Founder Diary

April 5, 2022

Don’t let your goals set you, part 1

Don’t let your goals set you, part 1

Is “never give up” such good advice after all?

A hamster sitting at a desk with torn sheet music all over it
A hamster sitting at a desk with torn sheet music all over it
A hamster sitting at a desk with torn sheet music all over it
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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What if a key measure of how good you are at hitting your goals is how well you abandon them?

It’s common to hear that persistence and grit is how you should get anything done. Most don’t really question this premise.

Why should we?

Every ten-year-old knows Edison invented the lightbulb (despite years of failure), Beethoven wrote the Ninth symphony (despite being completely deaf by then), and that Churchill got Britain through the war (despite arguably unfavorable odds) not by jumping ship at the first sight of a storm, but by standing firm. These stories teach that, simply put, it’s all about unyielding will.

But what we don’t often hear is that those same great minds also excelled at tossing goals away.

Not only did Beethoven abandon pieces by the dozens, he entirely discontinued playing a musical instrument — the organ (read: years of learning and practice) — to focus on the piano.

Not only did Edison routinely toss designs no longer showing promise, he even cast aside successful inventions that didn’t pan out commercially.

And Churchill was a case study in abandonment and change: careers, political views, and military objectives — changing goals based on new inputs was arguably at his foundation.

This begs some questions.

  • Why were these guys good at quitting?

  • What does it take?

  • Can we learn to get better at it?

  • How come we’re so conditioned toward persevering?

To answer these questions, let’s first look at what goals and persistence are actually made of.

Deconstructing goals

There’s no one “proven” method to know if a goal is worth keeping. However, thanks to extensive research, we do know there are some fascinating dynamics behind the science (and art?) of goal-setting. Let’s look at some of the factors at play.

The reward and its desirability, i.e., its importance to you

This is about understanding what it is we want, why we want it, and, perhaps most critically, how badly we want it. If we talk about, say, learning Spanish, it means you probably decide in advance if it’s fluency you want or if you’re fine with basic dictionary-assisted reading. Do you want to be able to live in a Spanish-speaking country or are you picking up some phrases for a vacation?

The bigger  part of the reward equation however is the appeal. In other words, is it a “good-to-have” or a “to-die-for”? One big caveat to keep in mind is that we gravitate to things that offer immediate, more clearly defined, and predictable rewards. However, most major aspirations (including learning a language) are none of those things. Which means the importance of a goal to you plays an outsize role in whether it sticks around.

Resources required

What will it take to hit the bullseye?

Costs are multifaceted, from time you set apart for, in our example, pouring over textbooks, to the mental efforts it takes to return to your studies time and again, to opportunity cost — you could learn cooking, skiing, or just spend those infinite hours playing video games, right?

Tough choices all.


How likely is it that we’ll arrive at the destination?

This is basically an estimation of whether the resources we earmark will be sufficient to overcome obstacles we currently foresee.

Will, or motivation

Often, we have all the resources and opportunities we need for success. But it’s our willingness to expend them that determines the outcome. That involves both being ready to exert the effort needed to stay on every individual task (let’s call it “intra-task” persistence) and getting back to those tasks repeatedly until the goal is reached (“inter-task” persistence, the second half of the equation).

The interpretation issue

Now for the fun part.

Even if you make a decision to go for the Spanish proficiency you’ve long dreamed about and you think you understand the pitfalls, you’re not actually done with the decision in that instant.

Or, to be more precise, the decision isn’t done with you.

The problem?

All four of these factors above are subject to interpretation. The resources, the reward, the motivation etc. — when you start, all you have is a very (and I do mean very) rough estimate. In other words, you form an idea in your mind about what this particular goal pursuit will look like.

However there are always things outside of your control. Worse, there are always things you even don’t know you don’t know. As a result, the value of the reward in your eyes fluctuates when new information becomes available (or sometimes for no apparent reason!) The resources you’re ready to commit change with time (or all the time), you have other stuff in need of your attention, remember? Your motivation to chase after one goal as opposed to another isn’t nearly set in stone.

Yes, you do all the interpreting. But there’s no way to know if the week-from-now you, let alone the one-year-from-now you will have the same view.  So the only thing we can truly know when we set a goal is that getting there will never look exactly as we pictured it.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why goals fail:

  • We overestimate the reward or its desirability. You thought your intermediate level of Spanish would be more than enough to feel at home when traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, but now you’re at a restaurant in Peru and your waiter busts all your expectations: he talks too fast, uses local dialect words you’ve had no idea about, and even dares to mock your academic castellano. Do your best not to feel totally inadequate when you’re faced with that!

  • We underestimate resources required. You dedicate two years to studying and then you realize you still suck, but you don’t have two more to reach the expected level. Not only is the cost higher, but also the rewards get even more delayed! How could you be so naive when you took that first step?!

  • We miscalculate the goal’s feasibility. Remember the two years you spent? Maybe you’re still optimistic? What a great time to get introduced to your personal language learning plateau! The carriage can turn back into a pumpkin in an instant and what seemed within reach might look more distant than ever. You can foresee some obstacles, but others always nonchalantly blindside you in the end.

  • We overestimate our motivation. Today, you’re all super pumped. Tomorrow — not so much. In a month, you’re debating if you should have picked Italian instead. After all, the music of “primavera” is so much more pleasing that the pesky Spanish J sound you now hate with a vengeance (hint: it’s about as charming as fingernails on a chalkboard).

Deconstructing persistence: it’s not “set it and forget it”

Looking at all those failure factors, it turns out that one non-obvious thing about pursuing goals is that we don’t make one, or even just a few, decisions about whether to keep a goal or bail. The reason is simple — most goals require repeated actions over an extended period of time. So, in fact, we make smaller decisions (almost like votes in favor or against your goal) all the time.

Getting back to our language-learning example, the initial commitment to start your studies is one big consequential, top-level decision for this goal. But what happens next?

You now need to schedule your first session and what is it if not another decision on whether to press on? Even at this stage you might have doubts about the whole idea. Maybe you’re excited today, but when it’s time to call the language school to enroll, you’re having second thoughts. Then, when it comes to doing homework, do you dive in for 15 minutes and then take a break, or do you work for an hour and finish the whole thing in one session (that’s your intra-task persistence in action)? Do you do some extra activities to spur the pace of your learning, like watching educational videos, or are you satisfied with sticking to the materials offered by the school?

The most difficult decisions are those that come when you’ve already spent a significant amount of resources but haven’t really seen much of a result. For example, does being able to form a few coherent Spanish sentences infuse you with enthusiasm for more? Or maybe being still unable (after a year of hard work!) to hold a meaningful conversation with a native speaker depresses you and your inter-task persistence simply evaporates? What is it if not another decision?

So what?

We (often subconsciously) keep facing choices on whether we press on or quit the goals we pursue. Most of these choices aren’t major, but they are still all votes that accumulate as our perspective wobbles all the time.

Because persistence is essentially two-faceted — we have to keep pressing on throughout every individual unit of effort (say, sitting through a class), and we have to continuously recommit to the goal across a long series of “effort sessions” (e.g., get back to school for every next class) — your answer to both these choices has to be “Full ahead!” at least most of the time if you’re to hit your goal.

It’s all theoretical fun and games until we face the choice: What happens and what should happen when our perspective changes so much that our initial assumptions are no longer true?

Why do we despise quitting? If we get so many opportunities to change course (all those decisions we discussed), why do we have such an unconditional preference for perseverance? And most importantly, is there anything we can do to break free so that this learned preference doesn’t hurt us? These are all questions I’ll try to answer in my next post.

Thanks for reading!

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