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!


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.


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 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.