of goal oriented person I want to be. My first approach works well with my retired lifestyle, and my actual personality. The second approach is about succeeding at specific accomplishments. I’ve never been that kind of person, probably because of a lack of grit. But I’ve always wanted to be.

When I woke up I had the single goal of writing “7 Generations of Science Fiction.” I thought the many ways I could write it before I got up. I still plan to write that essay, but for some reason this essay grabbed me in the shower and wouldn’t let go. Every morning I get up and something grabs my attention, and it becomes my goal of the day.

Ultimately, it comes down to one goal, the one you work on.

JWH