Growth Without Goals

I.

Four years ago, soon after learning that my wife was pregnant with our first child, I was sitting on the Metro-North commuter train, reading. I was thinking about being a father; specifically, I was wondering what it would take to be a great father. Unconditional love and support seemed obvious. Patience too. But what could I teach my son Pierce and future kids that would help them live good, fulfilling lives? That day, I read the following passage from Jiddu Krishnamurti[i]:

Man lives by time. Inventing the future has been his favorite game of escape. We think that changes in ourselves can come about in time, that order in ourselves can be built up little by little, added to day by day. But time doesn’t bring order or peace, so we must stop thinking in terms of gradualness. This means that there is no tomorrow for us to be peaceful in. We have to be orderly on the instant.

It is only then [when the mind is completely still] that the mind is free because it is no longer desiring anything; it is no longer seeking; it is no longer pursuing a goal, an ideal—which are all the projections of a conditioned mind. And if you ever come to that understanding, in which there can be no self-deception, then you will find that there is a possibility of the coming into being of that extraordinary thing called creativity.

II.

Inventing the future is another way of saying “setting goals.” Success, especially in the West, then becomes about achieving those goals. We accumulate accomplishments and call it success. Success means something very different to me, and I think being a great father will be about effectively communicating this different definition of success to my kids. Success is about building a set of daily practices, it is about growth without goals.  Continuous, habitual practice(s) trumps achievement-based success.

I think “accomplishments” are traps. Accomplishments, by their very definition, exist only in the past or future—which are not even real things. Pride is the worst of the seven sins and it is closely related to past and future accomplishments.

[T]he world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after[ii]

III.

Most of the things we do and believe result from stories that we tell ourselves. The modern secular world looks down on religious traditions for their faith in unempirical stories, but we tell ourselves stories in the same way. “Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies.[iii]” To be fair, many of these stories have indeed led to human security and luxury—a better world. Some stories, though, are silly and destructive.

The story that we are told in America is that achievement—money, power, awards—equals success. I had this idea deeply imbued at a young age. We are desire-fulfilling machines: the mind literally IS desire. My desires–and therefore my actions–were shaped by these stories, like the story of achievement. Now I try to ask, what stories are we telling ourselves that are bullshit?

I wanted to write a book. Rather, I wanted to have written a book because I could carve a notch on my achievement belt. I even wanted to do it at an earlier age than my father had (he was 33 when his first book came out). How ridiculous! It felt good—not great—for a day.

Now I just want to explore. That may mean blog posts, research papers, new investing strategies, letters, podcasts, long periods of nothing, or maybe another book. Who knows? Exploration is continuous, there is no end point. Focusing on exploration is very rewarding all the time. It may produce things that look like end points, like achievements, but those things are just byproducts.

The same idea applies to investing. The continuous goal, in my case, is a portfolio that has distinct advantages versus the market along dimensions like value, momentum, capital allocation, etc. There are no price targets, no return targets, no staking my results on a given outcome for a given company.  A goalless process like this is incredibly hard to maintain in an industry which has convinced itself (I despise this particular “story” we’ve told ourselves) that the passage of three months requires that we get together and retrofit a narrative to explain what was likely pure noise. But hard as it is to maintain, I believe that a continuous process, informed by deep research, is the only way to beat Vanguard.

IV.

Jeff Bezos is an incredible figure. He is known for his focus on the long term. He has even funded a clock in West Texas which ticks once per year and is built to last 10,000 years—an ode to thinking long-term.

But I now realize that the key isn’t thinking long-term, which implies long-term goals. Long-term thinking is really just goalless thinking. Long term “success” probably just comes from an emphasis on process and mindset in the present. Long term thinking is also made possible by denying its opposite: short-term thinking. Responding to a question about the “failure” of the Amazon smartphone, Bezos said “if you think that’s a failure, we’re working on much bigger failures right now.” A myopic leader wouldn’t say that.

My guess is that Amazon’s success is a byproduct, a side-effect of a process driven, flexible, in-the-moment way of being. In the famous 1997 letter to shareholders, which lays out Amazon’s philosophy, Bezos says that their process is simple: a “relentless focus on customers.” This is not a goal to be strived for, worked towards, achieved, and then passed. This is a way of operating, constantly—every day, with every decision.

V.

There is an app called “Way of Life” which helps put this idea of “continuous goals” into practice. It’s just a daily checklist of things you want to do. As you check things off day after day, you create a long chain of green that you won’t want to break. It’s very effective. Here are the key ones on my list.

  • No complaining
  • 100 push ups
  • Run
  • No sugar
  • Write 500 words
  • Read
  • Don’t eat until noon (intermittent fasting)
  • Floss
  • Spend time in the woods (running or hiking)
  • Family Time
  • Level Up

The last one—level up—is my favorite. To be able to put a check mark next to “level up,” I have to do something that day which is new or better than what I have done before. I recorded an interview with a really interesting author and investor the other day. Level up. I ran a new trail in the woods that I’d never explored before. Level up. I sent my wife flowers and a note. Level up. This simple reminder has proved invaluable.

These things are their own reward. I did not back into these things from some other goal. They are continuous goals themselves. They make daily life quite wonderful, and I bet they will continue to lead to things that look like achievements from the outside.

Maybe Scott Adams said it best:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game… If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

 continuous success

Goals still sneak their way into my brain. I try, but sometimes fail, to snuff them out. I am working on it. There is always that stupid interview question: where do you see yourself or your company in five years. Instead, we should ask, what things do you think are important to do every day?

VI.

I am incredibly happy in the woods. I love trees that grow sideways out of rocks and hills. They start small and survive because of some available sunshine. They grow whatever direction they must to reach more light. Their slow growth allows them to ultimately reach a form that looks tenuous or even impossible, but they are firmly rooted. I like to imagine the early days, the tree’s roots tinkering in the soil, quickly abandoning failed paths, building deep systems along better paths. These bizarre and beautiful trees end up this way because of a simple process. They operate according to a continuous goal, from the bottom up.

It is in these woods that I’ve begun to teach my son (and will soon teach my daughter) this lesson: explore for the sake of exploration, without expectation. Discover essence in your surroundings and in yourself, free from external conditioning (stories) and expectations. Build from the inside out and bottom up. Great habits and practices make a great and successful life. Cultivate those and the rest will take care of itself.

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[i] If you haven’t read Krishnamurti, please do. Try As One Is or Freedom From the Known.

[ii] T.S. Eliot

[iii] Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens author)