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Fractal Planning – How Deep?

One of the benefits of using a fractal planning tool such as the Fractal Planner is that you can keep breaking tasks down as far as you need to.

But how many levels deep do you actually break things down?

I’ve found that I rarely go more than 7 levels deep in my actual planning, and typically, I’m in the 4-5 range.

Here’s a way to make sense of this.

Suppose you break your project into 4 chunks. And you break each of those 4 chunks into 4 more chunks. And so on. After 7 levels of planning you will have:

  • 1 project
  • 4 sub tasks
  • 16 sub-sub tasks
  • 64 sub-sub-sub tasks
  • 256 sub-sub-sub-sub tasks
  • 1024 sub-sub-sub-sub-sub tasks
  • 4096 sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub tasks

If each lowest level task takes 2 minutes to do (and there’s rarely a reason to break things down further than that), a 7-level plan will accommodate 8192 minutes of planned out work (or about 137 hours).

Now not every branch will be filled out evenly. But you’ll also have atomic tasks that take more than 2 minutes, so this seems to be a fairly reasonable way to estimate how much planning 7 levels will accommodate.

137 hours is a fairly large creative project for an individual. If you work 6 hours per day for 23 days per month on the core project, that’s about a whole month’s worth of project all planned out in 7 levels. That’s about 2-4 times longer than a good SCRUM for One project should be.

(And even if you work 8 hours per day, studies have shown that on average only 3 hours are actually spent focused on your core creative project, so 7 levels might actually be enough to accommodate a 2-month project.)

This is, of course, a rough estimate. You can tweak the parameters and get different outcomes – maybe showing that you need an additional level or two. But the main point remains clear. While it’s nice to have the ability to break projects down further and further, the number of levels you actually need will probably be in the single digits.

I find this interesting.

A plan is a fractal unfolding process, and the depth is limited by the size of the project, the number of branches per level, and the size of the lowest-level chunks.

These limits mean we never actually get too far down the rabbit hole.

Nature has other fractal unfoldings, and we see mostly single digit tree depths there as well. Nature’s plan for life is structured roughly like this: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. 7 levels from “The Trunk of Life” to “Species”.

(Strictly speaking this scheme breaks down at places, and tree depths might go another level or two in some cases. But it’s definitely close to 7 levels for the whole tree of life.)

Same goes for human creations. The Internet is perhaps our most complex creation. One of the most popular schemes for understanding the various levels of activity taking place on the internet is the OSI model. And this model has 7 layers — from physical logic gates all the way up to the applications we use.

I don’t know how many branchings there are between the arteries and the arterioles (capillaries kinda sorta break the strict branching pattern, so we’ll stop at the arterioles).

I don’t know how many branchings trees make between trunk and leaf. If a tree branches once per year, then the most distant leaves on a 30-year-old tree will be 30 branchings away from the trunk. That would make trees an exception to the general pattern. Perhaps trees are true freaks of nature when it comes to structural branching.

I also don’t know how useful this particular post will prove to be for you, but it’s a fun way to look at things, and can provide some abstract context for your project planning.

Posted in fractal planning, planning | Tagged | 1 Response

Projects, Tasks, and the Meaning of Life

I want to say a few things about goal structure (this is part 3 of the Goal Setting Guide). But first . . . a quick story about a man lost in the jungle:

A few years back I was simultaneously trying to finish up my Ph.D., start my own business, and help raise a couple young children. And I was also going through some social turmoil that was emotionally draining. (The details would take too much time to explain and aren’t really relevant anyway.)

Me, lost in the jungle a few years back.

I had all kinds of things I needed to work on, and I didn’t know which way to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any idea which way to go; it was that I had too many ideas. Should I work on my dissertation, work on my business, or spend more time with my kids?

If I work on the business, what should I work on? Should I work on product development, or market the product I already have? If I develop a new product, which of a dozen promising (but risky) ideas should I choose? If I work on marketing, which marketing method should I focus on? Or should I work on building my professional network?

What I tended to do during this time was jump around from project to project, never confident that the project I was working on was the project I should be working on. Often – too often – I would start a project, think another project was more important, and then switch projects.

That left me with dozens of half-finished projects. And half-finished projects are typically no more effective than projects never started.

Clearly I needed some help. Goal setting was not working very well for me – not the way I was doing it.

I was lost in the jungle, and danger was lurking.

Looking back I wish I had understood better how goals work.

Projects, Tasks, and the Meaning of Life

First, let’s take a moment to notice that some goals are big, and some are small. Making a million dollars is (for most people) a big goal. Getting out of bed (again, for most people) is a small goal.

And notice that goals often fit together in a branching structure.

If your goal is to make a million dollars, once you start planning how to do it, the bigger goal will branch into sub goals.

For instance, “make a million dollars” could be decomposed into:

  • do some research to discover how others in my situation have made a million.
  • create a product or service
  • set up the marketing
  • tweak things until they’re profitable in a scalable way
  • and then goose the marketing until I’ve got it made

Sure this plan is nebulous, it might not work as stated, and it is definitely much easier said than done. But it’s a plan. And breaking big goals into sub-goals is almost always better than not doing so.

Each sub goal here should probably (by which I mean “definitely”) be broken down into sub-sub goals as well. And those sub-sub goals should probably be broken down into sub-sub-sub goals. And so on, until you’re working on tasks that don’t tax your mind as you work on them.

This process should sound familiar. You’re just creating an outline. And you’ve been making outlines all your life.

Most plans are outlines, though they don’t have to be. They could have a different structure. Some sub-tasks might share a sub-sub task, and that would break the strict branching pattern. But even then you COULD still represent your plan as an outline. It would just have a little redundancy in it.

So goals are typically nested together in an outline structure. And this is very natural to our brains. We just naturally break complex goals down into sub-goals and sub-sub-goals this way.

And every level of the hierarchy is important, even though it’s only the lowest level actions that actually get done.

Here’s a plan with only the lowest level to-do items.

  • buy the boards and 2×2’s
  • clear the space for the bed
  • assemble the bed
  • soil the bed
  • Dig the grass away
  • dump the grass in the sod heap
  • Get an extension cord long enough.
  • build housing for cord
  • drill hole in wall
  • fill hole around cord
  • purchase an arduino board
  • purchase a raspberry pi processor
  • hook up the raspberry pi to input/output devices
  • hook up raspberry pi to arduino
  • do a simple test to make sure they’re communicating
  • dig hole
  • drop it in
  • secure it with cover that keeps dirt out but allows easy access
  • get pumps
  • hook pumps up to arduino
  • thread hosing from pumps to garden beds
  • Start with regular watering schedule for each bed.
  • Eventually work in moisture sensors, and water only when needed.

It’s a little tough to see what’s going on, right?
Now here’s the plan with all the higher level organizing nodes filled in.

So the lowest level items are very important. They’re the actions you actually take. But the higher-level nodes also are important. They give meaning and context to the lower level actions.

All the lower level to-do items on this page are part of the “improve the garden” project, which is part of the “backyard landscaping” project.

What most people don’t realize is that, by extending this idea, their whole lives can be organized in a single outline.

This one personal project might fit into your larger “personal life” project. And your “personal life” project fits into your “my life” project (alongside a lot of work/professional/business projects). So everything can be fit under the same umbrella of “my life” (in the example it’s “master plan”).

And, just so that I’m not misunderstood, I don’t mean that there is one single outline that can represent your whole life. I mean that your whole life can be organized in any of an infinite number of outlines. You have complete artistic freedom here. And how you choose to describe and structure your life (whether in an actual outline plan or just vaguely in your head) determines, in a very real sense, the whole “meaning” of your life. (I may post more on this later.)

Now there’s something to notice about these planning outlines . . .

“WHY” is Up. “HOW” is Down

“Why” is up. “How” is down.

Plato (pointing up) and Aristotle (gesturing down) in the School of Athens.

Notice that, if you’re working on a project, and you ask the question “why am I working on this project?”, the answer can be found by looking up a level or two in your goal structure.

For instance, if you’re doing the gardening plan, and digging a hole, and you pause to ask yourself “why am I digging this hole?”, you can see that you’re digging the hole, in order to “create a reservoir”, and you’re doing that in order to “set up the watering system”, and you’re doing that in order to “get an automated garden”, and you’re doing that to “have a nicely landscaped back yard”, and you’re doing that to “make your personal life better”.

It gets a little nebulous the higher up we go, but, in general, we figure out the “why” by going up levels in our plan.

So when you look up the hierarchy you can answer “why” questions.

And if you’re at a node and you start to wonder “how am I going to do this?”, you look down.

If you’re looking at the node “set up watering system”, and you ask yourself the question “how am I going to do this?”, you look down and you see that you do it by “getting the control system set up,” “building a reservoir,” “installing the pumps”, and “programming the system”. And if you want to know how to do any of those sub-steps, you look down again.

Raphael (the painter, not the ninja turtle) might have been savvy to this point way back in the early 1500s. In his painting “School of Athens” the central characters are the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato, known for addressing “why” questions, is seen pointing up. And Aristotle, known for addressing “what” and “how” questions, is seen gesturing out and down.

Now it might be that Raphael was actually making a distinction between the “heavenly” and the “mundane”, but it would work equally well were he making the distinction between “why” and “how”. And, really, those two distinctions are not unrelated anyway.

(NOTE: there are actually at least two main kinds of plans. There are HOW plans, and there are WHAT plans. At times it will be important to understand the difference.

In short, a WHAT plan is a structural map of the final creation, and is often the most natural way for our brain to start breaking down a project. A HOW plan is a construction story, and is the best kind of plan to work from when it comes time to actually start executing on the project.

Sometimes you’ll find that you need to convert a WHAT plan into a HOW plan. I plan to write more on this distinction later.)

Just remember to look up for context, and down for details.

What Does This Mean?

“How do I do this?” and “Why am I doing this?” are not the only questions we ask when looking at an item in one of our plans. Another question we are prone to ask is “What does this mean?”

And the “what does this mean?” question is answered by looking up and down in the hierarchy. If you want to know what it means to “automate the garden”, it really helps to look both directions. You will understand that item better if you know what it is or how to make it (looking down). And you will also understand it better if you know what role it plays in the bigger picture (looking up).

This works for defining words as well. If we want to know what a word means, we often want to know both how to analyze the term into more basic concepts, and how the word is used in bigger language games. Both kinds of answers help us grasp the meaning of the word.

OK, so now we know how plans are structured, and how to navigate around inside our plan in order to answer different kinds of questions about particular items in the plan.

The final thing I want to note today is that, while all levels of the plan are necessary, some levels of the plan are more important than others.

The Two Most Important Planning Levels Of Your Working Life

Your goal structure might have 10 or 12 levels going all the way at the top from your life mission all the way down to your lowest level sub-goal.

But I’ve found, and others have found, that it’s useful to treat two of these levels as special in your working life. These two levels are the ones you need to spend the most time getting right.

Get them right, and they will provide you with a pair of points to line up your aim on — in order to make sure the rest of your planning is going in the right direction, and with maximal motivation.

The first most important goal level is your highest career aspiration, and the second most important level is the level of the sprint.

Your highest career aspiration is the highest organizing principle for your whole working life. It will remain flexible, being updated frequently, and evolving with you as you gain skills, knowledge, connections, and so forth.

Your sprints are 1 week to 1 month chunks of work that have certain properties that will help you focus, help you get a lot done, and help you stay motivated. You will commit to these with great rigidity.

(Both Cal Newport and Scott H. Young emphasize the importance of understanding your highest career aspiration. And sprints are emphasized by practitioners of the Agile SCRUM methodology. See also my post Traditional SCRUM in a nutshell and the one following that How I Do SCRUM For One.)

In the next two sections of this guide, we will consider what role these two planning levels play in your working life. And we will consider strategies for determining the content of these goal levels.

As always, constructive feedback is heartily welcomed :)

Posted in fractal planning, goal setting, planning | Tagged | 3 Responses

Plans, Trees, and Fruit.

Imagine . . . you are plucked out of your ordinary life and transported to a new land. Perhaps you live in Kansas and a tornado sweeps you away. Or something like that.

At first you’re completely bewildered. “What the heck just happened? Where am I? What should I do next?”

Eventually you realize that this is really happening and you’re going to have to start figuring things out.

As you explore the new land, you come across a town. It’s about the same size as your home town, . . . but it’s very different in many ways as well.

Since there’s no food in this town, and you’re getting a bit hungry, you travel along a road in search of food. About 10 miles later, you come across another town. And, interestingly, it’s about the same size as a town in your land that’s about 10 miles away from your home town.

Noting the similarity, and realizing that there’s no food in this town either, you venture to hope the similarities extend even further. And you reason, “In my land, there’s a third town 5 miles down the road from the second town, and that town has the finest cheese in our land. So maybe . . . just maybe . . . if my luck holds true . . . there will be another town 5 miles from this town, and they, too, will have the finest cheese in this land.”

You travel on, and, indeed, there is another town about 5 miles further down the road. There is no cheese, but the folks in that town do have the finest salt pork in all the land.

After praising your good fortune, and gorging on salt pork, you dig around in your backpack and find a map of your home land. And you start to wonder, based on your experience so far, just how well the map might help you get around in this new land.

After some exploration, you discover that 5 of the towns in this new land are connected in the same order, and by the same length roads, as are 5 towns in your home land, and they have similar trading relationships. Much of the new land is very different, but your map is working surprisingly well, considering it was designed for an entirely different territory.

Things are looking up a bit.

When you first arrived you were overwhelmed and disoriented by the new land. But the similarities you’ve found between your home land and the new land make you feel a little more at home, and allow you to get around more easily than you otherwise would have.

The surprising (yet not perfect) utility of your map has somehow turned nightmare to adventure.

This story should sound a little familiar, because it describes the way analogies work.

Analogies are like having a map of one land that works unreasonably well in a new land.

And, yes, this story is an analogy analogy :)

Analogies, Plans, and “Fractal Awareness”

Plans are like trees.

Or, more specifically, while trees and plans are different in many ways, they are also very much alike in some important ways.

A tree has a trunk. And from this trunk spring heavy branches.

Likewise, with a plan, you have a main outcome you’re trying to achieve. That main outcome is the “trunk” of your plan. But your outcome is complex and will require many otherwise unconnected actions to achieve it. So you have to break your plan (branch it) into parts that are easier to get your head around.

And, just as the tree keeps branching and branching and branching until it gets to its leaves, so your plan can keep branching and branching and branching until it gets down to tasks that are so simple it doesn’t pay to break them down any further.

If you were to take all those smallest tasks and jumble them up and do them in a random order, you would get lost. And someone watching you would have no idea what you were trying to achieve. But when you connect all those actions through a tree-like planning structure, your actions suddenly make sense, and are able to add up to something important.

So our understanding of trees helps us understand plans. Our tree-land map works in plan-land, too. At least as far as we’ve investigated to this point. And perhaps, if we use our tree-land map to further explore more of plan-land, we’ll find it works in other ways as well.

For instance, if you take a branch from a tree, and graft it into a different place in the tree, it might be able to grow there, too, and might serve your purposes better. And, when you do this, all the leaves on that branch will come along with it, and will still be connected in all the important ways, both to each other, and . . . ultimately . . . to the trunk. This works with plans as well.

The analogy between trees and plans runs surprisingly deep.

But plans are not special in this respect. Understanding trees can help you understand many things in life. The tree-land map works in many, many other lands.

For instance, it helps us explore evolutionary biology, economics, and the history of technology. It helps us model mountains in cgi algorithms, to structure web pages, to sort lists, and on and on.

The tree structure, it turns out, is a master analogy maker. It’s a master map. It’s not our only master map by any means. But it’s definitely one of the most useful maps we have.

And being aware of this fact allows you to understand much more of the world than you otherwise would. If you run across something that can be understood better with a tree analogy, and you pull out your tree-land map and start exploring the new domain, you’ll very quickly gain surprising insight into that new domain — faster than you could if you didn’t use your tree-land map.

Do this enough, and you’ll start to see tree-like branching processes everywhere. You’ll see them in the way cities grow. In the way ideas grow. And so on.

It might even help you find a better algorithm for shoveling your driveway after a heavy snow :)

If you go through life ready to pull out your tree-land map whenever it looks like it might be useful, we can say you move through the world with “tree awareness”. Whenever you’re thinking through problems, you might even find yourself locking your vision onto the nearest tree and using its shape to help you think through the problem.

Now trees are a kind of fractal, and it’s the fractal structure of trees that gives them some of their most interesting properties. Because of this, when I wrote “Clear Mind, Effective Action”, I used the term “fractal awareness” to describe the ability to notice the tree-like processes and structures all around you.

All that is fascinating. But our main concerns here are to use fractals for planning and executing our creative projects.

And, with that in mind, I think I found a neat way to extend the analogy between tree and plan.

The extended analogy is between a certain kind of tree and a certain kind of plan.

Extending the Analogy Between Trees and Plans

When we plan, we break our projects down for many reasons.

Two of the main things we aim for are these:

  1. We aim to discover all the simple actions we need to do to create the finished product.
  2. We aim to discover any physical or logical conflicts between the parts that remain hidden at lower levels of detail.

And if we’re building a house, or a business, structural integrity is one of our main concerns.

For the purposes of structural integrity, it works very well to just let the plan unfold naturally, the way a tree would grow. We branch the project into parts that will add up to the whole. Then we ask, “How do I do this part?” And we break that part into sub-parts that will add up to the bigger part in a way that helps the bigger part contribute to the whole. And so on.

Along the way we notice tensions. And the resolutions to these tensions lead to new tasks that must be done to create the finished product. They are essentially just new, unexpected parts of the project that were hidden from view when conceiving the project at higher levels.

When we start to build our product from our plan, we might find that some things need to be done before other things. So we rearrange items a bit to create an orderly construction story.

With some things structural integrity, or logical coherence, is enough.

But sometimes we want more.

Sometimes we want to share our creations with others. Sometimes we want our audience to get something special from our creation. Sometimes we want to wow the public.

And that’s where we need to extend our analogy between trees and plans.

In cases like these, we are not just growing any old tree. We are growing a FRUIT TREE.

And, if the analogy holds pretty well, we’ll be able to ask many of the questions a horticulturalist might ask about how to get better fruit, and we will discover ways to make our creations bear better fruit as well.

Here are some of the questions we might ask, for instance, when writing an essay:

  1. What fruit am I growing? (What do I want my audience to take away from this essay?)
  2. Does some of the structure obscure the fruit? (Do I spend too much time addressing questions my audience doesn’t have?)
  3. If I lop off structural branches to make the fruit more visible, does it make the fruit appear spoiled to some people? (What if I fail to address questions my audience does have?)
  4. Is the fruit too high to reach? (do I take my reader through too many layers of abstraction, or too many levels of dialectic before getting to the main point?)
  5. If I decide to lop off some structure to make the fruit more accessible, what can I do with the prunings? (Arguments you choose not to present might serve to give you depth as an expert, because you’ll be ready if and when those questions arise. They might also be the source of future essays.)
  6. And so on . . .

I am still in the process of exploring this analogy.

I plan to write some posts in the future on this, exploring questions raised by the analogy.

I want to invite you to explore this analogy with me, and together we might be able to use it to engage in more and more effective acts of creative expression, guided by a map that works surprisingly well — especially for folks who, for the most part, aren’t even fruit farmers.

Posted in Creativity, fractal planning | Tagged | 4 Responses

The Clear Mind Procedure (Illustrated)

Hey all.

I was playing around with the tool at, and thought I’d try my hand at illustrating the Work With Flow “Clear Mind Procedure”. After an hour, I came up with this.

Not the prettiest graphic in the world, but I think the illustration makes the procedure very easy to understand. If you like it, feel free to pass it around :)

The clear mind procedure is a very important skill, and more people should know how to do it. An illustration like this has the potential to make the procedure more clear than any of the written explanations I’ve seen (or written) to this point. At some point I might get a true graphic artist to work out a better illustration.

Clear Mind Procedure

Oh, and, by the way, there’s been a subtle upgrade to the Fractal Planner as well. Dragging and dropping items on the master plan does not require a page refresh any longer. More changes like that are in the works, as are additional motivation wizards.



Posted in Clear Mind | Tagged | 8 Responses

A Few Mastery Equations to Play With

Not suggesting these formulas are free from counter-examples. Just playing with some rough relationships.

  1. Understanding = structural knowledge * grasp of system dynamics
  2. Expertise = breadth of understanding * depth of understanding
  3. Mastery = expertise * internalization
  4. Creative Quantity = (Mastery + Productive Focus) * Time
  5. Creative Quality = Mastery * Curiosity * Productive Focus * Integrity
  6. Creative Benefits = Personal Benefits of Creative Output + Social Benefits of Creative Output
  7. Quality of creative experience = (Creative Quality * Autonomy * Creative Benefits)/Stress

Also don’t take the arithmetic symbols too literally. They’re just there to indicate roughly how terms covary.

E.g, setting a term equal to a product of two other terms indicates that you can increase the quantity on the left by increasing either of the terms on the right. Setting a term equal to a ratio of two other terms indicates that in order to increase the term on the left you can either increase the top term or decrease the bottom term.

Multiplication indicates more synergy than addition.

And so on.

Thoughts about these formulas?

Posted in Creativity, Effective Action, flow | Leave a comment

Motivation Wizard for the Fractal Planner

There’s a new feature in the Fractal Planner. The 2+ minute demo video is a few paragraphs down.

But first, if you’ve read the eBook, “Clear Mind, Effective Action”, you’ve seen me suggest that creative individuals can handle most of their productivity needs by using one organizational strategy (Fractal Planning) and developing one set of habits (collectively called “Reactive Flow Management”).

(If you haven’t read Clear Mind, Effective Action yet, it’s free and you can get it by signing up for the email notification list for the blog — the form is to to the right) →

“Fractal Planning” and “Reactive Flow Management” can be contrasted with “Flat Planning” and “Proactive Flow Management”.

When people use a “flat” planning structure (such as a collection of simple lists) they face various problems:

  1. It can sometimes be difficult to see how their projects relate to each other.
  2. They usually don’t break tasks down as far as they need to, because it’s difficult to keep the thoughts organized with a flat list.
  3. Because they don’t break tasks down far enough they are often surprised by the hidden complexity lurking in their plans.
  4. It can also be more difficult to keep the big picture in mind as they work.

In order to cope, flat planners will draft mission statements and have weekly planning sessions to untangle their plans, figure out how their new tasks relate to their old tasks, and maybe even plan what specific work they’ll do each day (or even each hour) for the coming week.

With Fractal Planning, on the other hand, we can easily keep breaking tasks down quickly in a hierarchical structure as we discover new complexity. This brings the following benefits:

  1. We can trust that, most of the time, our priorities will naturally organize themselves.
  2. We can trust that our plans will stay naturally untangled most of the time.
  3. We can trust that our greater purpose will remain clear most of the time.
  4. We can comfortably allow our greater purpose to evolve over time with our skills and opportunities (instead of locking ourselves in with a “mission statement”).
  5. With a fractal mindset we also understand why unexpected complications arise, and we have ways to easily work solutions to these complications into our plans.

With FLAT planning, flow can be more elusive, and more difficult to maintain. So it makes sense to be PROACTIVE and vigilant.

With FRACTAL planning, flow is assumed, so we can relax and deal with the occasional flow killers as they arise. It makes more sense in this case to be REACTIVE with respect to our motivation swings, and to just focus on our work for the most part. In particular we don’t need weekly planning sessions (or if we still use them they can be put to better use). We don’t need to schedule our work as tightly. And we don’t stress out about unexpected complications as much (in part because we anticipate more of them).

Overall we work with less stress and don’t need to take as much time out to “sharpen our saws”.

Fractal Planning is, in some ways, “the lazy person’s way to get a lot of work done”.

But, even with fractal planning, flow killers still show up. And, when they do, we need some Reactive Flow Management techniques to get ourselves back on track.

That’s where the newest Fractal Planner feature comes in. Take it away, Jim :

The Motivation Wizard is one of four wizards that will one day be linked together into a master wizard (if the current plan holds). These are the four wizards in my current vision:

  • Clear mind wizard – use this if you find yourself distracted by many unrelated thoughts [I plan to replace the current “Clear Mind Wizard” with a more streamlined version].
  • Motivation Wizard – use this if you’re not clear about why you’re doing the project, or whether you should do it. (This is the wizard in the video – Fractal Planner subscribers can use it now.)
  • Clear plan wizard – use this if your plan seems confused, or you sense it might contain scheduling or logical conflicts.
  • Will power wizard – use this if you don’t want to work on your project because you’re tempted to do something less important instead.

* * *

And now, a couple caveats about some of the things I said above.

It’s not that those who use fractal planning don’t ever do proactive flow management. I think it’s good to be proactive about managing your energy and choosing the best time of day to get your core work done.

I also think it’s good to be proactive about breaking larger projects down wisely, and to arrange for meaningful feedback every week or two. In other words, it’s good to adopt something like “SCRUM for one” for larger projects.

Also, Scott Young recently suggested that flow is not the be all and end all of human experience. In particular, he suggests that sometimes we learn things faster when we choose skills that are so far beyond our current abilities that the learning process causes us some stress, confusion, and uncertainty for a while.

I agree with Scott. However, there are good reasons to be out of flow and bad reasons to be out of flow. If we choose to be out of flow because we are taking on a worthy challenge, and want to learn at a faster rate, that’s good. If we are stressed out and depressed because we don’t have an effective way to tame the increasing chaos of modern life, that’s bad.

One of my main purposes in life is to give people the tools they need to achieve flow in a world of increasing complexity — when they want to or need to. If a person is currently stressed out and/or depressed because they are overwhelmed with life, they need to learn how to work with flow. Once they’ve achieved flow for a while, and they’ve built up some emotional reserves again, they can move their attention toward new growth-oriented activities that might take them out of flow for a while — at their own discretion. In fact, I highly recommend it.

Scott’s post is thought-provoking. There’s much more I could say about the relationships between growth, flow, stress, well-being, and higher-order levels of flow and growth. I might do a stand-alone post on the topic at some point. But I’ll leave it there for now.

Posted in flow, fractal planning, motivation, The Fractal Planner, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Response

Choose? Or Decide?

Is it just me, or does the word “decide” feel more ominous than the word “choose”?

“Choose” feels lighter and more whimsical to me. I like that.

Maybe “choose” causes us to focus on the possibilities of the thing chosen, and “decide” makes us consider the possibilities of the things not chosen.

“Choose” promises adventure, and “decide” threatens regret.

As I consider what to do in the coming year, I think I will “choose some projects that appeal to me” and completely avoid “deciding what to do”.

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Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy

Note to reader: This essay is 13,000 words long — and you should read every word.

I spent 2 months writing this (and editing it ruthlessly, so it would be easy to read). I threw away over 100,000 words to wind up with these 13,000. I also spent the previous several years learning the concepts in the article (both academically, and the hard way).

If you read it carefully, I promise that you will understand yourself better, and you will be able to set goals that make you happy, and avoid goals that don’t.

Since it’s long, I recommend that you print it out and find time to read it over a cup of coffee or tea.

If you prefer to have me read the essay to you, there’s also an audio version. audio book version (please save to computer or mp3 player)

Stop Setting Goals That Don’t Make You Happy

(The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting — Part 2)


ou wake up on the savannah with the orange sun rising over the horizon and set to work. You’re not the best hunter in the band – in fact you’re a bit clumsy on your feet. But boy can you make a sharp (and sturdy) spear.

The wildebeest are migrating through the area, and there’s a big hunt planned for today. Two of the best hunters need new spears, and the spears just need a few finishing touches before your hunting party sets out.

Your 6 year old son sits beside you watching. You explain what you’re doing as you go. You take pride in your work. You make better spears today than you did a year ago. And you expect to make even better spears in the future.

Your band needs you. Your hunts are more successful because you do what you do so well. And you need the skilled hunters. In your hands the spears do not work as well.

You also need the tribe members who gather enough fruit and starch to feed everyone when the hunting is sparse – and it’s often sparse. One person has an uncanny ability for finding edible roots.

There are dozens of things that need to be done to keep everyone alive and well, and among the able-bodied adults everyone has something they are the best at. Everyone feels needed. And everyone appreciates how valuable everyone else is to the success of the tribe. And yours is a pretty kick-ass tribe.

Your tribe has a leader. But if others strongly dislike the direction he’s leading, they don’t follow. When it comes time to make decisions, everyone has a voice. The leader needs everyone else as much as they need him.

It didn’t take much work to get everyone on board for today’s hunt.

* * *

Bill awoke in a cold sweat. It was 2:30 am. No lion was chasing him. The bills were paid. He and his family were safe and healthy. They lived in a reasonably nice suburban neighborhood.

But Bill felt terror. His life was half over (probably more than half over if his current levels of stress continue), and he hadn’t done anything with his life yet – not really. And Bill thinks it’s becoming more and more likely that, when he dies, he will die a failure.

Years ago Bill set his sights on making several million dollars. Today he is still just barely paying the bills.

Bill’s father created a successful business in his youth and now sips martinis by his pool at his mansion and pontificates about how most people don’t know how to work and don’t give a damn about America or God.

Bill has other thoughts about politics and religion (and about how his father made his money), but Bill never speaks up. He feels unworthy to speak up. After all, if you don’t make a lot of money you’re either lazy or stupid.

Money is voice. And Bill doesn’t have enough of it. Bill hates visiting his parents and sitting around the dinner table taking in his father’s words, feeling unable to challenge the one-sided rants.

Bill’s 20th high school reunion is approaching, and he’s not sure he wants to go. He had such promise in high school. What will others think when they realize he’s not as successful as they expected him to be?

Bill’s wife can only guess why he’s so preoccupied and moody. For the most part Bill keeps his feelings to himself.

Bill had better get back to sleep. His alarm goes off in 3 hours, and he needs to drag himself out of bed so he can get to work on time.

Hard Up for Happiness in the Modern World

This essay is part of a goal-setting series. By the end you’re going to learn how to take a goal, frame it for maximal clarity and motivation, develop a good plan, and pursue it with passion.

But not all goals are equal. Some goals will lead to happiness, and some won’t. Before we get to the practical stuff, I’m going to do my best to talk you out of pursuing some of the goals you have already set for yourself. I’m going to suggest strongly that you will be happier if you set other kinds of goals instead. There is evidence to consider. It’s not conclusive, but very suggestive. You will have to judge for yourself.

Our psyches were molded in simpler times. Those simpler times were not necessarily better than the times we live in now. Women died in childbirth a lot more than they do today. Infectious diseases killed more people than they do today. Violent death was much more likely in the “good old days”. There were no hot tubs or video games. And we didn’t know nearly as much about the world as we do now.

Tribes also differed from other tribes. Some were fairly idyllic. And some contained violent bullies you couldn’t get away from. Some tribes killed elderly members when they were no longer useful. And, if a person found that their biological drives were out of step with the values of the tribe, they were in for a rough life with nowhere to go to get away from it.

In spite of all this, it’s still easy to imagine that tribal life was happier than the lives we live today.

In the tribe it was easier to feel a sense of belonging — a sense of mutual respect and mutual need. It was easy to develop a skill and become the best in the “known world” at something others actually cared about. Values were shared and motivations were understood.

Today things are different. And many of the differences cause unhappiness. Our natural goal-setting tendencies used to lead us to choose goals that made us happy. Today they often don’t.

Things Are Different

Let’s look at some of the ways our world has changed since our psychologies were forged, and then we’ll consider how these changes affect our sense of well-being in life.

1. We interact with a greater diversity of people than ever before.

Diversity is at an all time high. As we meet new people over the course of a year we confront a greater diversity of skills, knowledge, and values than people have ever encountered before.

Diversity is the source of much good. Diverse groups of qualified people usually come up with better solutions to problems than less diverse groups.

However, modern diversity also strains our brains – especially the diversity in values.

A person has a family. A person has workmates. A person has schoolmates. A person has playmates. And people join churches or special interest groups that meet weekly or monthly, in person or on the internet.

Perhaps our families are Democrats our work mates are Republicans, and our school mates are Communists.

Perhaps our families are Catholics, our workmates are Protestants, and our schoolmates are Atheists.

Our families like country music, our school mates like rap and pop, and our work mates like classic rock.

Some of these differences are trivial, and some are not.

Somehow we have to figure out a way to get along with those people in our lives who have influence over our well-being. And we must be careful how we do this.

Other people have a stake in whether we agree with them or not. They need to know what to expect from us, and whether we’re with them or against them. We need to figure out when it’s necessary to be with them and when it’s OK to be against them, because being on the side of one person sometimes requires being opposed to another.

When our grandfather makes an insensitive statement about members of a different group, perhaps we don’t rebuke him, but give a polite smile and change the subject. Then we feel guilt at the thought of what our friends would think of our not speaking out.

When a friend complains about the alienation of the work force at the hands of greedy capitalists, we might want to respond in a way that keeps us in good standing with our friend (whether we agree with her or not). But we also have our boss and family members in the back of our heads judging how we respond.

The normative landscape is rugged. And these examples are vastly oversimplified. Most issues are not ones you are simply for or against, but there are dozens of nuanced positions to take. And many groups contain members all along a given value spectrum.

It’s fair to ask whether our brains are fully equipped to handle the degree of diversity we face today.

2. We compare ourselves to higher standards than ever before.

We watch TV and everyone is beautiful. We are not as beautiful. How many people in a tribe of 50 look like Megan Fox? How many look like Brad Pitt?

You don’t look like this
after having three kids
with inferior genes,
and no air-brushing?
What’s wrong with you?

We watch TV and everyone is rich. Entrepreneurs are always successful. Authors always get published. People’s houses are considerably nicer than ours.

We watch the Olympics and realize we might as well not even know how to run or swim. And it dawns on us that our synchronized swimming partner sucks.

Only those in the top 1% of 1% of 1% have an opportunity to display their talents, wealth, and beauty before the general public. And those are the people we compare ourselves to. It’s a nearly impossible standard.

It’s natural to want to be the prettiest girl in the tribe, to have the most resources, or to be the best in the known world at something that others understand and respect. Once upon a time we could set goals like that and get away with it.

Today we draw our competition from a pool of 7 billion people, and wanting to be among the elite is most often a recipe for discouragement.

3. We specialize more than ever before.

Aristotle read all the intellectual writings that existed in Greece in his time, and then went on to add a substantial chunk to this body of knowledge himself.

Even as recently as 1600 – if you were reasonably bright and had enough time on your hands — you could have a good grasp of all academic knowledge. You could read all the “classics”. You could master the known mathematics, philosophy, rhetoric and so on.

From 1600 to 1900 you could not master all human knowledge, no matter how bright you were, but, if you worked hard, you could aspire to master a single field – like mathematics, physics, philosophy or history.

By 1950, you were lucky to master a sub-discipline like Chinese history.

Today you’re lucky to master a sub-sub-sub discipline – like the history of the first 100 years of the Ch’in Dynasty from the perspective of a house servant.

Today we have to work harder than ever to get mastery of ever smaller fields. And the payoff for this work is smaller than ever.

If you were a scholar in the year 1500 and you went to a cocktail party and someone introduced you as “a scholar”, that meant something. That meant you knew EVERYTHING.

Today, you go to a family reunion and tell them you’ve worked for 20 years to become an expert on the realism/anti-realism debate in the meta-ethics sub-sub field of Philosophy, and your relatives don’t know what to think of that. Then they ask around and find out you make $35,000/year, and they figure it must not be very important.

You tell someone you develop web-based software. They hear “computers” and they want you to fix their printer. You can’t fix their printer, so you must not really know computers.

We often don’t understand what our neighbor does for a living, and we don’t know how to explain what we do.

We might even be the best in the world at some small little leaf far out on the tree of skill or the tree of knowledge, but no one we grew up with cares.

4. Markets are more efficient than ever before

If you provide a good no one else provides, you can charge a high price and make good money. This probably won’t last long, though. If your profit margin is high enough, others will notice the opportunity and set up shop to compete with you. This will drive down prices. With enough competition, prices will fall to a level not much higher than the cost of production.

As consumers we love this. As entrepreneurs we find it frustrating.

Are you squeezing?
Or mostly getting squeezed?

This same dynamic applies to the labor market. If you have a skill very few others have, you can charge a high price for your labor. However, if your wages are high enough, others will notice the opportunity and begin developing the skills they need to compete with you. If the supply of qualified workers grows faster than the need for the service, wages will fall.

As business owners we love this. As workers we hate it.

On balance efficient markets might work out well for us. The benefits we receive from lower prices and cheaper labor offset the frustrations that come from having to sell our goods and labor at lower prices.

But efficient markets might also fail us personally. If we lose our job, because there’s too much competition for our position, the equation won’t balance in our favor – at least in the short term. And in the long term some people reap more reward from efficient markets than others.

Overall, efficient markets have led to higher standards of living on average. Life spans are up. Physical possessions are up. Entertainment options are up. Education levels are up.

But are we happier?

Maybe. And maybe not. Once upon a time our place in the tribe was secure. Our skills were highly valued, and they would remain that way our whole productive lives. Today our place is not secure. If there’s a lot of competition for our position, we can be replaced with someone better. And there’s almost always someone better.

Today’s worker can be replaced regardless of how hard they work or how good they are.

Not only that, but whole companies can be replaced. If another company comes along and provides a better or cheaper alternative, everyone can be out of a job through no fault of their own.

Whether you own the business, or you work for wages, in the modern world you very likely live your days with a sword of Damocles hanging over your head.

5. Innovation happens faster than ever before

We live in exciting times. New discoveries are being made every year in almost every field of science. New gadgets are being invented every year. And our existing technologies are being improved every year.

It’s well known that computers have been getting faster. Until recently computer clock speeds had doubled roughly every 18 months since computers were first developed. Your smart phone is (much) more powerful than the computers NASA used to run the Apollo Project. There’s reason to think this pace of improvement has slowed, and will continue to slow, but we are finding other ways, such as parallel computing, to keep finding improvements.

“The Highest Quality Genome,
Now in a Single Day”

Some improvements are happening even faster. The Human Genome Project set out to sequence the human genome in 1989. It took 13 years and 3 Billion dollars to finish.

Toward the end of the Human Genome Project a private company working in parallel reduced the cost in money and time to $200 million and about one year.

Just 10 years later a machine can sequence a genome in a day at a teeny fraction of the cost:

Have you heard about 3-D printers? Did you know they are already semi-affordable? These machines take a 3-d design for a coffee mug or a bracelet, or, . . . pretty much any solid object you can imagine, and print them layer by layer out of plastic. Individuals with a sense of design can invent new gadgets all by themselves.

Currently the production models of these printers make objects from a single material. And you can’t print a ham sandwich yet. But Star Trek replicators can’t be that far off.

And did you know that we can now re-grow body parts and organs?

True. A woman recently grew a new ear for herself under the skin of her forearm.

Imagine what would happen if we could combine the 3-d printer technology with the ability to grow new body parts. Then you could print a new liver for yourself in your basement.

You laugh. Check this out.

These are exciting times. But they are also disorienting and turbulent times.

New innovations come along so quickly in part because we have such high degrees of specialization, diversity and market efficiency – three factors mentioned above.

But the influence goes the other way as well. New inventions and discoveries require new specializations. Rapid innovation also contributes to some of the negative effects of the efficient market. Not only can we lose our job. Not only can our company go out of business. But with new technologies entire industries can be swept away.

If 3-d printing becomes extremely cheap and more versatile (and why wouldn’t it?), all you need is a design you can draw up on your computer (or download from someone else’s computer) plus some raw goo, and you can make nearly anything you want. This cuts out a lot of middle men. Many manufacturing jobs will become obsolete. And many of those workers will need to work very hard to become relevant again.

Not only does rapid innovation make it difficult to keep job skills relevant, it also makes it difficult to stay “in the know”.

Many older folks in their 80s and 90s have not embraced (and likely will not embrace) the internet. When they grew up electric appliances and automobiles were new industries. Many still walked and rode horses as their primary form of transportation in their youth. In many ways they had more in common with the young people in the Roman Empire than they have in common with young people today.

They have been left behind. They are irrelevant. After years of helping to build our world, our world no longer has any use for them. And they don’t understand the world they are leaving behind.

Before you pity them, realize something. Because the pace of innovation is increasing, it’s going to be worse for us. We will one day be even more “out of touch” than our octogenarians are today.

Happy, Healthy Humans

Human beings are not naturally lazy. We are internally driven by a great many things. When important things get scarce, we can become very focused and creative about securing them — things like food, shelter, sex, and companionship.

But that’s not all. When our basic physical and social needs are met we don’t simply wait around for one of our needs to run low again so we can spring into action.

Instead, when our needs are met, we naturally begin a process of growth – alternating between bouts of curious exploration and creative integration.

When we read a book (or even a gossip magazine), we first expose ourselves to new ideas, and then we think about how the new ideas fit with what we previously thought.

When we learn a new skill (like racquetball, painting, or spear making), we make our first clumsy attempts with the new techniques. Then we practice and refine them until they fit us and become a part of our skill set.

When we join a new social group, we first figure out how the group’s members approach life and what they’re up to. Then we figure out how we might fit into the group, and how the group might fit into our lives.

When we take a trip to another part of the world, first we explore the people and the landscape. Then we come to new understandings of cultural differences and the universalities of human nature.

When we solve new problems we first try combinations of existing techniques until something “kinda sorta” works. Then we tinker and tweak until everything is working smoothly.

Growth is a matter of curious exploration plus integration. We increase chaos and then reduce it through organization. We tack new experiences onto our old organizing principles until we find it too cumbersome. Then we search for a new organizing principle that makes the chaos manageable again. These are our “eureka” moments.

Human beings are not naturally withdrawn or selfish either. While we are driven to explore, organize, discover, and grow our own skills and knowledge, we are also naturally inclined to share our discoveries with others.

When we return from our trip, we show our pictures and tell our stories. When we master a new skill, we start giving advice to others (whether they want it or not). When we discover new ways to look at the world, we create works of art to both express how we feel and give hints about our discovery so that some in our audience might discover the insight for themselves. When we invent a new way to manipulate the world, we share our technology with others.

We are the biggest go-getters in the known universe. We want to grow our personal knowledge, and our skills. And we want to help our whole tribe improve as well.

Why Our Lives Lack Zest (One Theory)

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all make a good living being moved by nothing other than the instinct for curious exploration, the enthusiastic desire to integrate the new with the old, and the compulsion to share our findings with others?

Some among us do live this way, and we envy them. But the rest of us have a different relationship to our work. For the most part we do things we would never do on our own time. We feel like we “have to” do what we do. We feel like slaves.

We lack enthusiasm for our work, because conditions aren’t right.

In the 1970s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan began investigating the differences between intrinsic motivation (the enthusiastic desire to do an activity simply because we find it interesting) and extrinsic motivation (for instance, doing something to gain rewards or avoid punishments).

When Deci and Ryan compared intrinsic to extrinsic motivation they found that (on average) intrinsic motivation leads to better performance, and is associated with a greater sense of well-being, better personality integration, better social integration, and more personal growth.

This should be of great interest to parents trying to motivate their children, bosses trying to motivate their employees, and individuals trying to motivate themselves.

But what conditions set the stage for intrinsic motivation? Deci and Ryan asked this question and, after testing many guesses, three conditions stood out: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

If these three conditions are present for a task, they found, they lead to better performance and sense of well-being while doing the task.

And when people experience autonomy, competence and relatedness most of the time in all areas of their lives, they are more likely to report being happy overall, and more likely to have growing, integrated personalities than they would if they experienced higher levels of coercion, frustration, and alienation instead.

Furthermore, when autonomy, competence, and relatedness are lacking, people sometimes adopt harmful and often anti-social strategies in order to cope.

These three conditions appear to be quite important. In fact, they look like they might be the very key to happiness, productivity, growth, and psychological health.

You probably have a rough idea about what each of these conditions is, but let’s look a little more closely to make sure we avoid some of the most common misconceptions.

Deci and Ryan’s first (and most important) condition is autonomy.

In order to act with autonomy we must be able to look at our actions and judge that they are congruent with our personal values, that they contribute to our vision of a better world, and that we have, in some sense, chosen to perform them.

Autonomy is not the same thing as independence or detachment. A man who writes a novel might choose his own work and might even live alone in a cabin in the woods. But if he doesn’t enjoy writing, and is attempting to get published in order to prove to his parents that he is worthy of their love, then he does not work with autonomy.

Navy Seal recruits going through basic training submit themselves to both physical and psychological torment in a process that allows essentially no independence. Yet, if their training is a profound expression of their personal values, and if it contributes to their vision of a better world, they might well act with autonomy.

Autonomy is not all or nothing either. Tell a child, “Do the dishes or you’ll get a beating”, and the child will almost certainly lack autonomy completely. The child will drag his feet, give dirty looks, and foster resentment.

Tell a child, “I know you don’t want to do the dishes, but it’s good to contribute to the household that supports you”, and the child will probably still not act with full autonomy. But, if the child accepts the rationale, at least partly, the child can act with partial autonomy. The hope of many parents is that over time the child will internalize the rationale, and, in the future, the child can do the dishes for his or her own reasons.

Deci and Ryan’s second (and second most important) condition for intrinsic motivation is competence.

When we act with competence we feel confident that we can complete the task at hand. Without a sense of competence, we become anxious or frustrated and lose interest in working on the task.

When a student is asked to write a term paper and doesn’t clearly understand what the professor is looking for, she feels uncertain about her ability to do a good job. It’s frustrating. And that can sap her motivation for working on the paper.

When the same student has received consistent feedback from her professor, has a good idea about what her professor is looking for, and has an angle on the topic she thinks her professor will love, she feels competent to write a good paper and might well write with more enthusiasm.

Deci and Ryan’s third condition for intrinsic motivation is relatedness.

When relatedness is high, we know our place in our most cherished tribe is secure. We have a sense of mutual respect, mutual support, mutual enjoyment, and mutual affection with our tribe mates.

Tasks that foster closer ties to people we care about tend to be more interesting than those that don’t. When we teach our children how to cook or play our favorite sport, we often enjoy taking time from our busy schedules to do these things.

And when a task threatens our relationships with others, we lose interest in performing the task. A 5th grade boy might have fun playing games at a younger sibling’s birthday party. But if there’s a chance schoolmates might learn that he was having fun playing “little kid” games, the child might refuse to participate.

Deci and Ryan’s theory has come to be known as “Self Determination Theory” (SDT). One part of SDT states that when autonomy, competence and relatedness are present for a task, we stand a good chance of working with enthusiasm. When any one of those conditions is absent, our work becomes less interesting and might even become downright oppressive.

World of Warcraft is (hands down) the most popular subscription-based video game yet created. And it has held this title from 2005 to the present (2012).

What is Warcraft’s
secret sauce?

Warcraft is highly addictive to the vulnerable. It has broken up marriages, and there are some reports of players dying because they could not pull themselves away from the game to sleep or use the bathroom.

What’s the draw?

One could argue that Warcraft was the first video game to master the triumvirate of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

In Warcraft a player makes use of many skills to complete tasks within the game. As players “level up” in these skills, they feel ready to take on new challenges (or “quests”). Quests and skills are very well balanced, so players are likely to be presented with a quest right when their skill level gives them some confidence that they will be able to complete it without feeling overwhelmed.

The game also grants a lot of autonomy. Players are free to choose the personal qualities and skills of their character, so they can play in a style that’s congruent with their own game playing values. At any point during game play a player can usually choose from among multiple quests, and can abandon most quests at any time to do something else. And players who do not feel ready to meet a challenge can spend time building skills before they take on the challenge.

The game also supports relatedness. Players can team up with others and form guilds. A 3-person guild might match a sneaky archer with a well-armored warrior and a healing magician. The synergy is often surprising. Each player feels needed and each feels they need the others on the team.

Warcraft doesn’t appeal to everyone. But if you are drawn to the life of a medieval warrior, thief, or magician, Warcraft, and games like it, will likely have much appeal.

Games built on this model are addicting, in part, because autonomy + competence + relatedness is a powerful motivational potion. And, in part, it’s a matter of contrast. Our psychological needs are not met nearly as well in the real world as they are in a World of Warcraft.

Sick Humans in the Modern Zoo

Does the modern world frustrate our attempts to feel autonomy, competence and relatedness? Let’s take a look at how the modern world affects our sense of autonomy and our sense of competence.

We won’t look specifically at relatedness. Relatedness is something of a third wheel in Self-Determination Theory. This seems strange in some ways, because friends, family, and colleagues are such a major source of happiness for most people. Yet in studies that try to isolate the contribution of each factor, relatedness turns out to have the least effect on intrinsic motivation and well-being.

That might be because relatedness is somewhat dependent on autonomy and competence. Perhaps those who enjoy lives filled with autonomy and competence also tend to connect to others in ways that increase their well-being. In any case, even as we consider how the modern world threatens our autonomy and competence, it should become apparent that it also threatens our sense of relatedness at the same time.

Autonomy in the modern world

It might sound silly to suggest that the modern world frustrates autonomy.

The modern Western world (especially the English speaking world) is notorious for its emphasis on autonomy. Ask many people from more traditional societies about the United States, and they’ll tell you we don’t care enough about others, we ignore the wishes of our families and communities, we celebrate rebellion and deviant behavior, we are unwilling to sacrifice, and we complain about the slightest inconvenience others might put on us. Isn’t our main problem the fact that we’re awash in autonomy?

But autonomy is not equivalent to independence or deviance. Autonomy is a matter of feeling free to act according to our own values, and pursue our own vision of the good. A person in a traditional society who shares the deeply held values of her family and community might live with more autonomy than the Westerner who rejects her family’s way of life and follows her own path.

Even then it might seem silly to suggest the modern world frustrates autonomy. Don’t modern tools and social structures give us more ability than ever to act according to our own values and pursue our own vision of the good?

Yes and no. In fact the modern world increases autonomy in some ways, and decreases it in others.

If you are the tribal spear maker or the village blacksmith you have a lot of personal freedom to decide how you do your work, how long you will work, and how hard you will work. No one tells you how to do your job, because no one else knows how to do your job like you do. And it’s easy to tell your own story about how your work is contributing to the greater good. You work with autonomy. And, if this autonomy translates into intrinsic motivation, you will likely work at a good pace for long stretches of time and enjoy it.

Modern business has not given high priority to employee autonomy, in spite of the fact that people often work harder when they have it. The reason is straightforward. A corporation doesn’t merely want a worker to work with enthusiasm in whichever direction the worker sees fit. The corporation needs one worker’s output to coordinate with the output of others. It’s better to have a worker slavishly go in the right direction than enthusiastically go off on a tangent.

And, because there’s always someone else who can be plugged into a given job, modern firms can make workers do things that are boring or stressful, that conflict with the worker’s values, and that might even pit the worker against his fellow human beings. Today’s worker often has little choice but to toe the line.

Today’s marketers often peddle products they don’t believe in. Firm lawyers must sometimes defend positions at odds with their personal ethics. People work extra hours and agree to be “on call” 24×7. And many of us bounce between the boring and the stressful most of our working lives.

Modern humans have autonomy issues in their personal lives as well.

Judgmental family members often coerce other family members into holding the beliefs and values of the family. They do this by expressing dismay, disdain, or anger when members of the group don’t act the way they think they should. This coercion can have good effects (it can make a person think twice before harming others in the group). But it can also make it difficult for a person to be who they truly are with the people they love most.

Human beings have always had judgmental friends and family members. That’s nothing new. And punishments for deviation were often harsher in the past than they are today. What’s new is that it’s getting more and more difficult to avoid disappointing people who are important to us.

In the tribe, you weren’t as likely to be tempted away from the tribe’s values. You pretty much lived your life in the tribe, and didn’t encounter alternative religious beliefs, alternative political parties, or alternative lifestyles.

Today we encounter, and must work closely with, many people whose values are different than the values we were taught as children. If we find ourselves having repeated interactions with these people and their communities, then, at some point, we must decide upon a strategy. Will we 1) remain loyal to the values of our original community, 2) boldly reject the original community and switch to the new, 3) live a double-life by compartmentalizing or 4) find a creative way to integrate ourselves into the best parts of both communities?

Option one (remaining loyal to the values of our original community) can protect our sense of autonomy if we are not particularly curious. But there are some downsides to pursuing this strategy as well. It means we can’t sincerely consider whether others might have better beliefs or a better way of life than we do. To open ourselves to such possibilities would be to risk changing our minds. So we must shield ourselves from the influence of outsiders to a large degree.

Life in a bubble might keep us in good standing with the people in our lives who got there first, but the strategy is decidedly at odds with our drive for sincere and curious exploration. It shuts us off from beliefs and values that might prove better than the beliefs and values we started with. And this strategy sometimes has socially undesirable consequences, leading to prejudice and the kinds of debates where people on both sides talk loudly with their fingers in their ears.

Option two (switching allegiance) could eventually lead to a new situation of autonomous living for those who are not particularly curious, just like option one.

Presumably one would switch allegiance only if the new way of life seems better than the old. Even then it takes courage. When people do switch sides, the plunge is not usually taken until the waters are tested and new social ties are in place and secure.

And, if it’s simply a matter of switching from one bubble to another, switching allegiance suffers the same downsides as maintaining the original loyalties.

Option three (living a double life) is an increasingly common way to deal with normative conflict in the modern world. Unfortunately, life in a closet is not fun.

The idea of being in a closet brings to mind a homosexual individual who has not yet told family or friends about his (or her) sexual orientation, because he (or she) fears they won’t react well, and might reject him (or her) because of it. This is a classic and tragic case of living in a closet, but it’s not the only way to live in a closet. Closets come in various shapes and sizes. There are sexual-orientation closets, belief closets, addiction closets, and values closets, among others.

Some children grow up, go away to college, and begin to question the religious beliefs or political positions of their parents. Many do not tell their parents for years, for fear of negative reactions. So they spend Thanksgiving dinner avoiding political or religious conversation, feeling pressure to keep their mouth shut when they’d rather share their thoughts as an equal partner in the discussion.

When we compartmentalize, we must maintain separate personalities in our head, the same way we maintain separate outfits in our wardrobe. And we have to be careful to pull out just the right personality for the given occasion. If we don’t stay in character well enough, we might slip up and mention something that removes our mask and blows our cover.

We must also spend precious time, energy, and attention orchestrating our two worlds so they don’t accidentally collide.

But people are choosing the closet more than ever. Why? In part it’s because we are exposed to and attracted to more alternative beliefs and lifestyles than ever before. In part it’s because it’s easier to keep our worlds separate today. And in part it’s because the consequences of being found out aren’t typically as bad as they used to be. When we experiment with new ideas and values today, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as tinkering with Witchcraft in Salem, or Atheism during the Spanish Inquisition.

The consequences of disappointing others are mild enough so that our curiosity feels free to roam. But the consequences are harsh enough that we’d rather live a double-life than embrace the conflict that comes from revealing who we truly are.

This dynamic causes many moderns to live lives low in autonomy. Too often we are in situations where we bite our tongue rather than speak our mind. And we focus much attention and energy on keeping our worlds separate – attention and energy that we’d perhaps rather spend on personal growth and social contribution.

Option four (finding a creative way to integrate into both communities) is perhaps the healthiest option, both personally and socially. But it is difficult. Unlike living a double life, this strategy allows us to express the same set of personal values in all situations. But it also requires us to frequently engage in a process of “values clarification,” “finding ourselves,” or “figuring out who we truly are.”

Ultimately this strategy requires us to re-negotiate our relationships with all the important people in our lives, bit by bit. We modify the values we express to others here and there in each community, a little at a time. Eventually we tweak our set of values into shape until they are in a condition that a) we can live with, b) our original community can live with, and c) our new community can live with. If we are creative and persistent, we can sometimes make it all work without risking too many negative emotional reactions as we move with integrity between groups.

A person raised with pro-life values might attend college and learn that most of her new friends are pro-choice. After much thought, she might adopt the view that abortions should happen only in the first trimester. Or she might expand the set of exceptions her family would allow. This might allow her to move her personal values close enough to her friends’ values to keep them happy, and might also allow her to remain close enough to her family’s values to keep them happy.

Of course those who seek to clarify their values don’t typically think in such strategic terms. Their concern is with what is truly right or wrong, good or bad. But the need to minimize negative social reactions will likely shape their values nonetheless.

When it works well, this strategy can help a person maintain an overall sense of autonomy in one way. When they choose to act, they can act in ways that are consistent with their personal values without fear of social consequences.

But, because this strategy requires lot of focused thought (often in the form of brooding), it can frustrate autonomy as well. This strategy typically appeals to those who are both curious and conscientious. But, if such people are to avoid negative judgments from all the different groups they’ve managed to integrate with, they will have to adopt new beliefs and values very carefully. Every new proposed belief or action must be meticulously scrutinized for its potential to produce conflict. They must examine it to make sure not only that it fits with their own interests and needs, but also that it is something they can justify to all the other people in their lives.

The more diversity a person manages to embrace, and the more conscientious they are, the more time and space they need to construct justifications and clarify values. If they would rather spend that time developing new skills or producing things to share with others, they will feel oppressed by the constant need to “over think” things. And this can drain some of the zest from their lives.

In summary, the modern world can frustrate our need for autonomy. Autonomy in the workplace is frustrated by modern market efficiency. And autonomy in our personal lives is frustrated by modern diversity in beliefs and values. It is often those who attempt to embrace diversity most who pay the highest price in autonomy. They often must go to great lengths to justify their beliefs and values to others, or hide their beliefs and actions from others. This is time and energy they would typically rather spend in other ways.

Competence in the Modern World

Modern humans have many skills. We can read, write, and do arithmetic. We can cook, shop and use the internet. We can play sports, musical instruments, and video games. And we keep learning new skills most of our lives.

Having skills makes us feel more competent than not having skills. And we are arguably learning more skills than ever. But we are not feeling more competent than ever.

The problem is that each hour we spend developing skills is providing less bang for the buck in terms of felt competence. And that’s because our skills aren’t as valuable to others as they used to be.

Deep inside many people is a desire to be the best in the tribe at something that matters to the tribe. We want to be the go-to person for some skill or service the community values. This desire is not necessarily about having higher status than others (that’s a different issue). It’s about having our own special way to contribute to the community. If others rely on us for our skills as much as we rely on them for their skills, we feel like we belong. There’s a sense of mutual respect and mutual need.

This drives us to develop diverse skills. If the older brother is already valued as the smart child, the younger brother might work to become the funny child. The high school student who lacks talent for playing football might work hard to become the best beat-boxer, artist, dancer, mathematician, chess player, expert on comic books, song lyric memorizer, or drug dealer in the school.

A drive for unique competence is good for individuals in the tribe. It also helps the tribe as a whole. A tribe with diverse talents extracts resources from the environment more effectively than a tribe whose members compete with each other to master a narrower range of skills.

In the good old days this was our trick for feeling competent. Simply find a skill the tribe values that no one else is specializing in, and spend time practicing it until we are the go-to resource for that skill for the tribe.

Unfortunately, that trick doesn’t work as well as it used to.

* * *

One problem is that consumers no longer need to get their needs met in a local market. Instead they are free to seek the best deal they can find in a global market.

You might be the best copywriter in your neighborhood, but local copywriters have little edge over distant copywriters in most cases. In order for a copywriter to get their neighbor’s business, they must compete with all the other copywriters in the world.

Being an average provider in a global niche is not necessarily an economic death sentence. In fields like copywriting that require one-on-one fulfillment, the market has a way of allowing mediocre providers to compete side by side with excellent providers. Copywriters often take a week or more per project, and there’s more demand for copywriting than the best copywriters in the world can satisfy. That allows the best copywriters to set higher prices and still stay busy.

Because the best copywriters have limited capacity and charge higher prices, lesser copywriters can serve clients who don’t want to wait, or don’t want to pay the higher fees. As a new copywriter gets better and better, she can charge higher and higher prices.

Developing skills like copywriting can be economically viable. But our main concern here is not economic. Our main concern has to do with happiness. And a mediocre copywriter might not fare well on that count.

When we compete with the best in the world, it takes a long time to get good. Some have estimated that 10,000 hours is something of a magic number. That number is somewhat arbitrary, of course, and will vary from person to person and from niche to niche. But these days almost anyone must focus on their craft for a very long time before they feel competent, and for others to recommend them as a go-to resource on the basis of merit alone.

People now spend years of their life practicing skills and offering services, knowing the whole time they are not among the best at their craft. That’s tough on members of our species. Our psychologies were built to crave competence at a time when it might have taken 500 hours of focused skill development to become a go-to resource for the tribe. Today it takes 10,000 hours to get the same hit.

And today’s 10,000 hours might turn into tomorrow’s 20,000 hours.

* * *

The local-global shift is not the only shift going on in the modern world. Another problem is that, in some niches, producers have greater reach.

Take story-telling. Not only has storytelling moved from local to global, it’s also moved from relatively unleveraged to relatively leveraged.

Christopher Nolan is not in the same position as the copywriter. He doesn’t have to meet one on one with clients and spend a week with each one to deliver his service. Once he finishes a movie, it can be distributed to everyone in the world with very little extra effort on his part.

And that means, if you want to be the go-to provider of your neighbor’s story telling needs, you must compete with Christopher Nolan, Stephen King, and all the other story tellers in the world. There is little place for mediocre story tellers to compete side-by-side with the best. It seems to be all or nothing. Winner take all.

* * *

The story telling niche has made two transitions: from local to global accessibility and from relatively unleveraged fulfillment to fully leveraged fulfillment.

Many niches have made both transitions. Some have made one but not the other. And some niches still require local, one-on-one fulfillment.

Plumbers, auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and most hourly workers still often provide services under local and unleveraged conditions.

Shopkeepers, local workshop providers, and local musicians can still be local, and have more leverage than the plumbers.

Copywriters, consultants, and salaried corporate workers tend to work in an unleveraged manner, providing services to one stakeholder at a time. But they are, for the most part, squarely in the global labor market.

Writers who write for mass consumption, software developers, professional athletes, and academic researchers are in global-leveraged niches.

Not every niche fits neatly into just one of the four categories. Small firm doctors and lawyers, for instance, are often in a global marketplace when looking for their first job. But, once established in a town, their sense of competence depends mostly on the local competition.

And some jobs will have multiple aspects with some aspects fitting into one category and other aspects fitting into another. University professors compete locally for teaching competence, and globally for researching competence.

* * *

Here’s where things get interesting. Most of the new value in the world is being created in the global-leveraged category. And that could be really bad news for us and our stone-age psychologies. It might mean more and more of us will have to compete head on with millions of others to be the best in the world at something, with most of us failing completely, and a few lucky winners taking the whole pie.

Many people are, in fact, falling into that trap these days. Fortunately it’s not entirely necessary, even when developing skills for global-leveraged markets.

An alternative is that we can create a new niche for ourselves. Academic researchers have long competed in a global labor market. But researchers have a knack for finding new areas of study to call their own. Once they find their specialty, it’s relatively easy to become the world-wide expert in that area – at least for a while.

Today there are biochemists who specialize in the effects of a specific gene on a specific organ. Because niches can branch and branch and branch, the number of niches can grow as fast as the number of people seeking niches. And, like the best beat-boxer in the high school, we are naturals at finding our own niches.

Writers can do something similar. Stephen King doesn’t compete head on with John Grisham. One writes horror stories, and the other writes lawyer/detective novels. A newish writer with a background in Renaissance History might carve off a new niche by writing lawyer/detective novels in a Renaissance setting. Even if our new writer is only above average as a writer, she might find a small following among Renaissance Era enthusiasts who also like lawyer/detective novels.

Another alternative for someone in a global leveraged niche is to stop flying solo and join a company. The company will compete in the global leveraged niche, and the employee will offer services to the company in a global, unleveraged manner.

So it’s not all doom and gloom in the modern world. There are still many ways to feel competent. But it is much more difficult than it was in the tribe or village.

Here are some of the challenges we face trying to feel competent these days:

  1. If we pursue a relatively broad niche that our local friends and family would understand and value in a global-leveraged market (like being a novelist, screen actor, or professional musician), then we face immense competition and are unlikely to become the go-to resource we want to become.
  2. If we pursue a very narrow niche in an academic setting (like studying the effects of a dopamine receptor gene on appetite regulation), we can settle in with a stable niche and achieve a high sense of competence, but we have to spend years training and competing before we get to the point where we can even reasonably think about selecting a niche. (There’s no point choosing a specific niche 10 years in advance of being qualified to practice it these days.)
  3. If we try to limit the competition by pursuing an extremely narrow niche in a global leveraged market (perhaps we create software that helps disc golf players track their progress), it can be tough to find the people in the world who want our product or services.
  4. If we pursue a very narrow niche in a global-leveraged market, it can also be difficult to explain to our local friends and family what we do. They will not know enough to be able to recommend us to others, and might not know anyone who would want our services anyway. If we are struggling to make good money it can be tough to make a case for competence to those in our lives who matter most.
  5. If we spend 10 years developing a craft, we might come to feel competent, but, because of the rapid pace of innovation, our service might become obsolete. As our niche goes the way of the dodo, so does our sense of competence.
  6. If we provide a local-leveraged service – such as local continuing-education workshops, we might find that more and more of our market is being served by globally-available, digitally-delivered workshops. This shrinks our niche down to those who want to meet in person, and causes others to expect us to be among the best in the world, as opposed to simply being the best in the community.
  7. If we try to go the most sure-fire route and find a niche that resembles the town blacksmith or tribal spear maker – like becoming a small town plumber, we will have an easier time than most coming to feel competent. Even then, though, we will face challenges. The internet is providing more and more excellent DIY troubleshooting and repair guides to anyone so inclined. This reduces demand for plumbers, and reduces their status to some degree. Independent artisans also have to worry about national firms moving into their area and competing for their business.
  8. If we offer services, such as copywriting, in a global-unleveraged market, we have to spend more and more time working our craft before we can feel competent. And new innovations mean we must continually stay on top of things to stay relevant. There is no coasting in the modern world. No longer can we spend our days zoning out, making spears and whistling as we work. We must struggle to stay relevant, or be left behind.

* * *

OK, so it’s more difficult than it used to be to feel autonomous and competent in the modern world. And that threatens our sense of well-being. So what? What does that have to do with goal setting?

In the final section of this essay (and we’re almost there) we will consider the kinds of goals we should and shouldn’t set if we want to be happy. Part of the answer is that we need to set goals that increase our autonomy and competence.

But part of the answer is that we need to let go of some of our goals — goals we think will make us happy but won’t. These goals are seen as shortcuts to happiness, and they often backfire.

We will next focus our attention on what is perhaps the most popular shortcut to happiness – pursuing wealth.

Is Money the Answer?

Fill in this blank: If I had ten million dollars, it would change my life for the better, because _____________________________________.

List the answers that easily come to mind, and then see if any of the following answers should be on your list:

  1. I could tell my boss to go jump in the lake.
  2. I could hold my head high at my high school reunion.
  3. I could speak my mind with my family on religious, political, or lifestyle topics without fearing they will shun me or cut me out of the inheritance.
  4. People, in general, would take my opinion more seriously.
  5. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the bad life choices I’ve made in the past.
  6. I could escape the rat race and relax.
  7. I could get out of a bad relationship.
  8. I could enjoy new technologies rather than feeling threatened by them.
  9. I could justify what I have been doing with my time — even to those who don’t understand what I’ve been doing with my time.
  10. I could set up a life for myself far away from my family.
  11. I could pay the bills (and not worry about paying them ever again).
  12. I could give more money to charity.
  13. I could start that social movement I’ve always wanted to start.
  14. I could develop that product or service I’ve wanted to develop.
  15. I could take better care of an ill family member.
  16. I wouldn’t be a financial burden on my family any longer.
  17. I could quit my stressful job and have more energy for my family during the day, and in the evenings.
  18. I could hobnob with higher status people.
  19. I could hire other people to do all the things in my business I don’t want to do.
  20. I could go back to school.
  21. I could travel the world.
  22. I could devote more time to my favorite skill (and maybe compete with the best in the world at it).
  23. I could sit around in my pajamas all day and play World of Warcraft.
  24. I could buy a piece of land and build the perfect survivalist compound.

Can money buy happiness? Sometimes.

If you combine your own list with the list above, you can see that money can allow you to do many things, and most of those things will increase your happiness – at least a little bit, for at least a little while.

And money, it seems, can even buy lasting happiness up to a point.

A study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton suggests that income and daily well-being in the United States are strongly correlated up to about $75,000/year (and not strongly correlated above that amount). So, if you’re making less than $75,000/year, and you live in the United States, more money is likely to make you happier. If you live in a different country, it’s a reasonable guess that there is a similar figure that applies to you.

But sometimes the pursuit of money backfires.

If you take a close look at the above list, you will see some very good things to do with money. But you will also see that people sometimes adopt wealth goals as a way to cope with the fact that their psychological needs are not being met.

When we lack autonomy, competence or relatedness, we are sometimes vulnerable to the thought that making money is the easiest way to fix our problems.

If we have enough money, we can tell oppressive bosses, oppressive family members, and oppressive situations to go jump in the lake.

If we have enough money, we can prove that we are somebody, and that we must be competent in something of value to others.

If we have enough money, we can speak our mind freely without fear of scorn.

If we have enough money we can enjoy technological progress rather than seeing it as a threat to our competence.

If we have enough money we can show others that what looked like poor career choices in the past were really part of a grand master plan that we always knew would work out in the end.

Can you relate to this thinking? Have you set lofty monetary goals, because you see it as a simple way to quickly erase your autonomy, competence, and relatedness deficits?

If not, you almost certainly know people who are doing this right now.

And, if so, you’re not alone. It’s a very natural and common strategy. And it might seem an especially promising strategy, because we see it work out all the time in the movies.

However, on a percentage basis, it doesn’t actually work out as often as we might want it to. Money is hard to make. We think we can spend one or two years and reach our goal, and it might take ten or twenty instead.

And the problem is, because the money is our hope, we often don’t deal with our need deficits directly. We think, “If I just keep my head down and make my money, I can solve all my problems in one fell swoop.”

And, if it winds up taking twenty years, instead of two, that might wind up being twenty years of oppressive, alienated, low-self-esteem misery, instead of twenty years of well-integrated growth and contribution.

A second problem is that, if our psychological needs are not being met, AND we are short on money, we will have an edge of desperation to our money-making activities. And we will likely make short-sighted decisions because of it.

Instead of learning new skills to face new challenges, we will try to find the fastest work-around we can. Or we will switch projects rather than spending a little time to make an old project work the way it should. We will be repeatedly drawn to money-making shortcuts rather than building something of value. We will see the people we serve in our market as merely a means to our own ends rather than cultivating a sincere interest in making their lives better.

Pursuing money isn’t entirely a bad thing. Some good might come from setting money-making goals. But, if we set too high a goal, we might regret it. And, if it lures us into short-term thinking, it might even be counterproductive.

Consider again what the tribal spear maker needed to be happy. He needed to be part of a tribe filled with mutual respect, mutual affection, mutual support, and mutual need. He needed the freedom to contribute to the tribe in a way that fit him, and freedom to do his own thing from time to time. He needed some voice in the decisions the tribe made. And he needed to be good at something the tribe valued.

It might be that people in the United States need an average of $75,000/year to reach their highest levels of happiness, because that’s the amount of money needed to indirectly demonstrate competence, to indirectly gain the right to be taken seriously, and to set aside enough “f*** you” money to feel a bit more autonomous.

How much money would we need to be happy if we could more directly achieve autonomy, competence, and relatedness? It’s a good guess that it would be substantially less than $75,000/year.

Set Goals That Lead To Happiness

Well here we are. This is the final section of the essay. And we’ll finally get down to some practical advice. The structure of this section will be very straightforward. We will consider some goals that can help us increase our autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the year ahead.

Goals for Increasing Your Sense of Competence

1. Know your Competence Story

What is your “go to” skill (you might have more than one)? And how does that skill help you add value to the world?

First, answer those questions for yourself.

You might already have an area of competence, but you just haven’t articulated it yet. If so, then figure out what it is, and write it down.

If you can’t think of anything you’re really good at, and you can’t think of any way you’re using your skills to help other people, maybe you need to find something better to do with your time in the coming year.

And maybe you just need to look at what you’re doing in a different way. If you’re a barista at a coffee shop, perhaps you don’t feel like your job takes any special skill, and you don’t feel like you’re changing the world in any significant way. But this is partly a matter of how you tell the story. Put one way you simply serve coffee. Put another, you are providing the fuel that makes the world go round.

Second, once you’ve answered those questions for yourself, re-work your answer into a form that 1) you can explain to your friends and family, and 2) they can explain to other people.

Even if your skill is very narrow, and none of the people closest to you are in your market, if they can explain to others what you do, they will themselves better understand your competence, and they will think of you as a go-to resource that they can tell other people about just in case they ever run into someone who might need your services.

When you figure out how to explain what you do, try to get it down to a few sentences – or even a single sentence, if you can do so without losing anything important. Then you might even consider putting it on a business card.

But don’t order too many business cards. You want to feel free to change your competence story over time. And, as you grow into new levels of competence, make sure you always have a way to communicate to others what you do, and how you’re making the world a better place in a way that they can explain to others.

2. Develop New Skills

This isn’t a particularly new, profound, or tricky piece of advice. But, then again, most people don’t embrace it as fully as they should either.

We are sometimes too reticent to learn new skills. When it turns out we can’t complete a project because we lack a necessary skill, we might break out in anxiety, and then search for a work-around that depends only on our current skills instead of learning the new skill and “doing it right.”

But learning a new skill will typically yield much more benefit than simply getting a particular project done. New skills make us feel more competent than we think they will. That’s because they have a combinatorial effect with our other skills. And our expanding toolbox will help us stay competent longer than we otherwise would in a rapidly changing world.

There are two main kinds of skills to consider here. Some skills take us deeper into our craft. We can call these “niche-specific skills”. And some skills can be applied to almost any field. We can call these “general skills”.

It’s a good idea to continue developing both kinds of skills.

Niche-specific skills are part of the 10,000 hours you might need to put in to become truly excellent in your field. If you are a web programmer, for instance, you should keep learning new techniques and frameworks as you work on your projects. If you are a writer, you might take time to really practice the art of metaphor (or some other very specific skill), either between pieces, or as you work on them.

General skills can be applied to a range of niches. Here are some general skills you might consider developing in the year ahead: speed reading, public speaking, basic programming (just HTML and some simple scripting, perhaps), the ability to read and critique scientific studies (without necessarily needing to understand the complex mechanisms being discussed), basic mathematics, basic writing skills, basic video editing skills, basic design skills, the ability to have crucial conversations, knowing how to outsource work, identifying cognitive bias (in yourself and others) and developing ways to correct for it, some basic “handyman” skills, breaking bad habits, establishing good habits.

Niche-specific skills should be developed to a high level of proficiency.

General skills don’t need to be developed to a high level of proficiency at first. You may safely develop general skills to only a basic level of competence, as that is all it takes to allow you to imagine new possibilities and have more options. These general skills can be developed more fully later if you need them to be.

General skills might enable you to find a new way to serve your audience if you find your niche changing under your feet, or if you come to the realization that you are competing against too many excellent providers in your niche. In both of these cases, general skills can help you stay nimble and take your services in a new direction.

For instance, if you are a writer, and you learn just the basics of putting up HTML web pages, you might be able to do some things other writers aren’t doing. Perhaps you could try your hand at a “choose your own adventure” novel that would allow you to pursue alternative plot developments, and involve your audience in the process.

Alternately, if you’re a programmer, and you develop some speaking and video-editing skills, you could try your hand at producing Youtube tutorials that explain techniques in your field.

General skills are very similar to what Paul Graham calls “upwind skills”

And Scott Young explains how sprinkling some general skills in to your skill development regimen will allow you to find more luck as you work out your career path.

Before you know what your niche is, it might be a good idea to spend the bulk of your time developing general skills, and exploring some niches more deeply (as they interest you) until you figure out what you want to do.

Once you’re in a niche, the priority can flip, and you might spend more of your time developing the niche-specific skills, while still developing general skills a bit as you go.

You also don’t have to become good at every general skill there is. Once you have a well-defined specialty, perhaps a good goal would be to develop competence in one new general skill per year.

And you don’t need to work on general skills in isolation from your day to day work. For instance, if you’re a writer and want to develop some basic web programming skills, there’s no need to take a class in HTML programming or javascript (though you could). Instead you could simply choose a writing project that requires you to publish web pages, and let your project drive your education.

You also don’t need to develop new skills yourself. If you are in a position to hire others who have already developed the skills you need, then, by all means, do so. In that case the skill YOU need to develop is the skill of finding and managing those who have the skills you need. In a way, when you have easy access to others with skills, those skills become a part of your own skill set.

Goals for Increasing Autonomy

3. Consider coming out of your closet.

Are there things others don’t know about you that might cause them pain were they to know? Do you feel like you have to keep your true identity secret when you’d rather be yourself around the people you love?

If you are in a sexual orientation closet, a political party closet, a religion closet, or any other kind of closet, consider coming out. (Like you haven’t thought of that already :))

Coming out of a closet is not something to be rushed. You have to make sure you aren’t going to be slain in your sleep, and it might be nice if you can do it without being cut out of the inheritance. You’re in the closet for a reason. There is probably some potential for anger, sadness, disdain, or worse if you try to come out.

But it’s not something to be delayed indefinitely either (in most cases). What’s needed is a delicate touch. That’s why another good goal is to . . .

4. Learn the Art of Crucial Conversations

Some people have a knack for setting up listeners for bad news. They know how to choose the most helpful environment for the conversation. They know how to frame things to prepare their listeners. They know how to deliver the payload. And they know how to clean up afterwards.

They also know when to have a “big talk” and when to test the waters with subtle hints and let people figure out the rest on their own.

They know which people they should talk to first, and which people to talk to last. And they know how to recruit allies to their cause.

If you want to get out of a closet, stay out of new closets, and protect your autonomy in general for the rest of your life, make this the very next general skill you develop.

The book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler is probably the most popular guide on this topic. That book is a good start. If you want to dig deeper from there, Google is your friend.

And once you know the art of crucial conversations (and other Machiavellian tricks of persuasion) you can also use your skills to . . .

5. Deal with Toxic influences.

If you have people in your life who stress you out, mooch off you, are mean to you, angry at you, or try to make you feel guilty all the time, set some boundaries. If that fails, get them out of your life if you can.

Make a list of these people, and make this one of your top goals this year.

Unfortunately, you might not be able to get rid of every toxic person. So it might also be good to . . .

6. Become Less Fragile to Negative Judgments

Consider this. If a politician has an extramarital affair, it often means the end of his career. If a sports star does, he is criticized harshly but does not lose his job. If a rock star or movie star has an extramarital affair, people respond mostly with a shrug, and the increased publicity might even provide a boost to his career. (Just reporting, not condoning).

Politicians are fragile to negative judgments. Rock stars are not. In Nassim Taleb’s terms, the rock star is “anti-fragile” to negative judgments (negative judgments have limited downside and potentially great upside).

Figure out where you stand on this spectrum in your career and in your personal life, and consider whether there are ways to make yourself less fragile (or even anti-fragile) to negative judgments. Try to set things up so you don’t have to care so much what everyone else thinks. You really can’t please everyone, so do yourself a favor and figure out a safe way to stop trying.

Coming down from high level strategy to low-level tactics, here’s a trick for deflecting negative judgments that works like a charm much of the time. If someone criticizes you, embrace the criticism and exaggerate it with a joke.

If someone calls you immature, say “that’s what my kindergarten teacher says.”

If someone calls you fat, say “ten more pounds and I’m ready for the Santa suit.”

And if you don’t think you can come up with one-liners on the fly, you can simply give a knowing look, and say, “you don’t know the half of it” or “yeah, it’s worse than you think.”

Goals for Increasing Relatedness

7. Find Your Tribe.

Most people thrive when they are part of a good tribe – a place they can go to contribute and receive help when needed, a place of mutual enjoyment, mutual respect, and mutual purpose.

You might already have this. Perhaps you’re part of a close and supportive family, and you’re enthusiastically involved social groups that fit you.

But many people find themselves running low on relatedness these days – at least from time to time. If you are in this position right now, consider setting goals for increasing your sense of relatedness this year (but only the good kind).

Now, given that there are many different kinds of people (introverts and extroverts, social butterflies and those seeking deep intimacy), different kinds of groups, different kinds of friendships, different modalities for friendships (online vs real world), and different ways to arrange friends and groups of friends. The advice here could get very complicated.

So let’s try to keep it simple. Just try to find some people you enjoy, whether it’s one other person, or a new group.

And then find ways to spend more time with people who energize you, and less time with people who drag you down.

And if you’re drawn to a tribal utopia, like the fantasy version of tribal life described in the beginning of this essay, use that as an ideal that you nudge your social life toward a little at a time.

In Closing . . .

The modern world has many benefits. But it can also be a harsh place for people who come equipped with psychologies that were molded during simpler times. The good news is that, if we keep our eyes open and think clearly, we might be able to have our cake and eat it too. We might be able to enjoy the benefits of modernity, while recreating some of the conditions we need in order to thrive — an environment in which our needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are mostly satisfied.

If we think of our lives as a garden, the seven goals laid out above are mostly ways of preparing the soil. And the reason we take time to prepare the soil is so we can more successfully grow the plants we want to grow. The plants are all the specific projects we will take on in the coming year.

Maybe we will set our sights on writing a novel, coding a web application, remodeling a house, creating a piece of art, doing well in college classes, getting a promotion, or (gasp) making some money.

If we first make sure our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are being met, then the projects we do this year might be done mostly for the right reasons, and with more enthusiasm. We might even find ourselves accomplishing more of our goals, and becoming happier people all around in the process.

Post Script

This was part 2 of the series: “The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting”.

If you want to be notified when part 3 comes out, you can get on the email list. Just scroll up and enter your email address in the form on the right. (You’ll also get the free guide “Clear Mind, Effective Action”).

And, if you found this essay helpful, please share it with a friend or two (Would your Facebook or Twitter friends find it interesting or useful?)

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The Dark Side of Goal Setting

(The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting — Part 1)

“…and I’m no different. Solemnly going about my day to day duties in my life, all the while seething underneath with unrealized dreams, expectations and regrets.” — Henry David Thoreau

long time ago in a faraway land, a boy wanted to be the greatest among his friends. He set himself to the task and became the greatest of his friends. Then he wanted to lead his tribe. With hard work and some scheming he became chief. From time to time his tribe was attacked by other tribes. He met that problem head on, conquered all the neighboring tribes, and made them into one nation.

Which goals will lead to happiness?
Which will lead to regrets?

Then he thought to himself, “why not rule the whole world?” He attacked city after city and conquered a large territory. In the end he failed to gain the whole world, and left much of it in ruins.

An auto service department was charged with meeting a billing goal each day. When people brought their cars in for lube jobs, the service technicians frequently “found” other stuff that needed fixing.

In the movie “Rudy” the protagonist and hero was an undersized kid with an oversized dream. He wanted to play football for Notre Dame. Through sheer pluck and determination he ignored detractors and persisted through years of effort and dwindling hope. Eventually, at the end of the movie, he got his chance and played one series of downs in a Notre Dame football game.

And for every Rudy there are dozens of hapless souls who persist too long at a goal that doesn’t fit them and wind up in mid-life wondering what they’ve done to themselves.

Bright students want to become famous actors and spend years waiting tables and getting occasional bit parts in television commercials before realizing in their 40s that their acting career is going nowhere, and that they should have done something else with their lives.

Talented and hard working youngsters set their sights on playing major league baseball. They spend years playing semi-pro ball, and maybe even in the lower minor leagues, only to wind up bitter old men — broke, without marketable skills, resenting both the childhood goals pushed onto them by overzealous parents and the “prejudiced” decision makers who denied them their big chances along the way.

Having the wrong goals can cost us a lot. And it can cost the rest of the world a lot, too.

Let’s bring it a little closer to home.

Have you ever dared to dream really big at the prompting of a motivational guru like Tony Robbins or Napoleon Hill? Are you still waiting for your castle and private helicopter? Me too.

If you can conceive it, and you can believe it, then you can achieve it. Right?

Question: how many people can be in the top 1% of income earners?

Answer: 1%.

What if everyone in the world attends a Tony Robbins seminar and sets the goal of being in the top 1% of income earners? Then how many will make it to the top 1%?

Right again. Still 1%.

So what of the other 99%? What’s their lot in life?

They get to feel like failures. They’ll work their whole lives never arriving at their destination. And, sadly, the sense of failure is probably greatest among those who make it into the top 2% but never quite get all the way to their goal.

Tony Robbins shouldn’t be singled out for unmitigated criticism. He deserves credit for helping many people with other motivational and emotional management techniques. He’s also just one of a large number of motivational gurus who encourage people to dream dreams that set them up for failure.

As a group these teachers are resonating with an idea we’re all much too eager to believe – that we’re special – that we rightfully should be kings and queens of our own realms – even if everyone else is chasing the same goals and there’s little room at the top.

And no doubt some people set unreasonable goals and reach them. Just like some people win the lottery.

But here’s some reality. Setting a goal is not sufficient for reaching it. And it’s not necessary either. Genghis Kahn did not originally set out to rule the known world. In some ways it just kind of happened once the ball got rolling.

Bill Gates, as ambitious as he was, did not set out in the early days to be the richest man in the world. He might have adopted that goal along the way – once it became eminently plausible. But not at first. A lot of luck played into that outcome. There were probably many entrepreneurs with even better ideas than Gates who worked just as hard whose businesses never got off the ground.

And Bill Gates will be the first to admit how much good luck played a role in his fortunes (unlike the majority of successful business owners who suffer from narcissistic hindsight bias)

Ken Griffey Jr., too, showed uncanny insight recently when he looked back on his career and noted that there were probably many baseball players more talented than he was who never got their shot in the majors.

Very humble words coming from one of the most talented we’ve ever seen.

Griffey reasoned that, had he not been the son of a major leaguer, he would have had a much tougher road to a legendary baseball career – if he ever reached it at all.

If we find ourselves wishing to be members of an elite group, we must remember that there’s not that much room at the top. Only 1% can ever be in the top 1%. Only 1 person can be the best golfer in the world. And thousands of serious, talented people have that same goal.

The lesson here isn’t that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. Or that we shouldn’t pursue baseball or acting careers. The lesson is that goal striving has a dark side. If we pursue the wrong goal, or attach too firmly to a goal that’s out of reasonable reach, or narrow our focus on our goal so much that we forget our ethics, or fail to notice the effects our goal striving has on the others around us, then there’s hell to pay – by our customers, or our families, or, perhaps most tragically, by ourselves.

Get this wrong, and we can wind up living slavish, preoccupied lives filled with frustration, failure, shame, and quiet desperation.

What About Having No Goals?

So what should we do about this? If setting goals is fraught with so much hazard, maybe the solution is to go the other way completely and try to live life without goals.

Leo Babauta at Zen Habits thinks so.

Is a life with no goals possible?
Is it the key to happiness?

In his widely-circulated blog post, “The Best Goal is No Goal,” Leo claims to live life with no goals, and reports: “. . . this is a wonderful thing: you wake up and do what you’re passionate about.”

Many people are attracted to this promise.

Joshua Fields Millburn of “The Minimalists” has written that after reading Leo’s post he went from the most driven, goal-oriented person in his organization to someone who lives life with no goals at all. And he reports being less stressed, happier, more content, and, perhaps most surprisingly, MORE productive.

Sounds great. This approach could certainly solve a lot of problems. Without goals Genghis Kahn might not have laid waste to much of the known world. And Rudy might have found something else to do with his time.

Babauta’s advice raises a lot of questions, though. The first thing we need to do is figure out what Leo means when he says he has “no goals”.

It can’t mean that he never sets a target and tries to reach it. If Leo ever thinks, “I’d like a sandwich”, then forms the intention to get the sandwich, and then goes and makes a sandwich, he is engaged in goal-directed behavior.

Leo also reports that he is working on a novel. He must have some conception, even if a vague one, of what a finished novel might look like. And surely he is taking actions from time to time that will add up to something like the vision he has in mind. No doubt he works on it only when he feels passionate about it, and he allows his vague vision to change shape as it will. But still something like goal-directed behavior is taking place over time as he makes progress on his novel.

So what does he mean?

In part he means:

  1. He doesn’t live life enslaved to a to-do list, a master plan, or a calendar.
  2. If he doesn’t feel like working on something, he doesn’t work on it. And he doesn’t feel guilty about not working on it.
  3. He is detached from his outcomes. The novel can get written, or not. Either way Leo will continue pursuing his passions each day.

This works out well for Leo. He enjoys learning and writing. He has a very popular blog, and continues to wake up on enough mornings with a passion for writing blog posts that he can keep his blog going and his audience coming back for more.

But one wonders: where does this leave the guy who has four kids and great passion for drinking beer and playing poker?

Where does it leave the woman with a passion for writing blog posts, but without a large enough audience to make a living at it?

Where does it leave the 300 pounder who loves pizza, doughnuts, and television, but also longs to be in good enough shape to take a 10 mile hike in the wilderness?

Goals – in Leo’s sense — would be less needed if all our passions were aligned with each other –and if the rest of the world were aligned with our passions. Leo has likely come closer than to achieving this idyllic state than most. Most people are still struggling to make a living in a harsh world and wrangle with their unruly passions.

If a person can get to Leo’s level of inner alignment, and can create an environment that supports a “follow your bliss” philosophy, that person should consider giving Leo’s advice a try. It might be the perfect fit.

And even then, it might not.

Goals are necessary for many things we might want to do. If someone has a passion for coordinating weddings, they had better be able to set a goal for getting the wedding together by the wedding date. And they’d better be able to create an effective plan for getting there on time.

If someone wants to get a group of people together to create a profound film that explores pressing social issues, it’s not going to happen if everyone on the crew works only when they feel like it.

Making Goals Work for You

Like so many things in life, goals are double-edged. They’ll cut you if you use them improperly, and they can cut you if you don’t use them at all.

The trick is to learn how to use them properly.

Goals are powerful and dangerous.

The main benefit of goals is that they can help you achieve things. They form the organizing principle for planning so you can work out a step-by-step recipe for building something you want to build. They can help you coordinate your actions with other people. And they can help you focus on your work even when you have numerous impulses to do easier things.

Yet Leo and others do us a great service when they remind us that there are many serious problems that come with “goals gone wild”.

If all goes well, the rest of this guide will help you understand the proper use of goals. In particular we will see:

  1. How to set goals that are aligned with your own passions and felt needs.
  2. How to get away from the goals other people think you should have.
  3. How to find the right level of difficulty for your goal — not too difficult, and not too easy – so you get a good amount of productivity out of yourself without adding unnecessary stress in the process.
  4. How to brainstorm options before you set your goals, so you can make an informed choice about what your goal should be, what level it should be set at, and how it should be framed for maximal motivation.
  5. How to reduce the amount of will power needed to pursue your goals.
  6. How to pick an appropriate deadline for your goals – if you need a deadline at all.
  7. How to avoid feeling shame and inadequacy when goals take longer to reach than you thought.
  8. How to check to make sure your goal doesn’t conflict with your other goals and values.
  9. How to anticipate the negative consequences of reaching a goal, so you can plan around those consequences before you start pursuing the goal, and make informed decisions about whether you should pursue that goal at all.
  10. How to break your big goals into smaller goals. Most people do this wrong and find themselves trapped in situations where they have a lot of time sunk into a project with a lot of time left to go, and they start having serious doubts about the project. That’s not a fun place to be. Believe me, I know.
  11. How to keep your goals flexible – so you can adapt to the feedback you get along the way.
  12. How to keep deadlines flexible so you can take time out to learn new skills when you need to.

The advice will be congruent with (and partly based on) the latest scientific research from the fields of Motivational Psychology and Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

We’ll try to do all that AND boil it down into a simple, intuitive, easy-to-implement goal-setting recipe anyone can follow.

Tall order? Let’s just say it’s my goal :)

In spite of the ambitious agenda, there are some limits in this guide. It’s primarily aimed at individuals setting goals for themselves.

Want to start a business (or advance your current business)? Want to write a novel? Want to plan a wedding? Trying to figure out what to do with your life? Good. That’s what this guide is for.

We will not discuss how to set goals for subordinates, how to modify goals given to you by a boss, or how to set goals with a group of equal partners.

Those situations are important, but I don’t have as much to say about them, and there are a host of coordination problems that come into play in those situations.

I am a solitary writer, developer and entrepreneur. I have great sympathy and empathy for those who are in my same situation. If you are also more or less a solo act trying to chart your course to some level of success and happiness, this guide will be written for you – to help you set goals that support you and help you achieve the happiness you deserve.

Continue to part 2 — “Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy”

Post Script

If you want to be notified when unpublished parts of this series come out, you can get on the email list. Just scroll up and enter your email address in the form on the right. (You’ll also get the free guide “Clear Mind, Effective Action”).

And, if you liked this opening post, please share it with a friend or two (Would your Facebook or Twitter friends find it interesting or useful?)

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Approach Goals and Avoidance Goals — Group Brainstorm

Happy Friday or Saturday — or whenever you’re reading this :)

I want some help puzzling something out. But first . . .

An Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting?

I’m working on an “Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting.” Two weeks ago my plan was to publish the post by today. However, as I started writing and researching, I realized it was quite a rabbit hole, and I don’t want to do a half-arsed job on it. If I have my way, it will be the most useful piece of advice you read this year.

So I’m plugging away: writing, researching, and letting things marinate. It might be weeks still before the ultimate guide is truly “ultimate”. Stay tuned and be patient. I think it will be worth it.

Along the way I plan to post other useful items on goal setting (useful principles and things to try). This will help me think through the issues and give you some things to try while you’re waiting for the ultimate guide. The field of Work Motivation has undergone a complete renaissance in the last 15 years, and I want to bring the best of it to you right here.

So what would it mean to have an ultimate guide to goal setting? It might mean you could:

  • Make more money, so you can achieve financial security, have freedom to do what you want with your time, and help friends out when they need it.
  • Create cool stuff, stuff that adds value to the world (Could you create a piece of art that expresses your core values? Could you start a social group that changes the world? Do you have a novel or screenplay to write?)
  • Establish healthful habits so you can live a more energetic, happier, more productive, and hopefully longer life.
  • Collect stories of adventure to tell your grandkids – stories the grandkids would actually want to listen to and tell their friends about.
  • Look forward to social gatherings such as parties, family reunions, and seminars, with no fear of the “So what do you do?” or “so what have you been working on lately?” questions.

And what would be covered in an ultimate guide to goal setting? What would you come away with?

  1. You would understand the psychology of goal setting.
  2. You would learn which common goal setting traps to avoid — traps that lead to procrastination instead of motivation.
  3. You would have an easy, step-by-step method for taking a vague idea about what you want to accomplish and turning it into a laser-focused goal that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning.
  4. You would know how to set your goals so they’re neither too high nor too low — so you can get the most out of yourself without adding more stress to your days.
  5. You would know the best way to break down your goals for effective execution.
  6. You would know the best mindset to have as you pursue your goals.

The guide, when finished will be published completely free right here. I only ask that if you find it useful, you pass it on to friends.

So that’s that.

Now for the brainstorming question . . .

Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

Paul Myers just sent out the following message to his newsletter (BTW, Paul’s Talkbiz news is about the only marketing list I’m consistently happy to receive in my email inbox).

Hi, folks...

Ask yourself this one question about every activity you
do in business, and you'll find your productivity soaring:

Am I doing this to achieve something...
or to avoid something?

Answer honestly, and proceed accordingly.

Try it today, and let me know what happens.


Now Paul is not normally so cryptic. He usually rambles on for pages and pages (which is just fine, because he writes so well).

But he went the zen master “one hand clapping” route today.

So here are some questions:

  1. What does Paul consider an approach goal or activity?
  2. What does Paul consider an avoidance goal or activity?
  3. How does knowing the difference make such a dramatic difference for productivity?

I should say that this is not a rhetorical question. I’m truly looking for your insights here.

It’s not that I don’t understand the course of action Paul is recommending. That’s quite clear.

It’s not that I doubt it works. Probably does.

I’m just not sure I understand why it would work so well.

In part I wonder if I’m fully understanding what Paul would consider an “avoidance activity” (Is it something I’m doing to get away from a bad outcome — in which case I may need to do it anyway? Or is it something I’m doing to avoid doing what I’m supposed to be doing — in which case it’s clear I need to stop doing those activities?).

If it’s the latter, then I’m probably already doing what Paul is recommending, and that’s why I can’t see why it would lead to great gains in productivity for me, but might for someone who hasn’t learned to recognize and counteract procrastination behaviors.

If it’s the former, then maybe Paul’s advice is revolutionary in a way I can’t see right now.

Share your initial thoughts below. And then let me ask you a final question. Are you willing to try his advice for a few days and report back here?

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