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Growth without Goals
Rethinking how to define success
I first encountered this in a Patrick O’Shaughnessy blog post. I highly recommend giving it a read.
In the meantime, I jotted down a few thoughts on why I find this approach meaningful.
Summary of “Growth without Goals”
“Man lives by time. Inventing the future has been his favorite game of escape. We think that changes in ourselves can come about in time, that order in ourselves can be built up little by little, added to day by day. But time doesn’t bring order or peace, so we must stop thinking in terms of gradualness. This means that there is no tomorrow for us to be peaceful in. We have to be orderly on the instant.”
- Jiddu Krishnamurti
When we set goals we are “inventing the future” and living outside of the present moment. Success commonly gets defined as accomplishing goals - but accomplishment is a trap, which exists only in the past and future (and is closely related to pride).
Instead, Patrick defines success as “building a set of daily practices… continuous, habitual practice(s) trumps achievement-based success.”
Define your values and a corresponding set of daily practices. Follow these practices and you “may produce things that look like end points, like achievements, but those things are just byproducts.”
Consider Jeff Bezos’s approach at Amazon: “relentless focus on customers.” This is a continuous goal which will never be ‘accomplished.’ It’s a mindset that influences all decision-making. Viewed this way, Amazon’s success is a “byproduct, a side-effect of a process driven, flexible, in-the-moment way of being.”
After outlining his own daily practices, Patrick notes “these things are their own reward. I did not back into these things from some other goal. They are continuous goals themselves. They make daily life quite wonderful, and I bet they will continue to lead to things that look like achievements from the outside.”
A few aspects of “growth without goals” that I really appreciate…
Values-based vs outcome-dependent
What can you control? Your values and daily practices.
Defining success by outcomes fails to account for the role of luck/chance/fate - everything outside of our control. This is very similar to Annie Duke’s concept of “Resulting,” a flawed way of thinking where we assess the quality of a decision based solely on its outcome. (see Thinking in Bets)
As investor and author Jim O’Shaughnessy regularly says,
“We are deterministic thinkers living in a probabilistic world, and hilarity often ensues.”
Shift focus from future to present
Rather than setting your mind on a future ideal or event signifying ‘success,’ you focus on today and what you can do to live according to your values.
You’re not ignoring the future. The focus is on matching your principles to the options available, based on current circumstances and information. It’s a flexible, more adaptable approach to life.
The Roman Stoics sought to live a virtuous life by striving towards wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control. As a byproduct, they believed this philosophy of life led to tranquility. Tranquility was not the goal - it happened as a result of living according to these principles.
Focus on your principles. Good outcomes will likely result from this diligence - a promotion at work, losing weight, running a half-marathon… But at the end of the day, adherence to your principles is true success.
Our core principles are the foundation of who we are. We move from this to deciding on corresponding daily practices. And these daily practices generate positive outcomes as a byproduct.
I’m reminded of a Stephen Denning quote about innovation:
“Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb. Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart.”
Defining success on the occurrence of pre-defined outcomes is a top-down approach. A principled, bottom-up approach is more chaotic and fluid, but ultimately more fulfilling.
Shunning traditional definitions of success requires the courage to think differently. Traditional measures of success no longer apply - that’s freeing, but also removes a default, external source of validation.
“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
- Marcus Aurelius
The Growing Process
Embracing a ‘growth without goals’ mindset runs counter to many of the leadership and personal development resources I’ve encountered. But I can’t quite shake the idea that’s it’s a more fulfilling way to go about life.
Patrick’s post ends with a great analogy to trees:
“I love trees that grow sideways out of rocks and hills. They start small and survive because of some available sunshine. They grow whatever direction they must to reach more light. Their slow growth allows them to ultimately reach a form that looks tenuous or even impossible, but they are firmly rooted. I like to imagine the early days, the tree’s roots tinkering in the soil, quickly abandoning failed paths, building deep systems along better paths. These bizarre and beautiful trees end up this way because of a simple process. They operate according to a continuous goal, from the bottom up.”
What are your thoughts on “growth without goals”?