New Years and 'Goblin Goals'
Stop bribing yourself with "goblin goals", and learn to love getting to work.
A lot of my work on "personal development" feels like trying to outwit myself, almost as though two sides of my personality are locking horns in a chess match for my soul.
In the work that I've done in habit change, I note that our brains crave dopamine, optimizing for maximum reward for minimal effort, hence the appeal of convenient stimuli like social media, junk food, porn, and anything else that you can indulge in without focus, challenge, or deliberation.
This physiological preference for instant gratification is personified in my mind as a goblin that I'm constantly trying to outwit. It's the devil on my shoulder, whispering in my ear to go scroll Instagram a bit more, go jerk off instead of putting in that extra 30 minutes of work that will make my life easier, or watch a movie instead of clean the house. It's very persuasive, it knows my weaknesses, and attacks them relentlessly.
I hate that little goblin.
I've tried to take the 'spiritual' approach and integrate it into my personality, loving it as part of myself, not resisting it (because "what you resist persists"), and trying to care for it as a 'wounded inner child'.
But that shit didn't work.
It used my compassion as firepower to pull me away from the things that fill me with purpose and vigor, and drag me back down into the hazy stupor of distracted dysphoria.
The goblin is a bastard, and it doesn't want me to be happy. It wants a snack, a fap, and a nap, and that's about it.
See, I KNOW deep-down that the bliss that Joseph Campbell told me to follow comes from being able to focus on things for prolonged periods of time; cultivating a relationship with a craft, and committing myself to learning through failure as I persist through my challenges.
In other words, there has never been a true sense of contentment without some element of overcoming. The goblin is a worthy foe in this endeavour, because every time I win out over him and choose discipline over craving, it feels like I defeated an ancient adversary, and once again protected my kingdom from chaos and destruction.
Sounds dramatic, but there is real destruction to be had in succumbing to lower order desires over long periods of time. Depression, listlessness, self loathing, all manifesting in a dim grey quagmire of dissatisfaction and no energy or motivation to improve your situation. It's a fucking nightmare, and one of the reasons I passionately write about avoiding it.
One of my heroes, Steven Pressfield, was asked in a book by Tim Ferriss (another one of my heroes) what bad advice he hears in his profession.
Pressfield notes that "In the world of writing, everybody wants to succeed immediately and without pain or effort. Really? Or they love to write books on how to write books, rather than actually writing... a book that might actually be about something.
Bad advice is everywhere. Build a following. Establish a platform. Learn how to scam the system. In other words, do all the surface stuff and none of the real work it takes to actually produce something of value."
This is certainly not limited to the realm of writing. I've worked in fitness, life coaching, marketing, music, entertainment, and more... in each industry, I've seen others (and caught myself) looking for shortcuts to outcomes that we think will gratify us.
Whether it was a 'nutrition hack' to get lean quick, or a marketing trick that 'drove your customers crazy', promising an outcome with a minimal effort is just a slightly more sophisticated expression of that little 'gratification goblin' always looking for its chance to strike.
Pressfield goes on to say something that I know well in my heart, which I had to learn the hard way: "Real work and real satisfaction comes from the opposite of what the web provides. They come from going deep into something- the book you're writing, the album, the movie- and staying there for a long time".
I know this first hand. I've experienced the incomparable satisfaction that comes with finding yourself in the flow state as you lose yourself in practice, the unshakeable confidence that comes from years of dedicated practice, and the fruits of a sustained effort that are unreachable through anything but effort. This is my True North, the philosophy I aspire to, and my best results have come from this process-orientation mindset.
In my last post, I mentioned that I want to be a writer, and I'm working diligently on enacting the behaviours I image a writer would do. Obviously a writer writes. A great writer probably reads a ton too, so I should do more of that. If I want to read and write more, then I need to scroll social media and play video games less.
THIS is the chess match that I'm playing with my goblin, trying to get myself to do the things associated with the person that I want to be, instead of receding into laziness and hedonism.
For the last 8 years, I've refused to set resolutions, insisting that January 1st is 'just another day no more special than the last'. This year, however, I decided to change the trend and set some outrageous goals for myself to motivate myself into behaviour changes.
A writer writes, right? And what requires a ton of writing? A BOOK. Obviously. And if I write a book, then I can definitely consider myself legitimate, and other people will recognize me as a writer. I decided, nay, RESOLVED to write a book in 2022, with a behaviour goal of writing a minimum of 500 words per day.
I shared this aspiration with my friend, and asked him if he would help me edit my book and provide feedback. He said yes to my request, but also noted that writing a book in a year seemed to be a monumental, almost unreasonable goal, whereas my behaviour goal of writing 500 words every day seemed far more productive since it was process oriented.
The goal of a book was outcome-oriented, or as he put it, 'transactional with the universe'.
I retorted by saying that to adhere to my process oriented goals, I like setting massive, almost 'unrealistic' outcome goals, because smaller more reasonable goals don't often motivate me into lasting change. His follow-up challenge to my thought process stunned me:
He had a point. I wasn't sure what that point was yet, exactly, but I knew that he had one.
Maybe it was that all my best work was never inspired by a promise of a future reward.
My best fitness results didn't come from promising myself six pack abs in the future - they came from falling in love with the sweat, burn, and satisfaction of suffering my way through workouts, and the pride I felt in staying disciplined with my diet over time. I fell in love with the lifestyle, and the results came anyways.
My best songs came from a desire to express complicated emotions, and just play music, not the desire to be recognized for playing music.
My best marketing didn't come from using a 'copywriting formula that could make me millions' or promising other peoples' goblins instant rewards (which DOES work in marketing, by the way) - it came from talking authentically about personal experiences, and caring deeply about the people that I wanted to work with.
Why would my best writing be any different?
I love writing for the same reason that I love creating any art - there is a joy in losing yourself entirely in a process, where the sense of "I" disappears, and only the work remains.
Thoughts and ideas pour out of you that you didn't even know you had, you tell jokes or write quips that are far funnier than you are capable of producing yourself.
The experience is borderline transcendent; the intoxicating immersion in flow state, laugh-out-loud moments where you surprise yourself by what shows up on the page, the creative analogies that give you a deeper understanding of what you're writing about, as you're writing about it.
It all feels otherworldly, like there is another source writing through you, instead of being the writer yourself.
This is why I want to be a writer. It's the process, it's the actual act of writing - and being able to go back and enjoy reading what I've written! It's not the badge I get to wear of having written something. If it was just that, I would write one thing and just quit... but a writer writes, even after having written.
Needing an outcome like a book - or rather, requiring the gratification and prestige of being recognized for having written a book - is a pollutant to my process. It's one of the craftiest chess moves that the goblin can make, turning the love affair with practicing my craft into a desperate grab for something that strokes my ego.
Eventually I become discouraged and crumble back into the lower-order desires for comfort, ease, and familiarity when I inevitably let myself down. Check, and mate.
All that said...
It's not necessarily as easy as just saying "forget the outcome, focus on the process".
Like most things, it's far more nuanced than that. Even within process orientation, outcomes should still drive motivation because results still matter. My friend also pointed out that simply writing 500 words every day would be equivalent to doing 500 reps of any arbitrarily chosen exercises - sure you're "exercising", but what results are you getting?
Experience in a domain of expertise seldom correlates to skill or performance. You might cook food for yourself every day, but you're not on your way to becoming a professional chef. You've probably seen (or been) the guy at the gym who is there every day, but hasn't seemed to make any progress in years.
Just because you do something regularly doesn't mean you're doing it in a way that will make you improve.
I first heard the idea of deliberate practice from Malcom Gladwell in his book, Outliers. You may have heard of the idea that to become a master at something, you need 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell goes deeper and suggests that what sets the REALLY great apart is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice - where your practice challenges the boundaries of your current abilities, requiring focus and intent beyond normal levels.
The easiest example for me is playing guitar; I can pick up my guitar and noodle around for hours, playing songs, chords, solos, etc that are well within my range of ability. OR, I can turn on a metronome, practice my picking patterns, start learning songs that are just outside of my current ability, and ultimately force myself to do something that I can't yet. The difference is obvious - one leads to improvement, and one doesn't.
Another easy example is the guy in the gym who isn't making any progress. In order for your body to grow in strength, muscle size, or work capacity, it's well-known that your training needs to have some element of progressive overload. You need to gradually push up past the levels of exertion, weight, etc that you previously were doing in order for your body to get the signal that it has to adapt to that new stress. Deliberate practice feels the same - you got to give your brain and body a reason to get better.
I could set the goal of writing 500 words per day, but without deliberation (or some 'literary progressive overload'), those words might not be interesting, entertaining, inspiring, educative, or even sensical. I could be writing run-on sentences and working within the same spectrum of vocabulary for a year straight, and I wouldn't be a better writer than when I started.
I'm still trying to figure out what deliberate practice looks like for writing, but I do know that it has to be deliberate - because even in a process orientation, there is still a goal to improve.
Yes, the process CAN be its own reward, but with improvement, the process can be even more rewarding. I enjoyed fitness more when I was stronger and could move better. I enjoyed practicing guitar more when I was technically proficient enough to improvise across many genres of music. The challenges that you can take on become more complex and satisfying the better you are at something.
There is a paradigm shift that I want to play with here:
Typically, the process is the means to the end of achieving an outcome.
But what if the outcome could be means the to the end goal of a better, more meaningful process?
The outcome, rather than being the goal itself, would be a signpost, a directional input to inform the intent behind your practice or work. The goal itself is better work, skill honing, and getting closer to mastery. A deeper relationship and more thorough enjoyment of what it is that you're committed to - with the outcomes as mere feedback mechanisms to help you calibrate that further.
Using that idea for my own desire to be a writer, writing a book is still a great goal. Instead of the book being the end in itself though, my goals could be:
Better work habits
Improved editing skills
Honing my creative voice
More time in the flow state
Learning about where my ideas come from and nurturing that
Reading great books, identifying what I love about them, and applying that to my own work
The book wouldn't be the goal, it becomes the lesson. Completed chapters become milestones, and really focusing on making it a great book is the deliberate part of 'deliberate practice' that might actually help me improve as a writer. I am now using the goblin's moves against itself, and once again feel in control.
Incidentally, this paradigm shift came to mind only as a result of the process of writing. I might not have thought of that if I were just thinking about it. The commitment to organize and communicate my thoughts made my insights grow and evolve - one of the things I love most about writing, and why I want to be 'a writer'. The process itself led to a better mindset about the process. Go figure.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear makes the case that the goal isn't to achieve or attain something, it's to become someone. "The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader." Who you are informs what you do, and vice-versa.
I think that this is more aligned to the types of goals I'd like to set for myself moving forward. Instead of 'goblin goals' destined to pump and dump your motivation with big, ego-filled ambition, I want process-oriented goals aimed at becoming a new version of self. Outcomes can be enjoyed, but ultimately seen as milestone and course correctors, revelling in the process and the work itself.
Work is often it's own reward, but truth be told, there are a lot of great tangible rewards for doing a lot of the right work. And to that effect, my aim this year is to start doing more of the right work, to make my practices more deliberate, to become more technically honed in on my craft.
My favourite teaching from the Bhagavad Gita is when Krishna says that we are entitled to our labours, but not the fruits of our labours. At first, I kind of got irritated by this, thinking "if there isn't a result to be had for your work, then what's the point?"
But the by making your work the point, you become liberated in a sense. You become energized by effort instead of drained by it, which kind of feels like the ultimate life hack.
That's my 500 words for the day (actually, 2,690 words, thank you very much, hashtag overachiever)
What did the goblin tell you that you should resolve to do this year, and who are you going to become instead?