Goals, Huh? What Are They Good For?

“Moses brought ten commandments down from Mount Sinai. If only the UN’s proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were as concise.” – The Economist

At this point, the proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals – a set of targets relating to future international development – spans 17 top-level goals and 169 total targets. That is a massive leap from the comparatively sparse Millennium Development Goals (eight goals and 21 targets), which will expire this year. While each goal does come with a series of measurable health and economic indicators to make sure their ambitions are indeed actionable, the cost of all that action could total somewhere between $2 trillion and $3 trillion a year. Or, in other words, more than six times the amount that governments around the world actually promise to aid currently. In ways that struggling writers the world over have come to understand as their hopes for daily page counts go unmet, just setting goals is no way to actually achieve them.

The UN could take a page from Warren Buffett’s two-list system to cut out the non-essentials in their list (though when your list includes hunger and sustainable energy and poverty, it’s an admittedly harder list to cut the fat from). First, you list your top 25 ideas (or top 169 ideas, as the case may be), then pick your top 5, and then abandon all the rest. The rest, as compelling as they are, as worthy as they may one day be, distract you from what you need to accomplish. For the UN, their number one goal is eradicating poverty in every form. Perhaps goal 17 and its “[revitalization of] the global partnership for sustainable development” interferes. By refusing to flesh out every potential outcome of every idea, you begin to create a clear system of action. That is much easier said than done, and I know I’m guilty of considering a thousand ideas at a a time (Guitar? I could pick that up again! Drawing? It’s creative! Investing? Double-down! Reading? Who needs sleep! Sleep? Who needs running!).

So how many goals, then, are the right number of goals? If not 17, then how many? Eight? Five? One? Is it even important to set them at all? Everyone on Medium agrees that goals are good and not good, and will tell you about the ‘importance of setting goals’, ‘why you should stop setting goals’, or (curve ball here!) how to go about ‘setting habits, not goals.’ Clearly we are a culture that wants to Get Something Done, but we’re not sure how to go about getting anything done.

Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is an antidote for those feeling “stretched too thin”, “busy but not productive” and “overworked and underutilized.” While the key word in the book is the title, and how we define what is essential to us, the most significant idea in the book is the discipline it takes to pursue less. You must make active choices, and commit to them, in order to change your life. In McKeown’s words, ““Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done… It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” Acknowledge that you do a disservice to yourself by entertaining too many options, and that by entertaining those options, your ability to make quality decisions suffers.

How we make these types of decisions in our personal lives can take us from leading a relatively shallow life, says David Brooks, to leading a life with a “generosity of spirit” and “depth of character.” In his essay The Moral Bucket List, he describes what sort of “experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.” Can we truly get the most of these experiences if they are mere goals on a list, or does it become more of a guiding set of principles? The principles, as Brooks lays them out, include humility, self-defeat, and energizing love, and are such big ideas (and humbling ones to embrace) that they lead us to actions that define our lives, and potentially stretch out after. “People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are,” Brooks says. “In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.”

While the tasks and process he describes are more intimate, there is a group working on a physical task that is intended to last more than a lifetime, in order to reframe our understanding of our place in time. The project, The 10,000 Year Clock, by the Long Now Foundation (of which I am a card-carrying member), aims to “creatively foster long-term thinking in the context of the next 10,000 years.” The accompanying book Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer is about how we can make this type of thinking as commonplace as short-term thinking (even when short-term is defined as our lifespan). Stewart Brand, the book’s author, talks about “the realm of immediate responsibility, one in which we feel we have volition” and why the construction of future-oriented mechanisms like the 10,000 year clock help break us of that view. While there are surely practical advantages of thinking beyond election cycles, there are also some very moving purposes. “The ultimate reason for initiating something ambitious is not to fulfill certain notions but to find out what surprises might emerge. The most remarkable results certainly cannot be anticipated.”

Before we can project ourselves so far into the future, let’s consider first the recent past, as presented in long zoom form by Steven Johnson’s How We Got To Now, a must read about six innovations that shaped the course of humanity, with connections between clocks (the Clock of the Long Now is referenced), refrigerators, cleanliness, and others. More impactful than the evolution of any of these physical concepts is the idea of the “adjacent possible”, a concept Steven Johnson explains in a WSJ article about the Origins of Good Ideas as a “kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” That can be as small as our own morning experience of how making a new recipe for breakfast allows us to flirt with the shadow future of a slightly different breakfast, and it can be as huge as making eight massive goals to improve the world, and noticing the adjacent future there, which begets even more goals and targets and possibilities 15 years later. As Brand said, you can’t anticipate the remarkable results, but you can put yourself in a place to appreciate them.

By embracing discipline, we can take our understanding of how we collectively got to this point, and make decisions on how to push ourselves forward. Whether those decisions are sets of goals or whether they are guiding principles for how to live a life, they help us to navigate a world rich with possibilities and opportunities of our own making.

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