True Goals vs Fuel Goals

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

 

I’ve spent the better part of the past 6 years trying to examine my life goals, my motivations, and the “WHY?” behind each of them. After reading of hundreds of great books, spending many hours per week in states of self-reflection and meditation, and having deep conversations with some amazing people...I’ve developed some principles that work for me. While, my own personal life design framework certainly isn’t guaranteed to work for everyone, I think some of the ideas I've gathered can help people and are therefore worth sharing on this blog.

One of the key insights that I’ve gained from all this introspection is the difference between what I call “True Goals” and “Fuel Goals”

Defining True Goals vs Fuel Goals

True Goals (aka deathbed goals) are the things what truly matter the most in life, they are the things that you will actually care about on your deathbed. These are also the things that, should you fail to accomplish, you would probably consider your own life to have been a failure.

Fuel goals, while very important, are not goals you’re likely to care about at the end of your life. Examples of common fuel goals are money, fitness, and education. You will not give a shit about your retirement fund, your personal best 5K time, or your number of advanced degrees on your deathbed. However, without some level of wealth, health, and skills, it will be damn near impossible to accomplish your true goals.

Fuel goals are the means to an end, but are NOT ends in of themselves. True goals ARE the true ends. In the end, the goal is to optimize your life for the True Goals. It is critically important not to confuse your True Goals with your Fuel Goals. 

True Goals may vary greatly by individual and can take years or even decades to fully discover. They should be very few in number, and you should have the utmost conviction in them. Fuel goals tend to shift more frequently as changing life circumstances alter the way to best optimize for your True Goals.

Designing a Life

Below is a diagram that shows the relationships between my actual personal life goals. A critical feature of this life design is the complex inter-dependencies of each of these goals. Growth in one goal area (skills for example) tend to enable more growth in other goal areas (wealth for example) which tends to enable even MORE growth in more areas (Improving the World for example). This virtuous cycle is similar to the Matthew effect. 

I am posting my goals and the thought process behind them publicly not for you to copy my goals, but for you to consider how they relate to your own goals and their inter-dependencies. Develop your own unique goals that make sense for YOU!

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The diagram above shows my two core True Goals (Great Relationships and Improving the World) and my three core Fuel Goals (Skills/Knowledge, Wealth, and Health). Within each box are the key sub-components of each Goal. This particular diagram focuses on the strategy, without going into the tactics to achieve those goals.

The diagram below is similar to the above, but replaces those sub-components (strategy) with the actual day-to-day activities and projects (high-level tactics) that actually lead to improved outcomes in working towards my Goals.

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Now that you've seen how I've designed my life, here are my very brief explanations for my thought process and some sources that influenced this design.

TRUE GOAL #1 - Cultivating meaningful relationships is very broad but generally is about being the best spouse, parent, child/sibling, friend, neighbor, collaborator, and citizen you can be. You do this by adding value to those people’s lives and helping them flourish. This is simple, but not easy. Quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, and the sharing of skills/knowledge/resources are the best means of accomplishing this. Relationship quality is devilishly hard to quantify, but critically important. Your primary goal in any key relationships should be to help the OTHER person achieve their own life goals in whatever way you're best capable of. The two books that most influenced by thinking on relationships are The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman and Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi.

TRUE GOAL #2 - Improving the world is also hard to quantify but Effective Altruism is by far the best framework I’ve found. Breakthrough innovation and social change can be also be very effective, but only for the most talented and influential 1/10th if 1% of us. The rest of us, myself included, are probably most useful Earning to Give (EtG).

Although far less effective than the top EA charities (deworming and anti-malarial bed nets), local volunteering and community service does have a place. The latter should be the focus for donating your time and talents, and the former the focus for donating your money. The book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill had a tremendous impact on my views in this domain. I did an entire podcast on this book which you can listen to here.

FUEL GOAL #1 - Skills/Knowledge - Quite simply, the more valuable you can make yourself > the more people will pay you > the faster you can accumulate capital > the wealthier you’ll become (Fuel Goal #2) > the more you can donate/help other’s flourish > the more you can improve the world.(True Goal #2) Being skilled/knowledgeable helps you know how to add value to the lives of those key relationships that make up True Goal #1. So go read some great books like these and learn some valuable skill like programming.

FUEL GOAL #2 - Wealth is a potent form of power. It's the most impact way to contribute towards Improving the World (True Goal #2), it gives you the resources to assist your family, friends, and collaborators achieve their goals (True Goal #1), it can pay for high-quality food, athletic trainers, and even free time for leisure and rest. (Fuel Goal #3). Once you’re financially independent, getting much richer doesn’t do much for your happiness, but giving it away actually does. Of course, getting to that critical level of wealth in the first place can be quite difficult. If you don’t own a business, it really comes down to whether you can acquire valuable skills/credentials that people are willing to pay big $$$ for AND then also living far below your means. (Fuel Goal #1) Then you use that high rate of savings/investment to gradually transition from wage laborer to owner of assets.

FUEL GOAL #3 - Health - Of course, if you’re sick, unable to function, or dead...you lose the ability to keep that virtuous cycle moving, and therefore lose the ability to improve your relationships and/or improve the world (True Goals 1 & 2). So you must keep your mental, physical, and emotional health at a decent minimum level. Some may disagree, but I strongly believe there are diminishing returns to increased health. The goal is to optimize the true goals, not the fuel goals. So ultra-marathons and 400lb bench presses are overkill in my view. The huge time and energy required to train for an ultra-marathon could probably have been better invested in relationships, skill building, or wealth generation. A simple, moderate exercise/diet/sleep/leisure/meditation regimen seems likely to produce about 80% of the benefits of good health with about 20% of the time/energy should keep your body and mind at a level where you can perform well when it comes to your relationships and wealth accumulation.  So be healthy enough to live long, have high energy, and be emotionally positive, but do be weary of overkill. 

Opportunity Costs and Trade-Offs

Whatever YOUR goals are, bear in mind that life is one big series of opportunity costs. There will always be trade-offs between career, friends/family, leisure, charity, health, skill development, etc. Whenever possible, always remember to make the decisions that optimize for the True Goals over the long-term.

Also remember to steer clear of activities that don't contribute to your goals at all. For most people, TV and video games are probably the biggest unnecessary wastes of time. If you can replace screen time with active leisure like reading, exercising, or honing skills, you'll put yourself at a HUGE advantage over most people. As Warren Buffett once said, "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” You must learn to say NO to the non-important things in life.

In the End

Someday when you are lying on your future deathbed, as the cancer (or whatever you have) is eating your body away, you’ll look back and ask yourself whether or not you lived your brief life the right way. If you optimized for your True Goals, employed your Fuel Goals as a means to those ends, and generally said NO to the unimportant things...I can’t imagine you would have any regrets about your life.

In the end, you will look back at those True Goals you accomplished, and be able to die truly satisfied...and if you are lucky, maybe even die with a smile on your face.


 

Bad News for People Who Love Bad News

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

 

Every day, it seems, we are informed of another mass shooting, terrorist attack, or other horrible act of violence on the news. That awful story will then be followed by another story about how our inept government is, how unequal our society is, or about how destructive social media is for our mental health. The news is basically a list of the worst things happening in the world on any given day..  We face a never-ending bombardment of bad news all day, every day, on every type of media. It really does feel like our world is getting worse and worse every day. Many people really believe our society is going off a cliff. But is our world actually getting worse? Or are we making progress?

Whether or not the human project is making progress or not is a very BIG, very IMPORTANT question. And it’s not a question for the faint of heart. This is the primary question at the core of Steven Pinker’s last two books The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). How does Pinker attempt to answer such a sweeping, broad question? What do we mean by progress, anyway?

The definition of progress is highly debatable, highly politicized, and prone to subjective interpretation. However, there are a few things that almost everyone can agree on: Longer and healthier lives, more literacy/education, less poverty, and less violence are indicators of progress. Pinker attempts to connect these near-universal indicators of progress with other data points to form a cohesive argument that the world is actually, on balance, getting better. 

Part I - Have we actually made progress?

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker’s argues, rather convincingly, that rates of physical violence in virtually all forms (war, homicide, genocide, rape, assault, slavery, etc) have declined precipitously over the past 100-1000 years of human history, but especially in the last 50-100 years. Pinker argues the decline in violence may be the most important and under appreciated development in human history. Pinker backs up this bold claim with data. Lots and lots and LOTS of data. 

Pinker's favorite data source appears to be Max Roser’s Our World in Data project, which he cites frequently throughout both books. And it’s easy to see why: Roser’s data is compelling, well cited, and beautifully visualized. Let's have a look at some data sets cited both directly and indirectly in the book:

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Global deaths in military conflicts are near all-time lows.

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Homicide rates have plummeted in Europe over the past 700 years.

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This data is often very surprising to people who are conditioned by news and social media to think that the world is awful and only getting worse. It's extremely easy to forget just how violent humans were up until the very recent past. Through an 800 page odyssey, featuring over 75 graphs like the ones you just saw, Pinker makes a really convincing case that violence has declined. 

But the decline in violence, is just the start. Enlightenment Now (again, with help from Roser) picks up where Better Angels left off and presents equally stunning data on how much progress humans have made in other key areas of human well-being. We humans have become much more educated, significantly longer living, more likely to live in a democratic-style government, spend LESS time working and doing chores, MORE time spent traveling and enjoying leisure., and have almost limitless access to information via the internet. Pinker argues very effectively that humans are making rapid progress, not just on violence, but progress in pretty much every quantifiable category that contributes to human well-being. 

We've gone from mostly illiterate to mostly literate in just the past 50-75 years.

We've gone from mostly illiterate to mostly literate in just the past 50-75 years.

Global life expectancy has doubled in the past 100 years.

Global life expectancy has doubled in the past 100 years.

The proportion of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen precipitously from about 75% to about 15% in the past 100 years.

The proportion of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen precipitously from about 75% to about 15% in the past 100 years.

Despite rapid population growth, even the absolute number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half in the past 50 years.

Despite rapid population growth, even the absolute number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half in the past 50 years.

The proportion of humans living in democracies vs colonies/autocracies/anocracies continues to grow.

The proportion of humans living in democracies vs colonies/autocracies/anocracies continues to grow.

Healthcare is being seen more and more as a right (vs a luxury) especially more developed countries.

Healthcare is being seen more and more as a right (vs a luxury) especially more developed countries.

We're working less and less. allowing for more and more leisure time.

We're working less and less. allowing for more and more leisure time.

We're increasingly freeing ourselves from the burden of housework.

We're increasingly freeing ourselves from the burden of housework.

And among the houseowrk that remains, more and more men are doing their share.

And among the houseowrk that remains, more and more men are doing their share.

Oh, and half of humanity now has access to a vast sea of information. Almost no one had that 20 years ago.

Oh, and half of humanity now has access to a vast sea of information. Almost no one had that 20 years ago.

And with all that free time and information, more and more and more humans are able to travel and explore the world.

And with all that free time and information, more and more and more humans are able to travel and explore the world.

As you can see, the average human living today lives much longer than their grandparents, in a more peaceful world, with far less poverty, greater literacy and education, much better access to healthcare, more democracy and human rights, and more leisure time to spend however they wish. These facts, Pinker claims, are evidence of PROGRESS.* 

Note: About the only major non-partisan issue I could find that has trended in the WRONG direction over the past few decades is opiate addiction. If anyone reading post this can find more important things that have trended badly over the past couple decades, PLEASE email me directly at: booksandboozepodcast@gmail.com. Assuming it's a valid criticism, I'll happily add it to the blog as an update to this post.

Here's the only thing I can find truly getting worse over the last 25 or so years.

Here's the only thing I can find truly getting worse over the last 25 or so years.

*Now, for an important reminder: Pinker reminds the reader repetitively throughout both books, that violence, poverty, and other bad things have NOT been fully eradicated from our civilization (duh), and that the remarkably good trends society has enjoyed are NOT necessarily guaranteed to continue indefinitely. Pinker is not claiming the world is all rainbows and unicorns, nor is he suggesting we "rest on our laurels" and ease up fighting hard for future progress yet to be made.

Part II - WHY have we made progress?

Pinker's secondary claims as to WHY humans have made progress are likely to be much more controversial than Part I, and indeed are less conclusive. Nevertheless, I will attempt to sum up three key pillars of progress that Pinker focuses on in both books:

Reason #1 - The emergence of the Nation-State, its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

According to Pinker, the gradual rise of the consolidated nation-state (from approx. the 1600s through the 1900s) dramatically shrank the number of tiny fragmented kingdoms, principalities, and tribes that each handled local justice in their own "Wild West" sort of way. As the Nation-State rose to prominence, the State typically demanded the sole-authority to inflict deadly force. This monopoly on violence drastically reduced the incentive to commit "vigilante justice" and rates of violence declined rapidly as a result. By acting as a (semi)-disinterested 3rd party to mediate disputes, the Nation-State could, in theory, avoid the normal human desires for vengeance and escalation of hostility. The State, with its laws, police forces, and jail cells, acts like a big referee to settle disputes, issue punishments, and prevent what would otherwise be Hatfield-McCoy style violence and anarchy. This clever bit of Game Theory made non-violent cooperation the rational choice by introducing severe punishment as a disincentive for settling disputes with unsanctioned violence. Cooperation 1, violence 0.

p.s. The few places on earth with weak or non-existent States, like majorly impoverished slums and remote rural communities, are much more prone to violence than places with effective Rule of Law.

Reason #2 - The emergence of trade and commerce (positive-sum cooperation) compared to war/conquest of territory (zero sum/negative-sum coercion/violence) as a superior means of getting what you want.

The first or second lesson in any Economics 101 class is that there are major gains from trade. The great non-economic insight of gains from trade is that it makes strangers worth more to you alive than dead. Once humans realized (possibly subconsciously at first) that advanced commerce was almost always a better long-term strategy for amassing wealth than pillaging/conquest, the incentives to commit acts of violence became drastically reduced. For example, if your neighboring tribe makes great beaver pelts and trades them for your excess fishing hooks, you mutually benefit from the exchange. Killing your neighbor ends that benefit, so instead of killing you decide to be nice to your neighbor out of rational self-interest. Click here for an awesome, interactive illustration of this concept.

Looking towards the future, it's critically important to remember that the inverse is also true. Diminished trade reduces the incentive to be peaceful. This is one (often overlooked) benefit of globalized trade networks. If global trade ever gets truly fucked up, (say due to protectionist trade wars, reckless Wall Street speculation, or anti-capitalist revolution) you could logically expect a big increase in violence. This double whammy of increased poverty and violence would be very bad for human well-being.

Reason #3 - The emergence of "Enlightenment values" of freethought, reason, science, and humanism over religion, superstition, tradition, tribalism, and authoritarianism.

The increase in literacy in the post-printing press world led to the free exchange of ideas between regular working-class people, and in doing so, dealt a crushing blow to the moral authority of church and tradition. Growing economies and declining faith in superstition fueled revolutions in science, technology, and moral philosophy, which in turned allowed individual human rights to flourish in a way that was not previously possible. Pinker suggests (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this (continuing) shift from religio-traditional authority to secular humanism/liberal democracy is a key component in the radical improvement of the human condition over the past 300 years.

Open, scientific, secular democracies tend to treat their citizens much better (in terms of killing and/or intentionally harming their own people) compared to closed, theocratic, authoritarian type states. Additionally, open, secular societies have the capacity to be self-correcting after making socio-political mistakes. Closed, authoritarian societies, without free and open debate, are much less likely to self-correct when they make mistakes. 

Part III - Why progress doesn't feel like progress 

In the opening paragraph of this post, I referenced the phenomenon of the world feeling like it's getting worse. The reason for this seems to be that humans have evolved to respond more strongly to stimuli that elicit emotions of fear and danger than to those that elicit happiness and security. This is why bad news gets rewarded with better ratings (and more $) than good news, and why negative people on social media tend to be rewarded as well. So, likely due to these psychological quirks that helped our ancestors survive on the African Savannah, we are now subject to a 24 Hour News Cycle and globalized social media that both bombard us with extremely negatively biased content. Violence, scandal, outrage - that is what sells - that is what the consumer demands.

For example, between the year 2000 and 2015, over 1 billion humans (net) were lifted out of extreme poverty. During that time, the NY Times could have posted the following headline "Approximately 175,000 Humans Lifted Out of Extreme Poverty Today"  and they could have kept that headline EVERY SINGLE DAY and been essentially correct. However, as we know, progress doesn't sell many newspapers.

Can't sell ads with this headline!

Can't sell ads with this headline!

 

Part IV - Why it's so important that we acknowledge the progress we're making as a species

So far we've discussed progress, potential reasons for progress, and the fact that progress doesn't seem to feel like progress. That's all fine and dandy, but WHY should you care? What's the harm if no one realizes we're making progress?

The reasons this is important (and the reason I wrote this post) is because believing the world is getting worse (when it's not actually getting worse) can be really, really, really dangerous.

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Extreme ideologies HATE the idea of progress because it undermines the urgency for radical change that extreme groups tend to advocate for. Therefore, extreme groups rely heavily on a dogmatic belief that society is awful, completely broken, and only getting worse. While there ARE real issues to be resolved, and there IS justifiable reason to be angry, rampant, fatalistic, pessimism is fertile ground for increased violence and extremism. 

When people harbor the false notion that the world is getting worse everyday, when they believe, falsely, that our current system of peace, globalized trade, and multicultural liberal democracy are utter failures, they become open to the option of burning the entire system to the ground. 

Like your frustrated sibling during family game night, if people believe all hope of a successful outcome for our country/world is lost, they are prone to "flip the monopoly board." The problem with flipping the global monopoly board, of course, is that many millions would die and virtually everyone would become worse off financially, intellectually, and health-wise. Plain and simple, life would suck. Don't flip the monopoly board.

 

Despite its many, MANY flaws, the current system of globalized trade and multicultural liberal democracy IS moving humanity in the right direction. This is not merely Whig history, this is a factual recognition that life has gotten better for the vast majority of humans on Earth over the past few hundred years. While we'll obviously need to make significant tweaks to continue to create a better world, we should not welcome sudden, violent revolutions that would significantly risk the gains we've made in peace, life expectancy, wealth, democracy, and overall quality of life over the last few decades. Nothing crushes human well-being so much as tyranny, poverty, and violence. We must preserve the key pillars that keep civilization civilized: the free exchange of ideas, globalized trade, and most importantly global peace and cooperation between all countries. We can continue to make rapid gains in human well-being from within the current system through improved laws, regulations, and norms. Burning the system down would almost certainly make life much worse for the vast majority of humans.

This is why Pinker's books Better Angels and Enlightenment Now are so important. If people on all ends of the political spectrum can acknowledge the real progress our species has made in the last 100 years, rather than fall prey to rampant pessimism, it would greatly help diffuse the growing political powder keg that continues to build in today's popular culture.  Pinker's work is the antidote to the rising extremism in the USA and Europe. 

 

Buddhism vs Stoicism: Two Surprisingly Similar Philosophies

Despite arising independently in two very different places and times. Buddhism (founded in ancient India in the 4th-6th centuries BCE) and Stoicism (developed in Rome and Greece in the between the 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE ) have some very similar core tenets and practices. 

I created an original info-graphic (my first ever) to summarize some of these key similarities. I am a big fan of these two philosophies and try to utilize them as much as I can in my own life. 

For books on Buddhism I recommend either the actual (challenging) ancient texts or, if you're looking for something easier to digest, Seeing Yourself As You Really Are by Dalai Lama XIV . For more on Stoicism I recommend The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I have tried three different meditation apps (Insight Timer, Simple Habit, and 10% Happier) and rank them in that order with Insight Timer being by far my favorite. Thanks to my good friend Dr. Liz Rosenthal for turning me on to Insight Timer.