Reverse Engineering Your Goals
Figuring out how to accomplish goals (especially long-term goals) can be difficult. The gulf between where you are now and where you want to be is often overwhelming. One of the most effective things you can do to overcome that overwhelming feeling is to bring the path to your goals into focus.
The best way to figure out the steps required to accomplish your goals is to work backward. Your destination, in this case, is actually the best place to begin. This might seem counterintuitive, but trust me, it works.
I’ve developed two variations to this method of planning. The two variants work well in different situations. Neither is better than the other. Pick the one that works best for the goal you’re trying to figure out, and switch between them if you get stuck.
In order to make this process easier make sure you pick only a single goal. Things will quickly get out of hand if you try it with multiple goals at the same time.
Both versions of this method require you to have a very clear vision of your goal and what, exactly, your life looks like once you’ve accomplished it. Before you start make sure you have a solid understanding of your destination.
Pick a single goal and write it at the top of a blank piece of paper or new file. Then, right under your goal, write the thing that has to happen immediately prior to that goal being accomplished. Be specific, and make sure it’s a single thing.
Now, on the next line, write what has to happen prior to the previous item. Again, be specific, and only write one single thing down.
Keep repeating this process until one of two things happens:
- You find the beginning of the path to your goal.
- You intersect where you are right now.
When you hit one of those two points you’ll have a map that will guide you from where you are now to where you want to be.
A simple example would start with a goal:
The first thing I write under it might be “Cook Eggs” since that’s the thing I do just before I sit down to eat breakfast. The item before that could be “Cook Bacon”, and so on. This example might eventually end when I get to something like “Buy Ingredients” or “Learn to Cook Breakfast”.
The second method is similar to the first. Start with a single goal written at the top of a blank piece of paper or new file. Now, instead of starting immediately under the goal, start midway down the page, and write what the halfway point between where you are now and your goal looks like. Then, at the bottom, write “now”.
Now you have three points: Now, the midway point to your goal, and the goal itself. The next step is to figure out the two midpoints between those three points. Then you’ll have five points with four new midpoints to figure out, and so on.
Keep repeating this process until you’re confident that there are no midpoints (read: no gaps) left to fill in.
Working backward like this is difficult and time-consuming, but it’s worth the effort. At the end of the process you’ll have a map that will lead you right to your goal, and it’s hard to overestimate how useful having that map would be.
Lulu Miller gives one of the best talks I’ve ever seen about radio journalism, pillow forts, the power of voice, and empathy.
Tom Gauld’s The Life-Changing Magic of Decluttering in a Post-Apocalyptic World made me smile.
Jamie Wong provides the best explanation of bezier curves I’ve ever come across. Don’t let the math intimidate you; the animated diagrams work wonderfully on their own.
Brad Mangin, a freelance sports photographer who’s primary clients are Sports Illustrated and Major League Baseball, explains how and why he earned more from photo gigs shot with his iPhone vs. his DSLRs in 2016.
Outlinely is an interesting outlining app for the Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
Elizabeth Sampat tweets 100 lessons that are well worth your time.
John Gruber links to an article and a tweet that might make you think about Facebook a little differently.
Oliver Burkeman penned a fantastic long read about why time management is ruining our lives.
My wife and I produced and released the second episode of Introvocabulum, a game show on The Incomparable podcast network.
If you have an Amazon Echo and you’re a Star Trek fan I have good news: You can now use “computer” as the wake word.
Lucy Rycroft-Smith shares her experience wearing men’s clothes for a month. (It’s more interesting and enlightening than it sounds.)
There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming from Apple in the iOS 10.3 update, which is now in beta.
Warning: Political links below!
Regardless of how you feel about the current political situation in America it’s important to stay informed. Track Trump is a site that will track and document the policies put in place by the Trump administration for the first 100 days, concentrating on the pledges made during his campaign. Their goal is to be a useful and informative resource for everyone regardless of their political viewpoints.
Dana Hunter writes about Trump gagging various government agencies, and the employees of those agencies defying the censorship by creating alternative social media accounts.
Shani Silver wrote an eloquent piece explaining why she marches for what she believes in.
On January 21st millions of people around the world marched to protest Trump and his policies. Some of the people behind the marches launched a new campaign, 10 Actions for the first 100 Days, which provides steps everyone can take to make sure their voices are heard in a meaningful way.
Want to take even more action? The 65 provides weekly calls to action to fight for a vision of a diverse, inclusive America.
Perfectionism & Shipping
One of the most common things I encounter when I talk to creative people is that they’re so close to their work most of what they see are flaws, even if the work is great overall. There are a few things that you, as a creator, need to realize when it comes to flaws and your work, or your work will be doomed to languish and decay without ever seeing the light of day.
First, all work has flaws. There is no perfect painting, no flawless piece of music, no design without issue. Flaws are something that will always exist no matter how much time, effort, and resources are applied. It’s critical that you become comfortable with this fact both in the abstract and as it applies to your own work. Specifically, you need to realize that your work will always be flawed. Accept that, and make peace with it.
Second, the majority of your audience is not actively trying to seek out flaws in your work, even though it might feel that way. There will always be negative people, trolls, and haters, but they are not worth an ounce of thought. They are also not the majority of your audience, so it’s both safe and recommended that you completely ignore them. Instead, realize that most of the people who value your work do so because they love it holistically. They don’t even see the flaws you’re fretting over.
When you look at your work you see a collection of individual pieces, and the pieces with flaws stand out to you. Your attention is drawn to the flawed pieces because, as the creator, you want to make your work better. It’s natural that your focus is drawn to areas where things can most obviously improve.
When someone else looks at your work they the whole, not the individual pieces, which means they do not see the flaws like you do. They’re not focused on how to make things better, they’re focused on the total package. They see a single, cohesive entity, the good parts of which outshine the flaws.
You have to realize that no one is going to scrutinize or spend as much time with your work as you do, so small (or even large!) imperfections will likely never be discovered by your audience. Even if your work is incredibly popular and put under a microscope by millions of people there are flaws that will go completely undiscovered. Want proof? There’s a visual effects mistake in Star Wars that went undiscovered for 38 years. Yes, Star Wars, an incredibly popular piece of work that’s been viewed countless times my countless people who obsess over it. Once you see the mistake you’ll realize it’s not a small mistake, and yet no one noticed until recently. The mistake didn’t even get fixed in any of the remastered special editions when professionals were being paid to find and fix mistakes in this incredible piece of work.
How can this be? It’s because Star Wars, as a whole, is fantastic. It has all kinds of flaws, but they don’t matter, because people see the whole. The glare from the awesomeness that is Star Wars literally blinds people to the flaws. And when flaws are found they rarely diminish the whole. Is Star Wars less great because Obi-Wan’s lightsaber has a visual glitch, or a TIE Fighter is missing for two frames? No, of course not. It’s still Star Wars, and it’s still incredible.
Third, keep in mind that other people only see what you share with them. Most importantly, no one else can see the ideal version of your work that you have in your head. You can see your ideal vision, so that’s what you compare your work to. This is why your perception of your work is out of whack. The vision you have, the ideal, is often not a practical thing to realize given the limits of time, resources, and energy. But comparing your ideal vision to what you’ve created is something no one else will ever be able to do. What seems like work that’s flawed and falls short of your ideal is work that, to someone else, is stupendous, because that work is a reflection of the vision you have. A flawed reflection of a perfect ideal is still something awesome, especially to people who can’t compare it with the better version you have in your head that isn’t practical to create.
Fourth, and this is key, your audience would rather have an imperfect version of what you create than nothing at all. Read that last sentence again, because it’s vital that you not only understand it, but believe it. Remember, flaws will often be rendered invisible by the overall awesomeness of your work as a whole. By holding your work back you’re depriving your audience, and the world, of experiencing that awesomeness because of flaws that no one else will see or care about.
Now, even if you realize all of that, take it to heart, and truly believe it, your own internal scale is probably still going to be out of whack. You’re still going to look at your own work and consider it sub-par and not ready to ship, when it is in fact past the point when you should have released it.
In order to get your internal scale properly calibrated you need to find some people you trust to be 100% honest with you and show them your work at various stages of completion. Then you need to take what they say to heart. If the people you trust say it’s ready to ship, it’s ready to ship.
Now keep this in mind: What they say is almost always going to differ from what you feel. They might look at a piece of work that you consider 80%, or even 70% complete and tell you it’s ready to go as-is. Remember that they’re seeing your work as other people will see it. They don’t have the mental baggage of an ideal version to compare it to, and the flaws don’t stand out for them the way they do for you. You have to trust these people and recalibrate based on what they say so you know when to release your work. If you don’t do this your internal quality scale is going to remain out of whack, and the work you do that could be bringing joy to people will be held back for no good reason.
Even after all of that shipping is still going to be difficult. When you try and release your work you’re going to feel trepidation, anxiety, and fear. These are normal feelings that all creators feel. Shipping is hard because shipping is a skill, and it’s one you probably haven’t practiced enough. Make shipping a natural part of your process. Normalize it. Ship early, and ship often.. The world will be a better place with your work than without it.
So, please, release your work. Ship it before you think it’s ready, because it’s probably ready sooner than you think.
You can do this.
A lot of people have the wrong idea about failure. Failing is how everyone learns. Failure is part of the process, yet failure has a ton of stigma surrounding it because we live in societies and cultures that celebrate success. The more outlandish and exceptional the success the more attention it gets. You don’t usually see hard-working people who slowly built their business over the course of a decade on TV, for example. We live in a hit-driven culture, surrounded by hit-driven media, so the mundane mechanics of how life actually works are hidden from view.
I used to fear failure, but over time I’ve come to fear something else entirely: stagnation. I realized that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. And if you’re not trying, you’re stagnating. No one gets things right the first time unless they have a ton of luck on their side. A ton.
Sometimes I’ll write some code, run it, and it’ll appear to work flawlessly. That scares the crap out of me. It freaks me right out that I didn’t fail the first time. I would rather see an error, or have it spit out something wrong, or get some other failure condition that I could diagnose rather than see a piece of freshly-authored code seemingly run correctly the first time.
Why? Because writing code is difficult. Most things worth doing are difficult (which does not mean they can’t be enjoyable). If I write some code and it appears correct right out of the gate that makes me think there’s something really, horribly wrong with it in the most insidious way. Like pretty much anything else, code needs more than a single pass to get it right.
Writers don’t write a paragraph and call it done. They write something, they read it, they refine it, they tweak. Sentences get thrown out, parts get rewritten, and sometimes the entire paragraph is trashed and they start again.
So was the original paragraph a failure? You can certainly look at it that way, but it’s a required failure. You can’t skip ahead to the good paragraph, you have to go through the process to get there. You have to iterate. You have to start with failure.
This concept is hard for many to grasp, because people want shortcuts to exist. They think there are ways to skip all the failures and jump right to the success. There isn’t. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how much experience you have, or what you’re doing; failure is a part of your process. Some fail more than others, but failure and iteration are integral to making things, period.
I understand fearing failure. No one likes to fail, at least at first. Failure feels bad. You want to do better. You want to be better. Failure is frustrating, embarrassing, and eats up time and resources.
But here’s the thing: Failure is incredibly valuable. Each failure teaches us something new. Each mistake is a lesson. Each error is one step closer to greater understanding. Proficiency is the product of repeated failure. It’s dangerous to look at each failure in isolation, you have to look at them as part of a whole, as part of your process.
Failure is not a dirty word. As I said, everyone fails, but we live in a culture that tucks all those failures under the rug and keeps them out of sight. We, as a society, have shunned a critical, non-negotiable part of the creative process. We only talk about and celebrate wild, outlandish success, giving us all a view of both the world and ourselves that is ridiculously out of balance.
Some people don’t expect failure. That’s a dangerous, arrogant, and toxic viewpoint. Failure is as important to the process as success. Hell, it’s more important. Everyone, every single person, has failed a lot more than they’ve succeeded. Everyone. Yes, that famous singer. Yes, that painter. Yes, that author. Yes, that podcaster. Yes, that movie star.
Successes are beautiful, bright flags atop mountains of failure. You have to climb the mountain before you can plant that flag.
So if you fear failure, don’t. Disliking failure is natural, but remind yourself that failing itself is natural. You’re not going to find some magic shortcut to success, you’re not going to make some incredible breakthrough that somehow elevates you to some magic plane that’s above failing. No one has ever done that, and no one ever will. What you are going to do is fail, a lot, before you succeed.
Making things is messy. Failing is part of the mess. The ones who create, the ones you succeed, are the ones who have figured out how to handle the mess that is their process. The mess is annoying, the mess is troublesome, the mess is uncomfortable, the mess is an eyesore, and the mess is a hundred other negative things, but it’s also the biggest positive there is. If there’s a mess, you’re making progress. If there’s a mess, things are happening. If there’s a mess, you’re building something to plant a flag on.
The goal is to always improve.
Today you should do better than yesterday. The project you’re working on now should be better than all your previous projects. The work you’re doing now should be better than the work you did last week.
This post should be better than the last one I wrote.
Improvement is expected. It’s assumed. The idea that we’re all going to constantly do better every time seems to be an inherent expectation of everyone, everywhere.
But what if you do something that’s not better?
That sounds horrible, I know. I’m living it. I am my own worst critic, but even I admit that my last post was really good.
And that’s a problem, because I don’t think this post is going to be better.
But you know what? That’s okay.
That’s okay?! What? How could that possibly be okay? What about constant improvement?
Woah, stay calm. Let me explain.
So this post might not be as good as the last one. Okay, what if it isn’t? What will happen? Will the last post be diminished in some way because this one is not quite as good? Does this post’s quality being a bit lower mean I didn’t learn and improve through practice by writing it? Does the drop in quality mean that I’ve lowered my standards and have decided to stop trying to be a better writer?
No, of course not.
Constant improvement as a goal is great. It drives us to challenge ourselves, to strive for what might be, to stretch ourselves as we reach a little further each time.
Constant improvement as a rule is damaging. The constant, relentless pressure to do better every single time is unrealistic and detrimental. That pressure, that fear of “what if I can’t do better this time?” is poison to productivity.
That fear almost paralyzed me into not writing anything today.
But I recognized that fear, that pressure, that big tangle of negativity masquerading as a useful goal. I confronted it, which was hard. I reasoned it away, which took time and effort. Then I wrote this post about it.
This post, which almost didn’t exist.
This post, which I’m glad to have written.
This post, which isn’t as good as the last one.