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Components of success: Paul Graham’s Anatomy of Determination

Three Tips for Setting Goals and Strengthening your Ambitions



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Goal setting is hard. It requires self-awareness, deep reflection, and a belief in yourself that you will succeed in the future. Many people have interests, desires and dreams, but find these hard to link together into actionable goals.

I certainly find this hard. I have several projects that I want to work on, which compete for my time, motivation and effort. Recently I wrote about Paul Graham’s model of determination, and how this applies to success. It’s clear to me now that I need to reflect and clarify my ambition. Here are three concepts that I have been thinking through which may help you too.

Projects vs. Processes.
When I studied civil engineering, we had several subjects on project management – essential skills for delivering complex infrastructure. These classes defined a project as ‘any activity that has an end point’… everything else is a process.

For example, constructing a new road is a project. There is a date at which the project is deemed complete: when it opens to traffic, and the contractors get paid. On the other hand, the maintenance and operation of this road is a process – e.g. replacing signs and linemarking, inspecting for cracks and potholes. The former has an end point, the later does not.

Goals are essentially projects: they need to have an end point. If your exercise is jogging five times a week, then you have a process. If your exercise is to train for a half-marathon, then you have a project: there is an end point, when you compete in the event. Many people have aspirations that are essentially processes: to lose weight, to learn a language, to save money.

Turn these processes into projects, and you will capture your attention. Think of the suit you need to wear to that wedding, the tickets you’ve just booked to Greece, or the deposit you’re saving for. Suddenly your process is a project: you have your goal. This is much easier for building ambition and determination.

Find convergence
I have a list of about 12 goals (and I could add more). But this is counter productive: my attention flits between these goals, causing me to loose time and effort when I eventually get back to something I was working on before. The small amount of progress on each do not add up to much.

The trick is to find convergence between these goals. I like to think of this like a university degree: there are several subjects, some of which overlap and build on each other, some of which do not: but they all add up to a final degree. One achievement.

Sport is a great way of combining many goals: to eat healthy, to exercise regularly, to be social and network, to help your sleeping patterns. Finding convergence between goals allows you to leverage their interactions, striving for bolder ambitions and resulting in a more satisfying feeling of success.

Beyond sport, finding convergence for other goals can be challenging. Break down the components of each and ask yourself what drives you. See what is common between these, and build them up again into one goal. A review of Tim Ferriss’ DiSSS principle is a good place to start. The aim is for something that captures almost everything that drives you, so that you are not torn between seemingly conflicting goals. This will help in building stronger ambition and discipline.

Beat the cringe: write it down and talk about it
It is the last paragraph above that most people struggle with, and something that I still have not figured out for myself. But the worst thing to do is to think about it for a few weeks, not come up with an answer, and then six months later beat yourself up for not getting anywhere.

Possibly this is because I am male, but I’ve always found writing a diary or listing goals very cringeworthy. If this is you, watch this and laugh at yourself, then man up and write your goals.

Before the end of last year, I beat the cringe and wrote them down. I even shared them with a close mate, who did the same thing for himself. Three and six months later we met, discussed, tweaked, changed and re-clarified our goals.

This gives you something by which you can measure your progress. It is this action that has lead me to realise I must clarify my ambitions. Without writing my goals down, and discussing them, I’d be no better off than a year ago. Inaction is not a good way to live your life: the point of the human race is to strive for something.