Sunday, August 31, 2014

Goal, Direction, or Journey?

It seems to be the received wisdom that to accomplish, one must have goals. Even those who promote the journeys over the destinations in life largely concede this point, and instead question the value of accomplishment or advocate a broader understanding of what it means to accomplish. Unfortunately, the pursuit of goals has a variety of undesirable side effects. Among them are the feeling of stress or pressure that, while also sometimes serving as a motivator, can diminish one's joy in the effort; and the fact that pursuit of multiple simultaneous goals puts them in conflict with one another, while pursuit of a singular goal necessarily shortchanges other values.

Simply enjoying the journey, in contrast, offers both short- and long-term pleasures, but unless the subject has a relatively narrow focus, is less likely to lead to accomplishment as it is typically understood. This can result in regret of another sort, asking what might have been; or leading to a feeling of purposelessness.

Surely, some individuals are more suited to a goal-oriented lifestyle, and others to emphasize the journey, while most of us who wish to lead happy and productive lives opt for some balance between the two. Nevertheless, I urge the consideration of a different way of thinking about this issue, one that is more a synthesis than a compromise, and to which I designate the term "direction."

A direction is a domain of effort that has a reasonably narrow focus. It naturally generates relevant activities and even tasks, while also requiring periodic refinement of its scope as experience and skill - thus opportunities - increase. In keeping with principles of flow, a direction implicitly includes the notion of ongoing improvement. Thus a direction might be "wildlife photography," but not "become a great wildlife photographer" or "I sometimes take photographs of wildlife." Pursuit of such a direction will frequently result in various short-term tasks or goals, such as "learn how to capture photographs of fast-moving animals" or "clean up the images from my last trip in Photoshop." But there is no particular goal governing the overall direction.

Greater flexibility is one benefit of having a direction instead of a goal. Certainly one is always free to modify or abandon goals, but we have a natural resistance to such changes and this can be accompanied by regret or a sense of failure. With a direction, we instead must regularly determine "what's next" and in what way we want to continue our pursuit of the direction. We expect to narrow or broaden the focus over time and perhaps zig-zag a bit through the domain.

One can also pursue multiple independent directions contemporaneously, without conflict. Though time spent emphasizing one direction necessarily reduces time spent on others, there is no expectation or commitment to a particular amount of progress or pursuit.

Where this differs from a journey or dilettantism is that one selects a reasonably small set of directions to pursue. If they are excessively numerous, or the number monotonically increases, or the set experiences continuous churn, then truly little will be accomplished. If the number becomes too small, one risks neglecting other values.

Because one can put forth effort toward the direction that is most compelling at a given moment, motivation primarily sources from the joy of the activity rather than the duty of achievement. Perhaps obviously, this has the potential to be more effective in the long run, particularly in creative endeavors. With a set of directions, one has purpose; one will achieve and improve; and yet one need not feel conflict among values or the stress of failure risk.


  1. Well detailed. I find myself taking on various directions recently. I've delayed putting any "goals" out there in front of me, though I'm not sure why.

    I'm indeed able to move with more fluidity and less stress/pressure/goal-conflict which is nice.

    Thanks for splicing into "the journey" vs. "goals." It always helps to have vocabulary around these things. For the forseeable future I'll be taking on a variety of "directions."

  2. One of the reasons that I feel like I have a handle on what I'm doing with my life is my adoption of the "direction" approach. I have a broad mission statement (help interesting people do interesting things) and some general directions (create content and work with startups). I'm not attached to any particular outcome, such as become CEO of a valuable startup, or General Partner at a top tier firm.

  3. A related post by Ben Casnocha from his salad days:


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