I have been struggling with goal selection lately. I didn't struggle so much earlier in my life because others clearly defined my goals. We live in a high-dimensional world, as said elsewhere on LessWrong. There are many worthy directions to head towards, and I'm struggling to choose. I find myself doing a little here, a little there, but mostly converging on optimising for career success, mainly because it's a convenient goal.

I've cultivated many of the low hanging fruits (relatively speaking), such as getting a job that pays the bills, saving and investing, sustaining a social life, getting a decent education and maintaining good health. However, going after the less easily accessible fruits requires a focused effort. Imagine the brain is made up of thousands of sub-minds, each with its models and preferences. Achieving big goals requires aligning these sub-minds to work together towards those higher fruits.

What I am getting at is that I have a stag hunt scenario inside my head. If my sub-minds keep going in different directions, their unaligned efforts are not likely to amount to much.

I don't have a motivation problem. I work almost daily, and it's just that the work I do is unfocused and thus unlikely to amount to much. I think I'm lacking a dream. I like the saying, "If you can dream it, then you can achieve it."

Many studies show that setting goals increases performance and productivity. According to Wikipedia:

  1. Difficult specific goals lead to significantly higher performance than easy goals, no goals, or even the setting of an abstract goal such as urging people to do their best.
  2. Holding ability constant, and given that there is goal commitment, the higher the goal the higher the performance.
  3. Variables such as praise, feedback, or the participation of people in decision-making about the goal only influence behaviour to the extent that they lead to the setting of and subsequent commitment to a specific difficult goal.

There are so many worthy goals directions to go:

  • Existential risk reduction
  • Helping people who are alive today
  • Fixing software bugs
  • Maximising my net worth
  • Learning new knowledge
  • Creating new knowledge
  • Maximising my social status
  • Maximising my pleasure
  • Etcetera.

I read "The Precipice" by Toby Ord some time ago, and it was a profoundly impactful book. Theoretically, I'm sold, and existential risk reduction is unambiguously the ultimate and most crucial goal. However, practically, there are so many other dimensions that I care about.

Money maximisation is a convenient goal to have, and it's also a meta-goal since it helps achieve other goals. This could be why so many people converge on money maximisation as their effective goal. Society is also set up to facilitate money maximisation, and the same cannot be said about existential risk reduction.

Rationality doesn't say a whole lot about goal selection, desires and preference. It says a whole lot about the accuracy of beliefs and how to achieve goals, but it doesn't say much about how to select goals in the first place. Evidence suggests that the right goal makes us act more rationally (refer to that Wikipedia page linked above).

18

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

5 Answers sorted by

The items on your list do not seem like "goals", because they have unlimited scope. They are more like directions where you could go. If you enjoy the direction, you can keep going there your entire life; there will always be e.g. more money to make. Otherwise, you probably want some target, such as "make one million dollars". Then you will need a plan how to get there.

Perhaps you should start with small goals. If you succeed at a small thing, you can set a larger goal later, and you will feel more confident. So maybe a nice first goal could be "make one thousand dollars by doing something other than your daily job", or perhaps "put 10% of your salary into index funds, and keep doing this for three months". (Or whatever would be the analogy in some other direction.)

In my experience, it helps to have friends who care about the same things, so you can make plans together, share knowledge, provide encouragement to each other.

It also helps if you can split the goal into smaller milestones, and celebrate each of them. You should feel good about progressing towards your goal (instead of feeling bad that you are not there yet).

Thanks, Viliam. You're very right in that I hadn't made the distinction between a direction and a goal clear. In my question, "long-term goal" refers to "direction". Therefore, what I am struggling with is choosing a direction. I find myself going in too many directions at once, and that those different direction's don't necessarily build on each other. For example, working towards career success requires building product-specific knowledge, which is of limited use outside my daily job.

Is my choice of direction simply based on what feels good to me?

5Viliam7mo
Please notice that some long-term goals are in conflict, but some are not - see the examples provided by lsusr here [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/RRjQ9LkzrBNgtucR5/physics-erotica]. In jobs, there are often two types of knowledge: company-specific and company-independent. An example of the former would be knowing who is who in the company structure, or some specific details about navigating company bureaucracy (who needs to approve your vacation, how to file expense reports, how to buy tickets for business trips and how to get them reimbursed), or products that were developed withing the company and will never be used outside of it. An example of the latter is general profession-related skills (if you are a programmer: programming skills, or knowledge of generally used tools and libraries), or social-skills, or other general skills (such as math). So, yeah, if you find yourself pushed towards spending too much time (small amounts are inevitable) obtaining company-specific knowledge, that is unlikely to be profitable in long term (useless outside the job, which also worsens your negotiation position within the job), so try to avoid it, or quit. But if you spend your time learning general skills (e.g. becoming a better programmer), then there is no conflict: you become better at your current job and improve your position on the job market. (Ironically, company-specific things can be useful for you, if you are the one who creates them. For example, using a software framework developed internally in the company usually sucks a lot. But if you are the one who develops it, that is great, because you learn the general skill of designing and developing software frameworks. It just sucks to be everyone else in the company, because they are spending their time adapting to the outputs of your work. You get better; they get stuck with the things you designed before you got better.) Not a complete answer (also I am running out of time now), but perhaps choose a more gener
6Alexander7mo
Thanks, Viliam. I appreciate your insights. I read a few Paul Graham essays, and I loved them, and I'm going to read all of them. I agree with you that acquiring generally useful skills such as mathematics is a good bet. I've been in the software industry for ~3 years, and sadly the most mathematics I've used in my software job is multiplication. I tend to perform best if I have a north star to motivate my learning and practising. This north star is something for me to figure out, and it's a never-ending process. I came across this interview with Demis Hassabis [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WRow9FqUbw] recently. (Demis inspired me to study CS in the first place.) He said there is no defined career path in academia if you want to be a career engineer, meaning that academia loses the best engineers because they choose to work in the industry. I'm very excited about the many new opportunities that allow engineers to contribute to research projects in the industry, so for me, this seems like a nicely defined goal to go after.

If you're having trouble with prioritisation, goal-setting, setting resolutions or similar, Complice's online Goal-Crafting workshops (paid, mostly PWYW) in the first ~2 weeks of 2022 might help. (Other coaching programs might also help, of course, but I have no personal experience with any.)

It's coached by people who have thought about productivity a great deal, and seems to have some slight overlap with the rationalist sphere (e.g. Malcolm Ocean of Complice is on LW).

Personally, I participated a few years ago and found the material solid (and I expect it has improved since then), and was surprised / impressed at the availability of coaches. But I was mentally in a bad place and eventually realized that I personally really did not need a goal-crafting workshop at that time. So my best guess is that this is high-EV for people whose problem or bottleneck is prioritisation, goal-setting, etc.; but not necessarily worthwhile for people whose main problem is akrasia, motivation, fatigue, etc.

Incidentally, the material from past workshops is available online, though I'm not comfortable sharing the link myself. But I think if you asked the Complice team (via the "Question?" button in the bottom right of the website), they might give you access to it so you could see if it and the workshop might be useful to you.

I think there are several perspectives from which you could approach the question of which direction(s) you want to take:

1 What are your values? What is really important for you?

2 What are your interests? What do you like doing? What activities get you in a flow state?

3 What are your strengths? What are you really good at?

4 From an empirical perspective, which directions have a positive effect on one's well-being?

Hi Alexander. I have exactly the same question myself, though I don't think I would have been able to formulate it so clearly. I will be following the answers here very closely. Happy to have a chat one day if you fancy.

A post which i can very much relate to. I am in early thirties and i cannot focus on a specific goal . I still have a lot of ground to cover before i reach the top of maslows hierarchy to focus on changing the world or working towards my values. So short term money maximisation still appears to be the first stepping stone , but  the biggest hurdle for me is i cannot commit myself to a path which i am not clear whether it will yield a tangible output .