Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What Is Your Goal In Life?

Do you even have one? Do you need one at all?

I will do my very best to muddle up the answers to these questions for you here until you decide to make avoiding this place one of yours. You have been warned!

In this instalment I will forgo the discussion about what sort of goal your selfish genes have for you, and your life. I have touched on that before, and I may do it again in the future. But here, I will concentrate solely on what is usually meant by having a "goal in life." I may even concentrate on why this may be a silly view of life, universe, and everything. We'll see...

Let us, for the moment at least, also ignore the question of whether one needs to have goal(s) in life at all. Let us, instead, see what some of the most popular common goals are, and what their impact may be. In the process we may even get the answer to the question whether we need one (or more) at all.

First, and most obviously, come the "big" or "point" goals:

Probably very near the top of the list is to "get rich." Even ignoring the possibility that being "rich" may mean different things to different people this one seems simple enough. Also, while it is possible for a person to move the goalposts so they're never happy with how rich they are, I propose to ignore this variant, too. I'll argue that there is a reasonable common understanding of what being "rich" means, and that it is achievable, at least in theory, and at least for some people. If that is indeed so, then at least some people will sooner or later achieve this goal. If they are of the type needing to have a goal, they'll then find themselves in the situation to have to find another goal for themselves. If they never needed any specific goals then we can assume they got rich almost by accident, and not being goal-needy we'll leave them to their happy selves. The ones needing a goal will, however, face a task of defining a new one for themselves. Obvious solution for them is to decide they're not really rich enough so they just carry on trying to get richer. This is the road to not achieving your goal, ever. Not a happy proposition, really. Depending on how early a person got rich, they may run the risk of either not having enough time left for any serious goal (remember: nobody lives forever). Alternatively, if they got rich very young, they may have too much time on their hands, and feel a bit disoriented having struck the biggie of the list. At least for them there remain various "challenges", most of which ultimately seem to involve some kind of danger. Fun, if not too often fairly pointless. There are, of course, all sorts of noble goals that can be pursued when one is rich. Sadly, they seem not too be too popular. Kudos to all who do find them worthwhile pursuing, though.

Yet another popular singular goal in life is to "have children." While certainly commendable, necessary, and most definitely aligned with what your selfish genes have planned for you, this too has the potential to leave you a bit disoriented once achieved. Of course, hardly anyone will consider this "achieved" as soon as the last baby they planned for (if they had a number in mind) pops out. There is always the process of raising the offspring to the point where they can (and/or want!) to look after themselves. But, eventually, they can and/or do, and that's it then. You're not really needed any more. This does not mean your kids will forget all about you. Just that as far as your goal of getting them on their way is done, and there's precious little left for you to do. And you can't have kids all the time, either. Sooner or later your body will just plain refuse to let you create any more. Unless, of course, you've frozen your gametes in sufficient quantities and are able to find willing subject to make them happen, as it were. But let's not go there. Not right now, at least. In any case, sooner or later you'll find yourself searching for a new goal, if you're that way inclined. Not unlike the previous example, really.

What's more, I think you'll find that the end result is the same for any singular, big, goal in life you may have set for yourself. In the end, you find yourself pretty much where you started, searching for a new goal. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind. A singular goal in life sets you up for the task of having to come up with a brand new one!

An obvious solution to avoiding the danger of aimlessness is to come up with a number of goals and pursue them either in parallel or sequentially. At this point I'll consider only the case of sequential goals. It will be brief. If you set yourself a number of goals to pursue sequentially, you run a risk of not being able to achieve all of them in one lifetime, and you only have one. With the best will in the world, you can never guarantee you'll achieve any non-trivial goal. The cases where you switch between the sequential goals depending on the likelihood of success degenerates to the case of parallel goals so is irrelevant here. In summary, if you want to be able to achieve your goals, it may be a bad idea to plan to do it sequentially.

This conveniently brings us to the question of needing a goal at all. Why would you need one, after all. Can we not just, well, live? We certainly can, but if you start looking into this question with any seriousness, you'll realise that it is in fact impossible to not have a goal at all! How is that? Well, lacking a major goal like "get rich," you certainly have a goal to get to your next meal, shelter, and so on. Unless you just want to sit there quietly and die of thirst, hunger, and exposure. But then, that sounds like a goal, too. Even more active forms of suicide are goals in themselves, and probably the only ones that, executed properly, can be considered complete, and final. But then, this is not about suicide, either.

So, you may ask, what is this all about then?

Well, the main assumption behind all this gibberish is that we set the goals because attaining them gives us some sort of pleasure. Whether we get this pleasure from the journey or its destination is irrelevant, at least for this discussion. We have goals in order to feel good. I hope you can agree with that. If not, then I have some serious doubts about you. Remember, even pain is pleasure for some.

OK. If you agree it's really about the pleasure, I hope you also agree it's about getting as much of it as possible. I can hardly see anyone arguing against maximising one's own pleasure being a good thing. You may want to minimise pleasure in others, if that's your thing, or maximise your own pain if that gives you pleasure, but we are all after as much pleasure as we can fit in our short lives. Regardless of how each and every one of us defines pleasure.

Let us postulate next that there is some, not necessarily known, total amount of pleasure we can achieve in our lifetime. What is certain is that once we're dead we can't achieve any more (you may have noticed before that I do not believe in life after death), so we will end up with a fixed amount over our lifetime, however big or small that may be.

The next question is, if the lifetime amount of pleasure really is limited, how do we want it distributed, provided we have a choice (and I think we do)? Remember, we get to feel that pleasure by achieving our goals, whatever they may be: a lunch, some raunchy sex, wining a race, or even getting ridiculously rich. The "size" of the goal generally determines the amount of pleasure we get from achieving it. This always includes the pleasure we may be getting from the process of "getting there", however small or large that amount may be.

So, once the quantity has been determined (even if not strictly known) the question becomes: how do we want it delivered?

If you've set yourself a single goal, then you may end up with a great big bang of reward once you achieve it, and possibly a constant stream of pleasure along the way. As with single, large, goals it is always possible to fail to achieve them. This failure may not be your fault at all. Accidents, even fatal ones, do happen. So, if aiming for a large single item is your thing, I would advise you also enjoy the journey. Otherwise, you may easily (even if only accidentally, and through no fault of your own) end up with a life of misery and nothing to show for it. Not a nice prospect, I hope you agree.

The situation is rather similar in the case you have a small number of medium sized goals, too, especially if you opted for achieving them sequentially. For one, your efforts may always be cut short by an accident outside your control. And if you don't particularly enjoy the journey(s) you may again be in for quite a lot of time spent in misery, and only a few widely spaced bangs of pleasure. So, pretty much the same advice applies here: if you do decide for this option, make sure the journeys are pleasurable in themselves!

The remaining option, and what I dare to propose as the best one, too, is then to have lots and lots of small goals throughout life. This does not preclude having one or more "biggies," either. Feel free to have as many or as little as you want. The key is to also have small ones that have the potential to provide a constant stream of pleasure, and also ward of any feeling of despair for not appearing to be getting any closer to the "big one." In all likelihood, when all is tallied up, this approach may give you the largest sum total of lifetime pleasure, too. And remember, opting for myriad small goals and pleasures does not mean you cannot set yourself a few big ones for those all important big bangs.

So, in summary, I believe that a happy, fulfilled, and pleasurable life is ultimately made of lots and lots of small things that make us happy. Yes, it's nice to win the lottery, and it surely rocks to win that gold medal, but should we be blinded by those into not seeing, and feeling, the small things? While we wait for that "big one," why not let ourselves enjoy other things? Not to mention that we can make the road to the "biggies" that much easier by carving into it small steps. Then we can stop at each one, catch our breath, turn around and enjoy the view.

In other words, and it pains me for not being able to remember where I have read this first:

Life by yard is hard.
Life by inch is a cinch!