In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Shane Parrish observes “systems trump goals. I’ve long thought that the balance of organizational thinking towards goals versus systems is in need of some reflection.”
Quoting Scott Adams, Parrish shares the following idea:
If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.
[O]ne should have a system instead of a goal. The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavours. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.
Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success 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. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction. …
Adams has looked for examples of people who use systems versus those who use goals. In most cases, he’s discovered that people using systems do better and they are more innovative. “The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways,” he says in the WSJ.
A system is something that you do. A goal is something you desire. A system can be implemented immediately. A goal might require you to wait on the right conditions. A system is process-oriented. A goal is results-oriented. A system allows for multiple successes. A goal is all or nothing.
Reading everyday is a system. Being smart is a goal. Going out, attending social events, and interacting with others is a system. Making friends is a goal. Exercising everyday is a system. Being physically fit is a goal.
To be fair to the complexity of language, we could easily dismiss everything written above as irrelevant or misleading if we insist on saying “a system is not what you, Shane, and Scott are saying it is” or “a goal is not what you, Shane, and Scott are saying it is.” What’s important, however, is not the debate we could have over the labels we use to refer to these things. What’s important is realizing that we can’t create the results that matter most to us without involving ourselves in processes and practices that gradually transform us into the kind of person who organically realizes those goals.
This reminds me of some very valuable ideas shared by James Clear in How to Change Your Beliefs and Stick to Your Goals for Good. In discussing the concept of identity-based habits, James says
the beliefs you have about yourself can drive your long-term behavior. Maybe you can trick yourself into going to the gym or eating healthy once or twice, but if you don’t shift your underlying identity, then it’s hard to stick with long-term changes. Most people start by focusing on performance and appearance-based goals like “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to write a best-selling book.”
But these are surface level changes. The root of behavior change and building better habits is your identity. Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.
The only way I know to shift the beliefs that you have about yourself and to build a stronger identity is to cast a vote for that identity with many, tiny actions.
Think of it this way…
Let’s say you want to become the type of person who never misses a workout. (If you believed that about yourself, how much easier would it be to get in shape?) Every time you choose to do a workout — even if it’s only 5 minutes — you’re casting a vote for this new identity in your mind. Every action is a vote for the type of person you want to become. This is why I advocate starting with incredibly small actions (small votes still count!) and building consistency.
This idea comports very well with my own beliefs about the value of daily rituals. On my personal development page, I identify three benefits of committing to daily processes that can completed by the end of each day: 1) The self-mastery and skill development that results from performing challenging tasks based on commitment rather than convenience 2) the sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that comes from consistently meeting specific goals 3) The self-awareness and self-actualization that comes from repeated investment in constructive or creative action.
Goals inspire us, but systems transform us. The thing about goals, though, is that they have lots of sizzle. Goals often sound so impressive that they can seduce us into feeling like we’ve accomplished something merely by talking about them. Systems are far less glamorous than goals, but it’s the day-to-day rituals that make uncommon achievements truly realizable.
In Meditation from the Heart of Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man warns against the all too common tendency to get addicted to ecstatic experience. The antidote, according to Omer-Man, is the practice of embracing “noble boredom.” Noble boredom refers to all of the not-so fun activities that make the fun activities possible. Noble boredom is the source and substance of a free and fulfilling life.
Goals don’t challenges us. Commitment to specific processes are what challenge us. The important thing is to not let ourselves off the hook by thinking only in terms of what we want. After identifying what we want, we need to do the hard, but rewarding, work of discovering and devoting ourselves to the disciplines that help us reinvent ourselves.
The goal is not the goal. Becoming the kind of person for whom goals are readily achievable is the goal.
Other Highlights & Reflections from What I’m Learning via my Personal Development Project
Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast per day
Today’s episode of the EconTalk Podcast was McArdle on Failure, Success, and the Up Side of Down. According to the description, “Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View and author of The Up Side of Down talks argues that failure is a crucial part of success in personal life and in the large economy. Topics covered include the psychology of failure, unemployment, and bankruptcy and parole.”
There’s a lot of gold in this episode as McArdle offers many interesting insights about failure. I was particularly moved by her observation that laziness and carelessness are two of the most common ways we disguise our fear of failure. Very often, according to McArdle, we choose to act like we’re uninterested or unmotivated because we don’t want to risk looking bad should we fail. If you lose by not trying, you can easily say “I didn’t care anyway.” If you put forth serious effort, however, there’s no way to cover it up. You not only fail to get what you want, but you possibly suffer the shame of looking like someone who tried really hard. We opt for the quiet failure of not trying rather than risk making the loud noise of falling on our faces. She encourages us to find strength and wisdom in studying the failures of others and she challenges us to practice being more open about our own failures.
Activity IX: Listen to one Philosophy Bites podcast per day
Yesterday, I listened to Meira Levinson on the Aims of Education. According to the podcast description, “Historically the philosophy of education has been at the core of the subject. Today there are relatively few philosophers working in this area. Meira Levinson, a philosopher with experience of teaching in US public schools, is one of them. Here she discusses fundamental questions about what we are trying to do when we educate our children.”
I found one of Levinson’s descriptions of the problem facing schooling today to be an interesting assessment:
Schools are the social institution in which society places its hopes for what it wants to become rather than focusing on what it is. In that respect, they’re quite radical places. And at the same time, schools tend to be incredibly mired in the status quo and incredibly conservative places. In part because they are run by adults who reflect the past and in part because there is a lot of fear…of the power of the state to indoctrinate children to try to create a new world that is not what parents, or family, or society wants. So there’s this odd tension going back and forth between the forward vision of schools of having a new generation and the backwards vision of schools that worked perfectly well for me and ‘who are you to try to teach my child something quite new.’
There were several thought-provoking things said in this podcast, but my ears perked at the 13:05 mark when Nigel Warburton asked Levinson what her personal opinion was regarding the aim of education. I absolutely loved her response.
I think that we owe children the opportunity to develop the capacity for autonomy; to take charge of their lives; to figure out what a good life is from their perspective whether or not that is consonant with what their family has taught them or the community; and to lead that life as they see fit. Children should have the opportunity to lead lives that they think are valuable.
This idea coincides with many of the sentiments expressed in John Taylor Gotto’s Dumbing us Down. Where Levinson seems to differ from Gotto, however, is that she seems to place a higher premium on children interacting with their peers. I would be interested to hear what she thinks about the argument made by Gotto and others that traditional schooling creates an artificial social environment by separating children from other age groups. Many critics of this practice believe that children would be much better prepared for the world if they had more exposure to age diversity as well as more opportunity for alone-time. At times, Levinson seems to be speaking from the platform of public school reform while at other times her views seem to be in alignment with what many advocates of alternative education claim. I would be very interested to hear her thoughts on homeschooling and alternative education in more detail.
Activity X: Watch/Listen to one educational lecture/talk per day
This is the first of 12 videos. Each video features Jeffrey Tucker interviewing an Economist about Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. I plan on listening to all twelve over the next twelve days. One highlight I found worth noting was Block’s claim that economic thinking is counter-intuitive. When Tucker asked him why Hazlitt’s book is necessary, Block argued that anti-market perspectives are not only very common, but that the truth of such perspective seem intuitively obvious to those who give credence to them. Hearing Block talk about the cultural significance of Hazlitt’s book makes me want to read Economics in One Lesson for a second time.
Activity XI: One Stanford E-corner Talk.
What Does a Creative Organization Do by Bob Sutton
Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article per day
To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.