On goal setting

There is a structural weakness to goal setting practices. For if you can articulate a goal from the start, then go through the motions, and hit the mark, you’re probably using a borrowed framework. You’re playing someone else’s game.

Sure, you might win, with luck and discipline. Like there’s always a winning horse in a race. But that’s not my gig. Instead, I try acting first, clumsily, messing with the concrete –  hoping the goal will reveal itself afterwards, retrospectively. I find it more human.

Values cards project – winning

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I think about why I do things, it’s always about reflection or connection. It’s about understanding, self-transformation, meeting new people. It’s not about success or competition. In fact, that’s a thing I meditated on during my spiritual exercises. That’s in the Principle and Foundation, that we should become indifferent to success or failure.

B: There’s this way of viewing the world, that uses ‘win/lose’ as an axis. If you’re using that model, typically, winning is about earning money, and losing is about money too. But life is much more complex than that. There’s a vast number of things that we’re involved in. While if you look at the idea of ‘winning’ (or losing), it implies that we’ve got a set of agreed rules, and we play by them. So, if you have ‘winning’ as a value, it means you see life as a game with clear rules to follow. While the way that I would see it is that life is a multitude of games with different rules, and we’re all playing a number of them at the same time. So, to see life in terms of winning and losing, properly, that would mean we understand all the rules of all the games. And that seems a bit excessive for me.

A: Also, when you talk about ‘winning’, it means someone else is losing, and I’m not sure that’s how society works, or how it should work. It’s not the goal we should go towards at least. I mean, we can we should all be winners, but then the concept doesn’t mean anything anymore. So, what’s a system that would allow everyone to benefit, and we’re not talking about winning?

B: In the 2000’s, there was a lot of talk about winners and losers. There was all this talk about personal responsibility, particularly in the USA. And it was like the goal of the government was to create conditions where more people can ‘win’ – but is that what the government is about? Or is it about helping the ‘losers’? Or is it something completely different?

A: When I hear somebody think in terms of ‘win/lose’, I always get an impression that they’ve got a kind of satisfied stupidity. It’s this American vision of personal responsibility, you’re the master of your own destiny, all that stuff, and if you do what you should, then you’re going to win.

B: This, or it’s like we project team sports and its artificial environment on the social world, which is much more complex. There’s a lot of sports metaphors for performance in coaching. But business is really not like an 11-player soccer game. Whatever works in sport, that doesn’t quite extend to social life or business.

A: So, what we were saying is, if ‘winning’ is a value for you, then it means you take life as a game, and so that’s a sign you might lack of seriousness. Or maybe that’s about you choosing not to take life seriously, so that it’s more bearable?

B: Well, that’s the philosopher stance, right, to live a sad life with truth rather than a happy life with lies. To see life as a game so that it’s more bearable, that’s running away from from wisdom.

A: We have those discussions about distraction as an existential risk – that’s in Pascal, and that’s Kierkegaard, who talks about the danger of living for what’s ‘interesting’, rather than, say, living a life that’s morally right, a serious life. But then, there’s a passage by Descartes against that. It’s in the Passions of the soul, and it’s a passage I really like. He says that happiness is positive in itself, while sadness is harmful to you. So, we might genuinely wonder whether it’s better to be wrongly happy than to be rightly sad.

B: OK, so then, is it about winning and the idea of a game being opposed to the serious approach to life?

A: Well, what’s a game? It’s a pursuit or an activity without a clear objective other than itself. The goal of the game is to play the game. It’s about immediate pleasure, something that has no consequences outside the game. While a more serious approach to life sees the goal as important. Maybe that lack of seriousness is about an incapacity to set an objective, or a refusal to pay attention to the consequences of what we do. Maybe that’s a form of laziness.

B: The game is a game, it has not goal outside itself. So, we might as well just play, since nothing really matters. Carnivals are about that. You don’t pretend that things are more serious than they are. It’s all feathers and music. And there’s an existential wisdom to that approach – and to games also. Maybe precisely that thing about happiness as better than sadness. While if you take everything seriously, maybe that’s a sign that you don’t have very good judgement. If you take everything seriously, you might end up neglecting what’s really important – and that’s another form of intellectual laziness. It’s even dangerous – more dangerous than frivolity. That kind of serious approach is how you find yourself believing that the end justifies the means.

A: Maybe we can think of it as associated with Calvinism, since we’ve been talking about this American approach. If there is predestination, then nothing you can’t do anything that will lead you to salvation – it’s all outside of your reach. That means, life is not actually that serious, there’s nothing at stake, it’s all decided for you anyway. You can wait, you can look for signs of predestination, but ultimately, there’s nothing at stake. And so, you might as well play life as a game, and try to win.