Objective Means to Subjective Ends

An objective is…objective. It’s generally specific and quantifiable. A dictionary might define an objective as something you’re working toward, such as a goal or the completion of a project. You may or may not succeed in reaching the goal or completing the project, but you’ll know whether or not you achieved your objective.

One objective may be a single step in the process of completing a larger objective. Maybe you undertake to read a particular book in order to successfully complete a class that is part of your goal of obtaining some type of certification or qualification. You’ll know whether or not you finished reading the book, successfully completed the class, and obtained the certification.

But why are you working toward that certification? What aspects of your status quo are you aiming to change? The objective change is obvious: you will have the certification or qualification you didn’t have before. However, the subjective change—your desired outcome—is likely to be much less clearly defined, if even considered.

This isn’t to say you don’t have an explanation for why you want to do something—or at least why you think you want to do it. Explaining ourselves to ourselves comes naturally to humans. You may also be clear about the potential benefits of succeeding with your objective. But having good reasons and being aware of the benefits are not the same as identifying your desired outcome.

Why (to) Ask Why

You could be going on a job interview because you hope to get hired or because you’re thinking about quitting your current job and are testing the waters or because a relative hooked you up and you feel obligated…or…or…or. Those are some reasons you might have for keeping the appointment for that interview.

Assuming you hope to get hired, why? Maybe it’s simply to earn enough to pay your bills. Or maybe you want to move up into a more challenging or more prestigious position. You might be seeking a congenial group of co-workers to expand your circle of friends. Or you might want a calmer work environment with less stress than you now have. Or you’d like a more stimulating environment. It could be a combination of factors.

If you’re clear about what you hope will happen as a result of getting the job, you’ll be better able to evaluate whether or not to take it if it’s offered to you. At the interview itself, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions and pay attention to things that are relevant to your concerns. Knowing the desired outcome you’re looking for is pretty important since it increases your chances of getting it.

But if you accept the job offer without having identified your desired outcome, you set yourself up for the possibility of being disappointed. Maybe the money’s good and the work is interesting but you wouldn’t get to interact with very many other people—and it turns out the social aspect is really important to you. In fact, you realize you would be willing to earn less in exchange for having more interpersonal interaction.

Reality Check

In addition to changing jobs, we get into or out of relationships, take up hobbies, move from one part of the country to another, decide to go back to school (or drop out), sign up for a gym membership, start a diet, buy a complete new wardrobe—or a set of patio furniture or an expensive camera or a car. We not only fail to identify our desired outcome, we also fail to identify potential obstacles we’re likely to face along the path to getting it.

Included in the “Reality Check” exercise my clients complete when filling out a Goal Action Plan are these three questions.

  1. Imagine a positive vision (fantasy) of achieving your desired outcome and describe it. How will your status quo be changed?
  2. Describe your current reality in regard to your desired outcome.
  3. Compare your positive vision of success with your current reality.

It’s important to remember that if all you do is generate and focus on a positive vision of your desired outcome without doing anything else, you are less likely to be successful in achieving it because you will have tricked your brain into thinking you’ve already got it.

Answering all three questions is a form of mental contrasting that can help you see your situation more realistically and identify the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome. If you know the obstacles you’re likely to face, you can figure out how to deal with them ahead of time instead of being blind-sided by them. Or you may realize there’s an obstacle big enough to be a deal-breaker, at least for now.

When we perform mental contrasting, we gain energy to take action. And when we go on to specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even further.Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

Evaluate and Motivate

The more clearly you can visualize your desired outcome the better you’ll be able to evaluate how likely it is that the action you’re contemplating is the best path to getting there. If it is, great! That clarity can be highly motivating. If it isn’t, that’s great, too, because you can change or revise your plan and save yourself the time, energy, and effort of going off on a wild goose chase.

The more time, energy, or effort it will take to attain your objective, the more imperative it is that you identify your desired outcome. The unconscious part of your brain is hooked on instant gratification, but changing the status quo tends to be gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious. Being able to remind yourself not only what you’re aiming for (the objective means) but also why it’s important to you (the subjective end) will go a long way to keeping you focused and on track.

Developing the habit of identifying your desired outcome is useful in all kinds of every-day situations, such as responding to a social media post, attending a staff meeting, choosing a book to read, or planning a vacation. It’s a truism because it’s true: it’s considerably easier to get what you want if you know what that is.

Adapted from a previous post, D Is for Desired Outcome.

V Is for Vampire

More accurately, V is for choosing whether or not to become a vampire. (Stay with me.) It’s an example offered by philosophy professor L.A. Paul to describe the difficulty of making certain kinds of decisions—decisions that will, literally, transform you in some way. She asks, how could you make an informed choice about whether or not to become a vampire?

Imagine that you have a one-time-only chance to become a vampire. With one swift, painless bite, you’ll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night. As a member of the Undead, your life will be completely different. You’ll experience a range of intense new sense experiences, you’ll gain immortal strength, speed and power, and you’ll look fantastic in everything you wear.

So far, so good. However…

You’ll also need to drink animal blood (but not human blood) and avoid sunlight.

Paul goes on to say that all your friends and family have already become vampires and they are crazy about it. They encourage you to become a vampire, too. When you ask for more information, they tell you that, as a human, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a vampire until you become one.

High Stakes (no pun intended)

Paul refers to such decisions as high-stakes transformative decisions. Once you take the plunge, there’s no turning back. High-stakes transformative decisions definitely alter your status quo, for better or for worse. Other examples are:

  • Becoming a parent for the first time
  • Being born deaf and getting a cochlear implant
  • Being in a war
  • Seeing color for the first time

Normally, Paul argues, experience helps us develop the conceptual or imaginative abilities we need to imagine things or situations that don’t currently exist. (It’s easy enough to imagine a vampire, especially these days, but it’s not so easy to imagine being a vampire.) When we go about trying to decide if we should take path A or path B or stay right where we are, the right kinds of experiences allow us to project ourselves into the future so we can make a rational decision about how to proceed. If we lack such experience, we have no basis for making a rational decision.

We Are Not so Rational

Paul says:

There’s a lot of value in introspecting. It’s important for us to try to think about who we are and who we want to become when we make these big decisions.

Of course that’s true for all kinds of decisions. And there are no guarantees that even the most rational of decisions will produce the results you want or hope for. Whether the stakes are high or low, even if you think you know yourself pretty well, and you think you know who you want to become in the future, and you have suitable previous experience, and you attempt to include all the relevant information, you can still end up choosing something that leaves you disappointed or far from where you thought you’d be.

Besides that, the vast majority of choices we make are non-rational (System 1, unconscious) choices. Rational decision-making isn’t even the norm for most high-stakes transformative choices.

Affective Forecasting

When we project ourselves into the future, trying out various potential outcomes, we may be weighing (consciously or unconsciously) numerous factors. But a primary consideration for most of us is how we’re going to feel as a result of a particular outcome. This is called affective forecasting—and we tend to be really, really bad at it.

In order to predict how we’re likely to feel about something, we need to be able to imagine the event. As Paul says, that’s easier to do if we’ve experienced it or something similar in the past. If we’ve been to a lot of parties, we can imagine—in general—how we’ll feel about attending a party on Saturday. If we’ve cleaned out the garage before, we can imagine how we’ll feel about doing that on Saturday, too. But if we haven’t experienced something, what we imagine or expect may not bear much resemblance to the actuality. Thinking we can predict the future leads us to believe in the veracity of what we imagine.

Even if we’re able to imagine an event because we’ve experienced it before, our memory of it—and how we felt at the time—may be faulty simply because it’s the nature of memory to be faulty. And the feelings we experience when remembering an experience from the past are not necessarily the same feelings we had at the time of the experience. (Daniel Kahnaman claims the experiencing self and the remembering self have very different agendas.) Additionally, when we don’t recall actual details of something, we may come to rely instead on our beliefs or theories about how that thing will make us feel in the future.

The Future Will Not Be the Same as the Present

There are many other variables that influence the way we make decisions, including how we’re feeling at the time, both physically and emotionally. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes how our attempts to imagine the future are based in our experiences in the present:

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

He adds:

We fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

And our future world won’t be identical to our present world, either.

So if you want to improve the odds of having your decisions lead to positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes, you need to identify what’s really important to you and focus most of your attention on going after those things. Feelings are fleeting, but the things that are most important to you are also likely to be the most constant.

Trying to decide whether or not to become a vampire isn’t really so different from actual decisions you face. Making high-stakes transformative decisions will lead to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

So will not making them.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

L Is for Luck

Plans, practice, and preparation are all useful, even essential, if you want to accomplish anything significant in life. But no matter how rock-solid they are, your plans, practice, and preparation cannot immunize you against random occurrences, aka luck. Your luck in a given circumstance may be good or bad, but by its nature it isn’t predictable.

A good definition of luck is:

The chance happening of fortunate or adverse events.

It’s important to recognize that, statistically speaking, random events occur far more often and have a far greater impact on us than we recognize. Events outside our control will occur. When everything goes according to plan or falls into place, we can thank our lucky stars. But we can’t count on being lucky. And we can’t take credit for luck.

The fact that luck is something we can’t control automatically casts it in a bad light. Both the nature of it and the outcome are uncertain and uncertainty gives the unconscious part of our brain the heebie jeebies. We prefer to operate under the illusion of control, maintaining our belief that we can influence outcomes even in the face of significant irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Thus there are people who believe they create their own luck. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur. And in some circumstances that’s true. You can’t necessarily take advantage of advantageous circumstances if you don’t know how to respond or are not prepared to do so. You can, to an extent, be ready to open your arms to random good fortune—which would certainly be more welcome than bad fortune.

Estimating Impact

However, good fortune does not always lead to good outcomes. Take lottery winners, a group that has been the subject of numerous studies. Not everyone who wins the lottery ends up worse off than they were before—but a surprising number of winners do. And most report being no happier after winning than people who didn’t win.

Our beliefs about outcomes are strongly affected by one of the cognitive biases we’re afflicted with. This one is known as the impact bias, and it has two parts. We think we know whether a future potential event will affect us in a positive or in a negative way. And we’re usually pretty good at getting that prediction right. We also think we know how large or small that impact will be and how long it will last. That’s where we often miss the mark by anticipating that both good and bad events will affect us more—and for longer—than they actually will.

Something that is pretty predictable is that you’re more likely to overreact to bad luck when you aren’t fully committed to your current plan of action. If you’re more or less going through the motions, it won’t take much to blow you off course or permanently derail you. You might think what you’re up to is just not meant to be or that you don’t have what it takes.

That’s why it’s critical to get very, very clear about your desired outcome ahead of time. If you have a strong commitment to what you’re going after, you’re more likely to consider bad luck a bump in the road. Maybe it’s a small bump or maybe it’s an enormous boulder. Nevertheless, you’ll be more inclined to figure out how to navigate around it and continue on your way if you really want what’s on the other side and if you know the next steps you need to take.

Enter the Black Swan

Sometimes luck, good or bad, has a relatively minor effect. On the other hand, luck—in the form of what Nassim Taleb calls Black Swans—can be life-changing. Taleb describes a so-called Black Swan this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The majority of swans are white, so black swans are unexpected. As Taleb says, on September 10, 2011, the events of September 11 were not reasonably conceivable. If they had been, something could have been done to prevent them.

A Black Swan event can permanently alter your course or at the very least make it vastly more difficult to pursue. But you can’t anticipate such events or know whether they will be positive or negative. What you can be certain about is what is meaningful to you. If the course you’re on is massively disrupted, you will still have the knowledge of what’s important to you, even if you have to find a completely different way to create it in your life.

If there’s something you want to do and the main thing holding you back is uncertainty, try imagining a world where all is preordained, everything is known in advance, and there is no possibility of surprise. Is that really a world you’d want to live in?

You can’t predict the future no matter how much your brain wants you to believe you can. Although you can—and should—plan ahead, it’s important to remember that the path from here to there is rarely a straight line. Randomness and luck often play a larger role in both process and outcome than we’d like to acknowledge.

In the long run, how you respond (persevere) in the face of setbacks and random events is more important than achieving instant or quick success. And you can take all the credit for persevering.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

G Is for Goals


“Goal,” I once wrote, isn’t one of those four-letter words. Nevertheless, it’s often treated as if it is, which is unfortunate. Becoming proficient at identifying, setting, and achieving goals is essential to mastering the art and science of change. So what exactly is a goal? The definition I use (not coined by me) is this one:

A goal is a specific state of affairs that a plan is intended to achieve and that (when achieved) terminates behavior intended to achieve it.

That means you are now here; you want to be over there; you figure out how to get from here to there; you take the steps to get from here to there; and when you arrive you stop taking steps because now you are over there.


  • are concrete, time-bound, and involve planning or multiple steps to complete
  • require ongoing conscious (System 2) attention
  • may be short-, medium-, or long-term, but always have an end point; once you arrive, you stop trying to get there
  • when achieved, result in a change in the status quo

It turns out that people who set low goals or no goals tend not to accomplish much. On the other hand, people who do set goals not only get more done, they also tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. In addition, people who set and achieve challenging goals increase their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Two factors that will greatly increase the likelihood of achieving a goal are:

  1. Knowing why you’re doing it.
  2. Making a commitment to doing it.
Knowing Why You’re Doing It

Knowing why you’re doing it means identifying how the goal relates to what’s most important to you. What are the things in life that really matter to you? Your goals should not be ends in themselves, but rather the means of having more of what you really want. If you know what you want, you can either hope those things will come your way or you can identify goals and take the necessary steps to help you get them.

Knowing why you’re doing it also means identifying your desired outcome. What is the change in your status quo that you expect to have as a result of achieving your goal? You need to identify your desired outcome so you’ll know what you’re aiming for and will be able to tell when you’ve arrived. Once you’ve done that, however, focus your attention on the steps it will take to get there—on the process. Focusing exclusively on the outcome will actually decrease the likelihood you’ll achieve your goal.

Making a Commitment to Doing It

There’s no point in putting time, effort, and energy into doing something half-heartedly or half-way. If you aren’t sure why you’re setting or working toward a goal, you’ll have a harder time making a commitment to achieving it.

Of course, making a commitment doesn’t mean you can see into the future and know what the outcome will be. There are no guarantees. But if you build escape clauses and wiggle room into your goals right from the start, you’re probably wasting your time. Once you know why you want to achieve a goal and have made a commitment to doing what it takes, these three steps can increase your chances of success:

  1. Write it down. Writing out your goal can help you clarify it and solidify your commitment.
  2. Make it SMART. That means Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
  3. Develop a plan. A plan consists of the action steps you need to take in order to achieve that specific state of affairs you are now committed to creating in your life.

A goal without a plan is just a wish. –Seth Adam Smith

Just Do It

If you know what you want and have an idea about how to create more of that in your life, you’re likely to find working toward your goals exciting rather than tedious. Of course you won’t be excited about every single step and you won’t be excited every minute of every day. No one is. That’s where having a plan—and a system of rewards—comes in handy. But if you discover you’re not passionate about your desired outcome, let go of the goal and find something else to work toward.

alphabet-changeThe best way to approach a goal is by breaking it down into manageable baby steps and rewarding yourself for each step you complete. Your brain is wired to work toward obtaining rewards, so you might as well take advantage of that. It’s also important to pay attention to feedback and adjust course as needed. There’s nothing in the definition of a goal that prevents you from being flexible or responding to new information or insights. After all, it’s your goal.

To summarize: if you want to change your status quo, which is what a goal is intended to do, you need to focus your conscious attention on completing the steps you’ve outlined until you’ve achieved it. Maintaining focus is not easy. It helps to have a plan that includes a means of measuring your results and rewarding yourself for your accomplishments. If you don’t get your brain to go along with your plan, your brain will get you to go along with its agenda. The unconscious part of your brain is much more interested in immediate gratification than it is in long-term satisfaction—which is why doing whatever you feel like doing in the moment is so appealing. Your brain is generally at the ready to divert your attention to any nearby bright, shiny objects. In the majority of cases, going with the flow is less a philosophical choice and more the path of least resistance of the unconscious part of your brain.

A knock against goals is that they limit you, which is true, but not having goals also limits you. You face limits no matter what you do because when you’re doing one thing, you can’t be doing something else at the same time. Trying to keep all your options open doesn’t enhance your life; it keeps you from living it.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

The Other Problem with
Affective Forecasting

affective forecasting

The year it was published, I purchased a copy of the Best American Non-Required Reading 2004, which included an article written by Jon Gertner for the New York Times titled The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. The article reviewed the work of several psychologists whose work I eventually became familiar with—including Daniel Gilbert, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Kahneman—in the relatively new field of affective forecasting. I was intrigued enough to copy the article, reread it, and highlight a good portion. From the vantage point of now, I see it was one of the small handful of bread crumbs along the trail to creating Farther to Go!

But I filed the article away, and in the interim between then and 2012, seem to have forgotten about it. Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness was already a best seller before I came across a copy of it, and I don’t recall connecting the dots between it and the article I’d been so interested in. I’ve recommended the book to numerous people and refer to it in some of my courses in spite of it’s focus on happiness, not because of it.

Don’t Worry; Be Happy

That’s the other problem with affective forecasting (read my previous post, Miswanting). The emphasis is on happiness rather than on satisfaction and meaning. Happiness is an ephemeral emotional state. We’re simply not always going to be happy—and trying to be isn’t even a worthwhile goal.

We are living in an era in which the Happiness Industry invades and permeates society and every unpleasant aspect of life is frowned upon, and dismissed as an unnecessary social ill. Rather than learning to cope with or contemplate certain aspects of life—fear, sadness, loneliness and boredom—we avoid them, gradually removing our ability to tolerate even the most mundane of the difficult aspects of life. —Siobhan Lyons, Philosophy Now

The things that make us happy are not necessarily the things we find satisfying or meaningful. That’s partly because happiness is a function of the unconscious part of the brain (System 1), which is focused on immediate gratification, while satisfaction and meaning are functions of the conscious part (System 2), which is focused on long-term goals and plans. The pursuit of happiness keeps us fixated on ourselves and on gratifying our immediate wants and needs.

Furthermore, because happiness is an ephemeral and transient emotional state, what makes us happy at one point in time isn’t necessarily going to make us happy at another. But because of the way we’re wired, it’s very difficult to recognize and account for that in the moment.

We’re more different from ourselves in different states than we are from another person. —George Loewenstein, Educator and Economist

And maybe a certain amount of something makes us happy, but too much of it makes us sick—literally or figuratively. Too much craft beer, sex, alone time, hanging out with a best friend, tiramisu, dancing, cooking, listening to music, laughingwhatever it is that makes us happy has at least the potential to also make us very unhappy.

To be fair to Daniel Gilbert, he isn’t advocating the relentless pursuit of happiness, either:

If someone offers you a pill that makes you happy 100 percent of the time, you should run fast in the other direction. It’’s not good to feel happy in a dark alley at night. Happiness is a noun, so we think it’s something we can own. But happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live. It’’s like the child’’s idea that if you drive far and fast enough you can get to the horizon—. No, the horizon’’s not a place you get to. —Daniel Gilbert, quoted in The Science of Happiness, Harvard Magazine

However, there is a considerable amount of discussion and debate about how we should approach the subject of happiness. This may be the most useful perspective:

The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us. —Ashley Montagu, Anthropoligist

Satisfying and Meaningful vs. Happy

One way to bypass the errors we make in affective forecasting is to focus on creating satisfying and meaningful lives rather than happy ones by identifying what we really want. Higher order wants or, as I call them, Big Picture Wants, are abstract but they are neither transient nor ephemeral.

Research indicates that if you aim for satisfying and meaningful, you may get happiness as a byproduct. But if you aim for happiness, you will not get satisfaction and meaning as byproducts. And the people who pursue satisfaction and meaning, even when the going gets tough, report higher overall levels of satisfaction with their lives. Because what is meaningful is less transitory, we have a better chance of achieving and sustaining a meaningful life—and therefore a satisfying one—than we have of achieving and maintaining a happy life.

When we’re oriented to something bigger than we are, and bigger than our immediate wants and needs, we’re less susceptible to the pull of immediate gratification. When we give our big brain (consciousness, System 2) something worthwhile to focus on, we can achieve goals or create things that actually make a difference to ourselves and to others.

Our obsession with happiness may reflect a sense that our lives lack meaning, but pursuing happiness is not the solution. George Loewenstein recommends we invest our resources in the things that will make us happy. I think we’ll be much better off if instead we invest our resources in what makes our lives satisfying and meaningful. That path may be risky and not always easy or pleasurable, but…

If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster. –Clint Eastwood