Setting Goals in an Uncertain World

There are countless examples of how people who set personal and professional goals achieve much more than those who don’t.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards (among many other accomplishments) had a brush with mortality early in his life and wrote a list of 101 things to accomplish in his life. He has accomplished nearly all of them.

Jim Collins identified through his research and writing of Built to Last and Good to Great that all of the greatest companies in his study operated with respect to a BHAG - a Big, Hair, Audacious Goal. These goals (think of Kennedy’s declaration that we will land a man on the moon) provide direction through the sheer fearlessness of what has been set before the team to accomplish.

However, humans are terrible predictors of the future. We fall prey to a multitude of behavioral biases that make us completely incompetent when it comes to forecasting anything, whether that be future oil prices, the weather, technological progress, or scientific discoveries. We herd, anchor, exhibit confirmation bias, and have pretty much no ability to accurately calculate the probability that future events will occur, even with the assistance of complex mathematical tools. Black Swans complicate this situation even more, since the events that have the largest impact on how the world and our lives get shaped over time are by their very definition, unpredictable outliers.

Consider the example of predicting the outcome of a single game of pool. It’s been proven that doing so requires some knowledge of the dynamics and position of every atom in the entire universe. Predicting what you’ll do in your life involves the interaction of a lot more moving pieces than a game of pool.

So what does it mean to set goals in a world filled with so much uncertainty?

In setting goals, you need to not be predicting the future, but shaping it. It’s a matter of how you perceive your future.

As Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle is the Way:

“Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness.”

Change your perception of what it means to set goals and your goals will be more effective. Don’t attempt to predict how specific things will turn out in the future and tie your goals to those events. Instead, set goals that involve actions you can control.

As Henry Cloud stresses in 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Love and Life, you have to ‘Play the Movie,’ an exercise where you envision the end result and then ‘play’ through the script in your head that will get you there. This practice will help you understand the steps you need to take in accomplishing a goal because it will force you to think through the actions you have control over and can actually take in achieving that end result.

You don’t predict the future and plan your goals around them, you define your goals and build a life towards those goals. You create the future, you don’t try to predict it. Because you can’t predict it. You can decide what you want it to be though, and then work hard to make that a reality.

10 Lessons I’ve Learned Since Graduating College

  1. Define Your Own Success. If you don’t, you will fail. No matter what you do. You no longer have anyone telling you where to go and what to do. You no longer have anything dictating what comes next. You have to sit down and think through the things that matter to you and that you want to do in order to achieve success in all parts of your life.
  2. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously. Have fun. Do stupid things. Just because you graduated from college, doesn’t mean you have to be a different person.
  3. Enjoy the Small Things. One of the best days I’ve had over the past year was spent sitting outside, drinking a beer, and reading a book. It was great. And I learned that you can be happy with simplicity. Things don’t need to be extravagant, or expensive, or shiny to be enjoyable.
  4. Read Every Day. Read everything you can get your hands on. It will benefit you greatly. I’ve read 57 books in the last year – more than one a week. I’ve read novels, textbooks, philosophical texts, memoirs, and science fiction. Being out of school means you can be unconstrained in your learning. Take advantage of that.
  5. Habits Matter. The things we do every day define who we are. You have power over only two things in the world – your own thoughts, and your own actions. Everything else is out of your control. You can influence other people and other situations, but you can never actually take complete control of those things. So make sure that the habits you create through the actions that you take are the right habits. Those habits will have a profound impact on your life.
  6. Be Yourself. You can spend a lot of time trying to be someone you’re not. But ultimately, you can only be who you are, so don’t try to fight that.
  7. Expand your Knowledge with the goal of developing Wisdom. There are certain people that ‘know’ a lot of information. This can be hugely beneficial, particularly at the beginning of a career. Many of the things I accomplished over the last year came as a result of simply knowing more about certain things than other people. But knowledge will only get you so far. At a certain point, you have to start building wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to act on in formation, the experience to understand how to behave in certain situations, and the insight to make decisions. This wisdom allows you to take the information you have in front of you and move forward given some level of uncertainty. You can know a lot, but you will ultimately not make it that far if you can’t develop the wisdom necessary to take you to the next level.
  8. Build Authority. When you exercise your power over others, you can influence them to do certain things for you. The output though, will be completely dependent on how much authority you wield over those individuals. If they respect you and have given you the authority to lead, you will be able to push people past where they ever thought possible. If you drive others with power that has not been earned, your results will be less impressive.
  9. Make Mistakes. When I first started working, I made a lot of mistakes. I presented information incorrectly. I didn’t analyze situations the right way. Even earlier this week I sent an email to our company that set expectations about a deadline when those expectations should not have been set. But all those mistakes were good mistakes. Because I learned from them, and now I know how not to make those same mistakes. You have to be ok failing. You have to be comfortable doing something wrong.
  10. Life Goes On. Life after college is scary. You have new situations to deal with, lots of uncertainty, and minimal structure. But ultimately, each day comes and you can’t do anything to stop it. One year from now will come by regardless of what you spend doing during that time. So make the most of each one of those days.

Find Your Identity

“The shape does not change. There was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are like snowflakes – forming patterns we have seen before, … but still unique” –  American Gods


Identity matters in business and in life.

Identity is the most important thing you can define about your business. By doing so, you’re defining what you value, what you’re willing to work hard for, and what kinds of people you want to work with. Without an identity, you will not build a cohesive team, you will not have a cohesive message, and you will not be able to communicate who you are to other people.

When you’re building a team, it may seem like hiring the most talented people who walk in the door is the best chance for success. But what if that rockstar doesn’t actually care about what you’re trying to build? What if you’re trying to move fast and break things but that new hire has never worked in an office with less than 100 other people? Without an identity, you won’t be able to tell that these people aren’t right for your team.

Acquiring customers requires you to communicate the value you provide in some cohesive fashion. It requires you to get someone to commit their hard earned dollars to you. But if you don’t know who you are, how could you ever expect someone else to understand what you’re selling?

The same thing goes for your life. If you don’t define who you are, if you don’t allow yourself to create an identity, you will be lost. You will have a hard time connecting to people. You will have a hard time making new friends. You will have a hard time enjoying your work. You will have a hard time enjoying your life.

Because ultimately we’re all happiest when we’re with people we care about and who care about us and we’re doing things that feel important. It’s really hard to find either of those things if you don’t have an identity.

Your identity isn’t just about who you are. It’s about how you present yourself to the world. Your identity is what differentiates you from each of the other 7 billion people on this planet. Our uniqueness comes from the way we express our identity because it defines who we are and who we aren’t.

It’s really hard to be who you are if you try to be everything to everyone. You just can’t do it. Sometimes you work really hard to make something work out, whether in a job, or maybe a relationship, and something just doesn’t seem right. But you work really hard, maybe harder than you’ve ever worked at anything, and yet there’s always this one thing that seems to keep everything from fitting together just right. If you don’t know your own identity, you’ll never be able to figure out what’s missing.

The beauty with finding that identity is that it attracts other people that value the same things as you, care about the same things as you, and want to live a life in the same way as you. You don’t actually have to work very hard to find those people. They’ll find you.

Because we’re attracted to people that are confident in who they are. We’re drawn to people that can stand out in a crowd and say “I am who I am and no one can take that from me.” The confidence is intoxicating.

So define that identity. Don’t try to be everything. You are who you are for a reason, so embrace it.

How Understanding Opportunity Cost Can Improve Your Life

One of the first concepts taught in Economics is something called ‘Opportunity Cost.’ It refers to the value the second best option forgone when making a choice.

For example, if I choose to buy an apple with the only dollar in my pocket, and bananas are my second favorite snack item, then the Opportunity Cost of purchasing that apple is one banana (assuming that the banana and the apple both cost a dollar). The value of the Opportunity Cost is typically not given in dollars, as the Opportunity Cost of spending a dollar on the apple is not the dollar itself but the fact that I am giving up the opportunity to buy a banana. Every decision you make has an Opportunity Cost because there is always something you have to give up in order to get what you choose.

Few disciplines outside Economics teach this concept, but it is completely central to decision making, which everyone has to do all the time. As a result, it frequently gets overlooked when people make what I would consider to be the most important decision we make each morning: what to do with our time.

Many people just let each day play out as it comes, straying down detours and reacting to each obstacle that falls in their path.

What’s tricky here is that there are really an infinite number of ways you could spend each hour of the day. How do you decide what to do? How could anyone ever make the right decision?

Start by being intentional about planning your day. Maybe this starts right when you wake up, or maybe it happens some time later in the day. When it happens isn’t necessarily important.

The real key here is that you think about all the things that you could do during the day, and then make a conscious decision about what you’re NOT going to do. Problems will pop up and last minute deadlines will get set, making it difficult to plan out a day to the minute. But if you clearly understand the important things you want to accomplish, and understand the things that consume your time but don’t provide any value, you’ll be in control when issues arise and you’ll avoid doing the things that don’t provide you with sufficient value.

The act of simply thinking about the various ways you could spend your time will help you begin to understand the Opportunity Cost of each action and ultimately lead you to avoid the actions that have the highest Cost, helping you be more effective in your work, more happy in your relationships, and more content with yourself.

Next, think about how much value you’re giving up by the way you act each day. Remove the things that don’t provide you value.

Maybe you spend a significant amount of time checking your email each morning. Is that the best way you could be spending your time? Maybe it is. In which case you shouldn’t change that. But what if you can think of even one other thing that you could be doing during that time that would be more beneficial? Do that instead. Don’t waste your time. You have to control your day.

Finally, start building good habits around your old, costly habits to help you avoid inefficiency and stay healthy. This will help you stay disciplined throughout the day so that you can avoid making decisions with a high Opportunity Cost.

Every minute you spend doing one thing prevents you from doing another. You will never be even close to perfect in minimizing your Opportunity Cost throughout the day. But what if you could be even marginally better than yesterday? What if the decisions you made today provided even a tiny bit more value than the other options? And what if you could do that every day?