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Recently, I've realized that there is a discrepancy between my goals and my actions. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I managed to acquire some terminology for describing this phenomenon. Imagine categorizing (for the sake of simplicity here) anything that can potentially can be done in our lives into one of three buckets

a. something we have to do

b. something we want to want to do

c. something we actually want to do

Past experiences have shown me that the boundaries between these categories are razor thin and one can slip into the other completely unaware.

Story Time

When I was in the 8th grade, there was a possibility that my family was going to move from Dubai to the U.S for my dad's work. (side note, I lived most of my life in Dubai, as well as Egypt for a little bit when I was younger, growing up). Naturally, next time we visited the US, my family toured the potential areas we would be staying at, and more critically for me, the potential schools I would be going to. I distinctly remember having very strong emotions about this move.

In general, moving countries or cities is awful: you leave behind the place you know, your friends, your teachers, and your community to start everything from scratch. The odd thing was that I really wanted to move.

This wasn't because I disliked my community, in fact the complete opposite was true - I had a great group of friends at my school, church, and even in my neighborhood.

The only person more confused than a 13-year old me trying to rationalize this was my mum.

"Why are you so enthusiastic about the move?" She asked when I was pressing my dad for the travel details.

I don't remember my exact response but it was something along the lines of

"I'm tired of having to do well at school because people (more precisely my friends and peers) expect me to do well." I replied. Somehow, I thought that a fresh start was going to change that, (keeping in mind that I was coming from a family that made me do exercises from practice books when I skipped school because I was sick).

I realized that I had felt such a pressure to perform well in school that I had stopped enjoying the process. I felt like I had to do well in school.

As I progressed through school, the need to do well became more and more tied to my identity. By high school, I know longer felt like I had to do well in school. Instead I had (I can now admit) convinced myself that I wanted to do well in school. I wanted to want to do well in school. In reality, the only thing I actually wanted to do was to learn.

Have to vs. Want to vs. Want to Want to

I think this is an important distinction to make since in most instances, when we say "I want to do something," we really mean some meta-variant of "I want to" like "I want to want to" or "I want to be seen wanting." It's generally pretty easy to distinguish our chores from our goals, that is the "have to" from the "want to." It's often much harder to distinguish our true goals from those we pursue for reasons that are tangential to the goal itself.

For example, back in high school when my identity was tied to how "scholarly" I was, I remember at one point getting really excited about studying for the British Physics Olympiad. At the time, my excitement was grounded in two observations

a. I love learning about physics

b. love solving physics problems

Given these two observations, it seemed only logical I would enjoy pursuing this competition. I Googled a syllabus to follow and bought a massive physics textbook which I convinced myself I would read for fun. I reckoned I would be able to devour the textbook quickly and move on.

Not only did I get through less than 10 pages of this 650 page textbook, the last time I opened it was to put it on my desk as a laptop stand. So why was I not able to spur myself to hustle and study?

Maybe the material was dry, maybe the textbook was badly written or maybe, which is much harder to personally admit, I wanted to want to be the type of person that reads Physics textbooks in their free time. Maybe I wanted to want to do well in this competition, maybe I liked the idea of being this type of person more than I did the idea of putting in the effort to become that person.

That's not to say that we have to pursue a goal purely for the end goal itself. In fact, we often pursue goals because of all of the tangential side benefits in addition to the actual goal. Like learning to become a better strategist in your quest to become a chess champion. Or a faster runner in your quest to make it to the NFL. However, being honest with yourself, like a muscle, is something that can only be strengthened by use.

Noticing Patterns in Your Goals

Reflecting on my past experiences has allowed me to come up with a rough template that has kept me honest about the motivations behind my goals. Disclaimer, this list is by no means definitive nor conclusive - the purpose is to help notice patterns, especially in our blindspots. Ask yourself:

  1. Do you repeatedly say you need to do activity X but never getting around to do so?

    In the little free time I had between school and my activities, I would always choose working on a side project or watching YouTube instead of studying for the Physics olympiad. In my mind, it was homework that I never had to turn in.

  2. When you do get around to doing activity X, do you feel a sense of foreboding dread?

    I would feel rejuvenated that I was about to start reading the textbook until my head would start to hurt deriving the Lagrangian equations of motion.

  3. Do you settle for a sub-optimal result claiming that you tried your best when doing activity X?

    I would repeatedly cut my study sessions short, convincing myself that I had accomplished enough, would focus more clearly in the future, and had other more pressing commitments.

  4. If you ask ask yourself why you are doing activity X, can you trace it back to a personal, tangible or concrete reason?

    I could not, the chain of logic I could trace it back to was I enjoy physics → I will enjoy doing this Physics competition.

  5. Do you enjoy the results of activity X more than the process?

    When I got a good score in the challenges at school, I focused more on the score than on anything else. I didn't bother to look over the questions I got wrong nor was I (usually) remotely curious about how one would have solved them.

Closing Thoughts

Even after asking yourself these questions, you still might be unsure. But that's ok. It would be silly to assume that motivations for our goals are disjoint - rarely anything in life is. Maybe a good metric for figuring out the difference between "want to" and "want to want to" is whether you think about it in the shower. So the logical next question is do I think of physics problems in the shower? And if I'm being completely honest, then the answer is no, I think of math problems.

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1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:30 AM

There are things I think about in the shower, yet rarely do. The simplest explanation is that I am busy doing other things, and shower is a rare opportunity to take a break. But maybe I'm just rationalizing here.

If I could get one week of free time, it would be easy to tell the difference: just compare the list of things I would actually do during that week, and the list of things I wouldn't touch during that week. Or at least three days. Maybe one day, when covid is over...