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No. 13 - On Keeping Score
Why Goals Make Us Feel Frustrated, And What We Can Do About It
Hey, friends! First off, apologies for the tardiness. I’ve not been feeling well this week, and in order to make sure this essay came out right, I decided to give myself a few extra days of rest.
Before we start, I have a small favour to ask: fellow Substackers, if you enjoy my writing, please consider recommending and blurbing Practice Space. It would help a ton! 💪
Earlier this year, my wife and I found ourselves on a 16 hour train ride to the grand city of Budapest, Hungary. Sixteen hours is a long time to spend in a dusty, crowded train car, so we decided to travel by night, and booked tickets to a couchette car on a night train. Don’t let the fancy French origin of the word couchette fool you. These are just wagons with bunk beds, a common find in continental Europe. Thusly, we figured, we could sleep away most of the ride. Needless to say, I was excited for the holiday: Budapest is one of the cleanest and most architecturally impressive capitals of Europe. I was looking forward to seeing it again, but dreading the journey that would take us there.
We squeezed our way into the train car, the heavy luggage and the recent heat wave in an otherwise chilly spring making us huff and puff like humanoid dragon-people, and deposited our stuff in the compartments underneath the bunks. Though undoubtedly dust-filled, the beds looked comfier than expected. We flopped down on them and, like a pair of socially awkward teens, whipped out our phones as we awaited updates from the crew about the time the train would leave the station (a 20 minute delay had been announced 25 minutes before and, unbeknownst to us, another similar announcement was on its way). With nothing better to do, I pulled up the Substack website to peruse the stats for my latest post. Instead of doing that, on instinct, I clicked on the “Subscribers” tab. My jaw went slack. What I saw would end up bugging me for the rest of the ride.
This would be my second visit to Budapest, and, funnily enough, it would happen for the same reason: a live performance by an author and professor who, let’s say … has a reputation for discussing sensitive subjects. As a result of this proclivity, he’s become a somewhat polarising figure, and since I’ve no intention of getting into all that, I’ll just call him Dr. Pepper.
Although I’d had a few days to unwind, during which I bought a hardcover edition limited series comic book and we visited not one, but two thermal baths, by the time the show came around, I was still a little peeved. I was trying to follow Dr. Pepper’s arguments, but my mind kept coming back to what I’d seen on the train ride.
But then the good doctor started explaining the basics of Maslow’s theory of human needs. And he said something that turned my eyes to saucers and my ears to satellite dishes.
Before we get to that, though, you’ll be wanting to know what the heck it was I’d seen on the Substack website. Let me tell you up front, it’s pretty stupid. Ready? Okay.
I had lost two subscribers.
That’s it. That’s what had gotten me all worked up. Why the heck would it, you’ll wonder. And so did I.
Here’s what Dr. Pepper said1:
“You’ve got no goal, and that makes you anxious and frustrated. So say you set a goal. The more concrete, the better. Say I might set the goal of walking across this stage, from one end to the other. With every step I take, I get closer and closer to my goal, right? That makes me feel good. So I’m no longer anxious and frustrated. That’s called positive reinforcement.”
That’s when the lights came on for me.
The reason I was feeling so bad was because I wasn’t gaining any positive reinforcement! Remember a few months ago, when I told you my biggest goal of the year was to get 500 subscribers for this newsletter? Well, no matter how many steps toward this goal I was taking, it turned out I wasn’t getting any closer. I’d just published a piece I felt strongly about, and despite all my other commitments, I was writing and polishing my essays day in and day out. Still, for all my steps forward, I was taking more steps back.
Then again, how could I gain any positive reinforcement from pursuing a goal if its realization did not depend on me?
Think about it for a second. Objectively speaking, what is required in order to get 500 subscribers? You might say: great writing, or publishing consistently, or making connections with other writers who might lend a hand. And I’ll answer, No, though those do increase your chances.
What is required is that 500 willing souls press the same button. Have you tried convincing 500 people to do anything? It’s hard, man, and it ain’t an exact science. Action can only get you so far; after that, it’s more of a question of faith.
(Side note: my friendpublished a fascinating post explaining the phenomenon of faith in publishing last week.)
So, in a nutshell: I was doing my part, working hard and sticking to a schedule, yet my numbers weren’t only not growing, they were shrinking. And that made me feel like crap. How the heck does this happen?
Listening to Dr. Pepper, I got an inkling of the answer to that question. I came to see that my understanding of the way goals worked was all wrong. And quite possibly, so is yours.
What We’re Getting Wrong
According to a time management course they had us take at work, one very popular model for defining great goals is called SMART. According to this system, a good goal needs to be:
Specific (i.e. defined in a clear and specific manner)
Measurable (i.e. progress should be easy to track)
Achievable (i.e. attainable, realistic)
Relevant (i.e. it should matter or be useful to you)
Time-sensitive (i.e. there should be a deadline)
If we judge my goal of accruing 500 subscribers by the end of the year according to these five tenets, it ticks every box. It’s as specific as a goal can be, it’s measurable, achievable (many people on Substack have already done so), relevant to my writing career, and time-bound. Yet, it is not a very good goal. Why?
To my mind, the SMART model is missing an essential component.
In order for an objective to make for a satisfying goal, it also needs to be actionable. What do I mean by that? I mean that its realisation should depend solely, or at the very least in largest part, on our own actions.
When setting our goals, we often don’t stop to consider how much of a role external factors will play in their realisation.
Let me give you some examples.
I’m a writer. I’ve heard time and time again how hard it is to become a bestselling author, and how many people give up before finishing their first book, all from the sheer pressure of their own expectations. Many writers dream of becoming recipients of prestigious awards, or getting published in stellar places like The New Yorker or McSweeney’s. In light of what we’ve talked about so far, notice anything in common with these goals? For the most part, they all depend on external factors.
Becoming a bestselling novelist requires the consent of tens of thousands of readers. Likewise, publishing a piece in The New Yorker requires two things: a) that the editorial team likes your story, and b) that they like it better than the 120 or so other stories they received that month.
The same thing happens in the world of sports. We wish to become world champions in boxing, or to win a marathon, or crush world records. We want ourselves to be the best. And when we aren’t, we start berating ourselves. And slowly but surely, a serpentine belief starts slithering in: that we aren’t good enough to be the best.
What we fail to realize from the start is that our own effort was never going to be enough. No matter the hours put in, no matter the volume of tears cried and beads of sweat sweated, accomplishing our goals was never going to just be about us. We framed it this way, because we didn’t know better. And when this line of thinking turned out to be false, we became frustrated and bitter.
For the most part, it’s not our fault. After all, this is the framework of success that we were all taught as children. We got so used to chasing grades and places on a podium that the default way we measure worth is on a scale.
To get our teachers’ admiration, we have to be first in class. To get our parents’ respect, we have to get into the best schools. We are only good enough if we’re the best. But in thinking like this, we will have missed something essential.
While we were so focused on the elusive final goal, a goal whose accomplishment had never been within our sphere of control, we never stopped to notice all the things we did accomplish, because they were in our control.
What if, from now on, we did?
Trying A Different Angle
Let me preface this by saying that I know we all have dreams. Here are some of mine:
- Win a writing award
- Get a book picked up by a major publisher
- Have a story published in Chicken Soup for the Soul
All of these are worthwhile pursuits, as, I’m sure, are yours. I’m not asking you to give them up. All I’m saying is, maybe it’s time to get honest about what they are.
Here’s what I propose.
On a crisp white piece of paper, make a list of all the things you want to accomplish within the next five years (or another time frame of your choosing—the shorter, the better). I mean it: list down every single thing.
Then, take stock of what you’ve written. As you read, honestly and mindfully ponder this question: How much do my own actions matter in accomplishing this goal? It might help to think in terms of percentages. Example:
“Win a writing competition”:
come up with a compelling idea - 15%
write a great story out of that idea - 35%
have enough money to pay the (often hefty) entrance fee - 5%
a jury likes your story enough to select it for the shortlist - 20%
the same jury likes your story better than all the other stories on the shortlist - 25%
Of course, these percentages are approximative and inevitably a bit subjective. Their purpose is just to get us thinking.
Do the exercise above (or adapt it to whatever system you’re using, if percentages are not to your liking) for all the goals you’ve written. I mean all of them. Don’t get lazy on me now.
When you’re done, put the piece of paper away and take five deep breaths.
Then, on another blank piece of paper, draw a vertical line down the center. You’ve created two columns. Above the left column, write Goals. Above the right one, write Dreams.
Put every objective you have more than 80% control over in the Goals column.
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
Put everything else in the Dreams column.
Remember the adage fromThe Little Prince that goes, “a goal without a plan is just a dream”?
This is the crux of what the exercise is about. Every objective that requires a hearty amount of outside interference to accomplish is not a goal, but a dream, and there’s nothing wrong with having dreams. But we owe it to ourselves to recognize the difference.
So. Now we know what we want, and have a better understanding of what it will take to get us there. What next?
For the Goals column, it’s simple. We have all we need to make these things happen. In the words of Nike, we gotta JUST DO IT.
I suggest approaching the Dreams column in the following manner. Start by dividing every dream into the portion you can control, and the portion you can’t. The former will be your focus. What you’re going to do is split this portion into smaller, actionable goals. For example, if you wish to win a marathon, you’ll need to prepare. Potential goals could be devising a training strategy, or changing your diet, or buying the appropriate running gear.
The ultimate aim of what I propose is to give you the possibility to earn that positive reinforcement that Dr. Pepper was talking about. Not to dissuade you from your dreams, but to get you chasing them and feeling good about it! And even if you don’t end up realizing your dreams, to become mindful of all the amazing things you accomplished on the way there. This way, you’ll realize how strong and capable you are.
As stated before, there is a caveat: For this thing to work, you must come to it with no illusions. From the start, you need to accept the possibility of failure. Let go of the absurd belief that as long as you do your best, the world is yours. That’s just not how this universe of ours operates. We can’t will results into existence.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” (Discourses, 2.5.4-5)
After you have completed the list, you should have a better idea of where you stand. You understand what it is that you want, and how much control you have over it. From here, it’s up to you. Still feel like your dreams are worth hunting down? Then by all means, have at them! And if not, maybe there are better destinations out there.
Whatever you decide, I’ve got my fingers crossed for you!
Just remember: don’t stop dreaming. It’s not worth it.
That’s it. I hope you’re feeling a little better, a bit more ready to take on those pesky goals.
The last few days, I was in dire need of a pick-me-up myself. Something light and fluffy and heartwarming and easy to consume. As luck would have it, I came across this wonderful rom-com podcast called Love and Noraebang. It stars Justin H. Min (who played Yang in my all-time favourite arthouse sci-fi film After Yang, and Edwin in Netflix’s brilliant new drama Beef) as Jaesun, a rich boy from Seoul who falls in love with Ana (voiced by Francia Raisa), a Mexican restauranteur. The show describes itself ambitiously as the first rom-com, K-drama, telenovela podcast series, and I gotta tell you, it’s not too far off. If you feel you might enjoy this kind of thing, give it a listen.
Practice Space is free to read, but your support means a lot! By becoming a subscriber, you’ll receive new issues every other Friday and help support my work.
Memory’s a fickle beast, and the speech is not available online, so the quote is a paraphrase. Any mistakes or inconsistencies are my own.
Quote taken from The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, the book which also, incidentally, first introduced me to Chicken Soup for the Soul.