It's always better to look at actions than words. If someone says that they're committed to being healthy, but then they order a fat stack of pancakes... well, maybe they're not so committed after all. Recently I've been thinking about this truism in terms of goals and priorities. Your priorities are what they look like.
When you ask someone what his goals are, especially a young person, you'll probably end up hearing a bunch of talk about making money, traveling the world, getting healthy, learning some big skill, or contributing to the world in some way. Great goals. But if we examine people's actions, do they line up with these goals? Sometimes, but very often they're directly contrary to their goals.
The average person eats unhealthy food, spends a lot of time at a job he doesn't like, engages in junk entertainment like TV or video games, maybe drinks some alcohol, and then goes to sleep. Is he getting closer to his goals? Is he getting farther away from them? What can we conclude about the intent behind his goals?
Maybe the most interesting question would be: what goals is he moving towards? I'd say that he's moving towards comfort. Not decadent comfort like a hammock on a pristine beach, but the comfort of not having to think or exert himself. The comfort of mediocrity. And to be clear-- if someone says that comfort is his only goal, I'd have no criticism of these actions. I have different goals, but even I'm not arrogant enough to judge someone by my own goals rather than his own.
I don't say all this to bash other people, though. I offer it as an introduction to a technique you can use to objectively decide whether you're on track with your goals. Ask yourself what someone who watched ALL of your actions would guess that your goals are. Think about this for different time periods-- one day, one week, one month, one year. Don't just think of actions that people could reasonably see, but also consider actions hidden from everyone but you. When your boss isn't watching, do you slack off because you won't be caught, or do you keep hammering away? If no one's there to judge you, do you order dessert?
I began thinking about this when I was on the side of a mountain in Peru. I was there by myself with no power, no wifi, and no connection to the outside world. If you had asked me what my number one priority was, I would have told you that it was SETT. But how true can that really be when I've put myself into a situation where I can't possibly work on SETT? Even after getting off the mountain and into a hotel in the small town of Aguas Calientes, I was too destroyed to work. If someone watched me for that week, they wouldn't put SETT anywhere near the top of my priority list. They would probably guess that my goals were to find adventure and push myself.
Through this lens, it could be argued that I shouldn't have gone to Peru. I'm mostly glad that I did-- I had a really great experience that I'll never forget, but at the same time, if I had stayed home and worked, I bet I wouldn't have regretted that either. Earlier this year my friends went to Burning Man. I didn't really want to go, but I'm sure that if I did go I would have had an awesome time and not regretted it. That week ended up being one of my most productive weeks of the year, and I wouldn't give it up for anything. So just because I'm glad I went to Peru doesn't mean that it was the best choice.
On the other hand, if someone were to look at my actions for a year, he would, without a doubt, say that SETT is my number one priority, and that blogging, learning, health, and self development are other lesser priorities That's what I want my priorities to be, so I'm happy about it. And I'm not beating myself up about Peru, either. Even if it wasn't an optimal choice to go, it was still a good one. I got a bit of contrast from my normal life, learned some things about myself, and got a good blog post out of it. Even though I didn't get a huge quantity of work done, I managed to knock out some of my highest priority problems on the train rides and flights I took during the trip.
Looking through this prism of apparent priorities at different angles can give you different insights. If a reasonable person watched your average day, what would he guess your priorities are? When you're about to commit a significant amount of time or money to something, ask yourself what sort of priorities that commitment signifies. If you haven't reached your goals that you've set, examining which of your habits are aligned with those goals and which aren't may provide you with a clear path towards getting back on track.
For San Francisco Area Readers: it's last minute, but if you're in San Francisco, join me and a couple other readers at Moya on 9th and Minna tonight at 7pm for dinner.
Photo is of the new SETT International World Headquarters (also known as an unused bit of office space donated to us by an anonymous business). My favorite place to work has always been an Eames Lounger.
The one thing I consistently fail to account for when planning trips, especially shorter ones, is the disruption it will cause to my routine. For over a hundred days in a row, I wrote a blog post every day, did a Chinese lesson, worked on SETT, and a few other things for which I hold myself accountable.
I went to Peru for ten days, and although I started off strong, jamming in the blog post and Chinese lessons on my flights and bus ride to the Andes, once I started hiking I stopped doing those things. No real foul there, because breathing and walking had become difficult first priorities. When I got back to civilization, still in Peru, I resumed working hard on SETT, but I stopped doing Chinese lessons. I was practicing Spanish every day, though, so that made it okay. I wrote a monster blog post about Peru and sort of let myself coast on that. After all, it was a lot longer than my average post.
I got back to San Francisco and had only a week before I was going to Mexico. That week was great. I felt bad about being off schedule, so I used that as motivation to get back on. I rated three of those days as As and four as Bs, which is a pretty solid week. Next there are ten days completely missing from my schedule. I remember them, though. I worked on SETT every day while I was in Mexico, at a reduced capacity, as expected. I did a couple Chinese lessons, but was speaking Spanish, and fell behind on blog posts. Maybe I wrote four during those ten days.
Again, I got back and got back on schedule, but this time with less consistency. One day I gave myself an F and didn't even write any notes on the day. A few others I got Ds. There are As and Bs, too, but not as many as there should be.
A few days ago, I wrote an open letter to a good friend of mine - "I Think Greatness is Something You Are, Not Something You Do" - I said to him, I'm not a great man, just a normal man working on great things. Greatness is something you do, not something you are.
To give you some background, my friend Brendon is just one of the most amazingly good people in the world. He takes care of everyone around him, his mind, body, and spirit are sharp. He's a black belt, an excellent programmer, a philosopher, a Shodan in Go (actually, even stronger than that - he's a Shodan under the Asian rankings, so probably even higher in America), a hard worker, extremely loyal, a clear and free thinker, widely read and knowledgeable, and again - an amazingly good guy. I've learned a lot from him (notably, he taught me how to play Go, sysadmin Linux, understand basketball at a very high level, improve at martial arts, improve my fitness, and other good stuff - we'd usually go drink green tea and play Go at Samurai Restaurant in Boston, go fight in the park, talk philosophy out at nightclubs, do stuff like that).
He wrote back to me about greatness and humility. I think this is a really beautiful piece, so I asked him if I could gently edit it and put it up. He graciously agreed. It's long, but go ahead and just start it and give it whatever time you have - there's a lot of amazing insight in here.
A Quick Favor Request - if you learn from this or it helps you, please send Brendon a quick email to [email protected] - he was actually a little gun-shy about having such a personal piece put up with such raw power in it. He only agreed when I told him how many people it could help - so please, drop him a short line to say thanks if this teaches you as much as it did me.
Without further ado...