This post is part of the Two Years at Gusto: Everything But Code series. The remaining parts are:
- Dealing with unknowns and humans in the software world
- Knowing what needs to be done
- When you are most helpless, you are most empowered
Goal-driven is a losing mindset.
I’m goal-driven. I tend to laser focus on a single goal and relentlessly go after it. This strategy served me well in school. I got everything I wanted. But it didn’t work so well outside of school. The longer I worked, the more I realized being goal-driven is a losing mindset.
School is different from the real world. School is a controlled environment. Everything is clearly defined: the length of a semester, requirements for graduation, the scope of a course. You know exactly what you need to do to pass a class: go to the lectures, do the homework, take the exams. For each exam, you know exactly how well you scored, where you did wrong, and where you did right. Everything is as clear as black and white. Everything is ordered. All you need to do is make a plan and execute it.
The real world is different. It’s chaotic. It’s anything but black and white. Nothing is as clearly defined as it used to be back in school. There are more unknowns than knowns. No one tells you how much you score on a project. Heck, there’re no exams.
The goal-driven mindset did not serve me well in the real world. By goal-driven I mean two things: 1. intensely paying attention to a single goal to the exclusion of everything else and 2. having a narrow definition of success: achieving a predefined goal on time. This mindset disserves me in three ways:
- The goal-driven mindset makes me lose sight of the big picture. When I keep my head down executing on a plan, I tend to think of it as the most important thing in life. This not only makes the whole experience not enjoyable but also gets in the way of proper prioritization.
- This mindset clouds my judgments. Normally the further I’m in the process of execution, the more I learn about the problem at hand. But thanks to the narrow definition of success (reaching the goal according to the plan in time), any information that goes against the plan gets in the way of “success”. As a result, I unconsciously downplay lots of valuable information and basis towards the original plan. This mindset prevents me from making timely adjustments.
- It makes me feel like a failure most of the time. In a dynamic world with many unknowns, changing a plan and adjusting the timeline is almost inevitable. But due to the narrow definition of success, each time a change is required, I feel frustrated, upset, and defeated. Problem-solving should be fun. Being too focused on “success” deprives my joy of problem-solving.
This goal-driven mindset doesn’t work because the real world is dynamic. There are always unknowns. Things are constantly changing. There’s no perfect plan.
It’s better to think of everything as an evolving process.
When I think of everything as an evolving process, there’s no success nor failure. There’s no concept of completion or done. All we have are processes moving forward at different speeds. Seeing things this way makes me feel liberated and empowered. It makes me realize it’s not about achieving a preset goal. It’s about pushing things forward. It’s not about succeeding or failing. It’s about doing, learning, making progress and repeat. When seeing things this way, it’s all about learning and evolving as a person, a team, or a company as a whole. Since it’s all about the learnings, there’s really no way to fail. Things either go according to plan, which confirms our knowledge, or don’t go as planned, which means there are things for us to learn. The only way to fail is by doing nothing. Instead of fixing my eyes on the goal, I focus more on giving my best efforts and learning as much as possible.
Thinking of things as evolving processes reminds me that things take time. And this reminder brings me peace. This way of thinking makes me realize self-improvement, like everything else, is a process and does take time. It makes me be less harsh on myself and enables me to enjoy the journey more.
With this way of thinking, I no longer fight with all the gray areas, unknowns, and chaos in the world. I learn to acknowledge and live with them. Life becomes a journey about discovering and learning from the unknowns.
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