Goals are for losers. You Need a Gorilla System.
Recently, a friend of mine wrote about goals. He said that there are no such thing as short-term goals. He clarified by saying that linguistically, there is utility in distinguishing between short-term and long-term goals, but that all actions designed to reach goals are done with the future in mind. He says that good living requires acting to achieve something in the future.
In contrast, he says actions taken to satisfy current desires, or “living in the present”, is bad for us. Typically, those actions prevent us from reaching future goals (assuming we have any), thereby reducing our quality of life.
Until recently, I would have agreed and said that goals were important. However, recent reading has me thinking otherwise.
The future is the enemy. Live in the present!
In my most recent book review, I summarized Yuval Noah Harari’s philosophy of happiness (which is itself the Buddhist philosophy). The idea is this: people are unhappy because they hold on to the idea that their feelings are important. Feelings are fleeting, coming and going. Science shows that humans actually all have a range at which they balance chemicals in the brain regulating feelings of happiness. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you improve your economic, health, or social status, you can’t really break out of that range. Worse, as you improve, the happiness highs you feel will level off, giving you a sense that your new higher status us the new normal. Going below that status would make you sad or angry. Anxiety about losing that status and pressure to increase it make us unhappy. We seem stuck chasing ephemeral “feelings”.
The ancient wisdom of Buddha may hold the answer to this problem. It could be that humans should let go of their feelings, says Harari. We can feel them, but instead of chasing them or trying to hold on to them, we should simply let them pass over us, as if we were sitting on the beach and our feelings were ocean waves rising and receding around us. We should let go of our anxiety about the future and live in the present. In Harari’s philosophy, our future planning and striving towards greater things is the enemy of our happiness.
That is not a popular view in western society. My friend would probably find something to disagree with in this solution to our unhappiness.
Here is my personal disagreement with this philosophy: if people don’t strive for greater things and work to improve their condition, if they simply live in the present without a care about the future, won’t they begin to more closely resemble other animals, or perhaps even vegetables?
Scott Adams has said that the one thing that separates humans from robots is our preferences. To have preferences implies that certain things makes us feel good, and others make us feel bad. Harari says that the human ability to tell fiction separates us from other animals. Adams says our ability to feel good or bad is the difference between human and robot.
Yet, why tell fiction at all, unless it makes us feel good? The only reason we act at all, according to praxeologists like Ludwig von Mises, is to have some psychic gain. We eat because we feel bad (we call that bad feeling hunger) and we want to feel good again. A man searches for a woman because he believes a woman will make him happier.
To me, the Adams philosophy rings truer than Harari’s. Yet, it is true that people often become too preoccupied with pursuing their future happiness at the expense of their current happiness (hence people overwork and neglect family or their health). They are too future goal oriented. The opposite is also true (hence people become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or video games and neglect their family, health, or productive activities). Living in the present 100% of the time looks like it leads down an unhappy future path. Prioritizing either our future or our present feelings at the expense of the other seems like a bad idea. Is there a balanced approach that lets us retain and embrace our humanity?
Gorillas don’t have goals. Gorillas have systems.
When I was a teenager, the online avatar I used for my many online activities was named “monkeyme”. As I was trying to come up with a cool username for some online video game, I looked around my room and noticed the stuffed animal monkeys that I had collected. “monkeyme” had an interesting ring and rhythm to it, and it reflected my appreciation for the silly tree swingers. (I did not know that chimps engaged in cannibalism or killing-for-entertainment at the time.) My dad didn’t like the name, however, and forced me to stop using it. Humans aren’t monkeys, he said.
Decades later, I learned of a book called Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich. It’s a workbook for learning how to change your thoughts. Cernovich teaches readers how to control their emotions and change their lives. Chapter 6 of the book is titled Mindset and Lifestyle: Change the Way You Live. In it, he gives readers advice like get better sleep by focusing on your future, get toxic people out of your life, exercise and eat right, establish a morning routine, etc. He also has advice for people that are nervous or have panic attacks: be present. Lots of excellent advice that I try to live by.
Then there’s the always entertaining and insightful Scott Adams I mentioned before. He wrote a book titled How to Lose at Almost Everything and Still Win Big where he talks about what he calls systems thinking. In chapter 6 he literally says, “To put it bluntly, goals are for losers.” His philosophy is that people who think in terms of goals are unhappy most of the time, burdened by the fact that they haven’t reached their goal. Then, when they reach it, they experience the high of success, followed by the emptiness of losing purpose. They are stuck in the near permanent cycle of unhappiness that Harari talks about.
On the other hand, if you employ systems thinking, then you feel happy and energized every time you apply your system. A goal is some event that has an ending, whereas a system is an organized and planned set of actions done on a regular basis without any end-point. Goal: Lose ten pounds. System: Engage in some physical activity daily.
Linguistically you can call the second item a goal, but there is utility in separating the two concepts. As Adams says,
The systems-versus-goals point of view is burdened by semantics, of course. You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extent. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. You could word-glue goals and systems together if you chose. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.
If we look, we see that, in fact, Cernovich proposes systems as well (one example is the advice to establish a morning routine). However, he frames the road to happiness and success as mindfulness. Mindfulness, as he sees it, is freedom from stress and anxiety. It’s being in the present moment and being engage. By being mindful, one observes themselves and the world around them as they are without applying any judgement. Most people observe and interpret at the same time. Instead, simply observe and then actively think about what you are observing. Actively, mindfully frame what you have observed in a positive way. In short, find the good in what you see.
By the way, as a result of my dad forbidding the use of the name “monkeyme”, I came up with the name “mijokijo”, derived from the first two letters of my first, middle, and last names (Micah Jonah Killian Jonah). I can type it easily with only my right hand and it, too, has a nice rhythm and sound. It even looks interesting. Win-win for me and my dad. Gorilla Mindset in action.
What Once Was Will Be Again
Systems aren’t new. Religions are systems of thought that regulate the behavior of those who follow them. Some regulate more than others. Judaism has systems that constitute a form of government as well as complex dietary laws. On the other hand, Christianity just regulates belief. However, there a system for believing, as detailed in Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale wrote about techniques for connecting to a source of energy and healing, but the primary technique was prayer. Prayer is the Christian system.
The difference between systems of thought like Judaism and Christianity and the systems proposed by Cernovich and Adams is that the former say that there is an objective force in the world that determines the right path. Follow God’s systems and you’ll be better off. Diverge from the path and you will find yourself disconnected from a source of infinite energy.
Cernovich and Adams propose that there are systems that are oriented toward the subjective force of human feelings. Adams proposes that the best metric to determine the effectiveness of any system we employ is our personal energy level. Stay away from people that make you feel bad or don’t support you. Get your health and fitness in order. Decrease your distractions. Have routines that you follow strictly.
What makes you feel bad? Depends. What level of health and fitness is the right one? Depends. What’s a distraction? Depends. What routines should you follow? Depends. The metric is not an objective truth or virtue, it is simply what gives you energy. Your feelings determine the effectiveness of your system.
The Mindset Cure to the Sapiens Problem
So it seems that the primary problem identified by Harari, too much future-oriented action without a clear end goal that makes humanity happy, is solved with the mindfulness of Cernovich and systems-thinking of Adams. We can live in the present, regulating our emotions and interpreting our current condition in a positive way, while orienting our lives toward future happiness. In this view, it’s a waste of time trying to distinguish between short-term and long-term goals. Forget about goals. Do things that energize you and avoid anything that drains you. We can embrace our humanity—our story-telling and emotions—by following systems that give us energy now and in the future.