Everyone has dreams about what they want to do in the future. Write a novel, learn a new language or make a trip around the world. Yet somehow the things we do day-to-day are strangely at odds with these dreams. We seem to do many other things, but we never really get to those things we say we really care about. We run faster and faster, but stay more and more in the same place. How can we turn this around? How can we align our daily activities with our long term goals? I address this question with a three part series on goals. In this first part we look at the foundation for achieving goals: beliefs.
Everything starts with the beliefs that you hold about what you can and cannot do. I once met a highly skilled telecommunications engineer. We both attended a presentation seminar and were very impressed by the speakers there. He was especially in awe of the way they told their stories. He told me that he did not have any stories to tell, and even if he had, he would not know how to deliver them to an audience in a captivating way. The more he talked about not being able to do this, the more concerned I grew. Despite having mastered complex signal processing mathematics, he seemed to be unable to grasp the fact that presentation skills too can be split into manageable chunks that can be learned. After convincing him that he could indeed learn these skills, he went on to give some great presentations. Indeed, they were as good as those we saw that very day. Simply changing his belief also changed his behavior and the resulting real world outcome.
Changing a belief is not easy to do, as these run deeply into insecurities about ourselves and our own identity. We often adopt the beliefs we are exposed to during our upbringing, which tends to be a mixed bag for most. Nevertheless, several beliefs are helpful to adopt right now.
1. Start from and with what you have
If you marvel at people with beneficial traits: those good at sports because of their physical features, those proficient at learning because of their intelligence, those skilled at arts because of their creativity, do so because of their accomplishments. That is: how they – learned to – play their cards, not because of what they ‘are’: the cards they were dealt. Talent in the conventional sense is a myth. High performance is the result of practice. A good way to think of this is that you can achieve anything anyone else can, even if your journey may be longer or shorter. It may also include sacrifices you are not willing to make. Factoring this in is fine: working towards goals based on the cards you have is a good thing, making excuses for not working towards goals because of the cards you do not have is not. Instead of thinking in terms of limitations, think in terms of your possibilities.
2. Compare yourself only with your past self
A common habit we fall victim to is comparing our own performance to others, be it our family, friends or accomplished professionals. However, in doing so we usually look at the current skills of the person we are comparing ourselves to, disregarding the journey they needed to get there. A better approach is comparing your own performance now to your own performance in the past. If you have put in effort and are seeing progress: you are on the right track, and in the end: that really is all that matters. That said, while comparing is harmful to progress, being inspired by someone can be a powerful motivator. So, draw inspiration from others, but avoid making comparisons.
3. Foster a strong sense of curiosity
The Internet contains an almost infinite source of materials and methods to learn virtually anything. Given this it is a bit surprising that not everyone is continuously trying to actively learn new things. Curiosity is a good motivation for learning. However, it turns out that the feelings of insecurity, that each of us have, interfere with this. Feeling inadequate stops curiosity dead in its tracks. Children learn quickly because they are less afraid, less worried about failing, and still have this innate curiosity that everyone is born with. Dampening your insecurity and fostering your own curiosity is paramount.
4. Accept the fact that you really can develop yourself
In the past, people used to work in the same job, at the same place, performing the same tasks for many years. The dominant mindset was that you learned at school, and then put your skills to use at work. That is all there was. Scientists found that people’s improvement tapered off and plateaued, and reasoned that this indicated some sort of learning limit. However, this has since been found to be incorrect. Everyone can improve by refining and growing skills, but it requires conscious effort to do so. The rate and direction of growth are under your control. It may take a nudge, like for the telecommunications engineer mentioned previously. However, once you see the possibilities, you can develop yourself far beyond any current beliefs that may hold you back.
5. Do not be too hard on yourself
Learning does not progress as a straight upward line over time. It is rather a bumpy road dominated by regression and plateaus. This is entirely normal. Sometimes there will be clear progress, other times there won’t be any to speak of or even a slight regression. However, from a broader point of view: the more you zoom out, the more you see that your progress really does have an upward direction. Nevertheless, we are not naturally good at looking at things from this perspective. Failing is as much part of progress as is success. People are easily critical of their own lack of short-term progress. Having a clear purpose and meaning behind what you are trying to achieve can help with this. It is good to have ambitious, but realistic, goals. However, it is even more important to reward yourself for putting in the time that eventually enables you to progress towards these goals. Learning to enjoy the process itself and rewarding yourself for even the tiniest amount of effort you put in, is more important than eventually reaching the goal.
There is probably something that you have been putting off. Something that you want to do, but never really seem to get to. Perhaps you do not believe you can do it. Instead of confirming this belief: challenge it. Accept where you are right now, start working from where you are. Realize that you can develop yourself and be curious about the world around you. Take tiny steps and rewards yourself for each of these steps and compare your progress only to the progress you made the day before. Accept your failures, celebrate your successes. Realize that changing what you believe you can do is the first step into changing what you actually can do.
- Colvin, G. (2008) Talent is Overrated.
- Flora, C. (2016) The Golden Age of Teaching Yourself Anything.
- Foer, J. (2011) Moonwalking with Einstein.
- Pausch, R. (2008) The Last Lecture.
- Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.