Ideals: Millstones or Lodestones?

Monday, December 02, 2019

Following up on a recommendation in the third installment of Alex Epstein's excellent Human Flourishing Project podcast, I recently read the short but insightful and valuable The Gap and the Gain, by Dan Sullivan.

An achieveable step towards an ideal. (Image by Jonathan Petersson, via Unsplash, license.)
Epstein's podcast captures the general message well, and passes along one of the most important changes one can make right away: (1) Most people do not explicitly know how to set (or measure progress towards) their goals; and (2) a good first step towards correcting the problem and developing a habit of progress is to list three "wins" each day. The latter helps with the major manifestation of how people improperly measure progress: They focus on the gap between where they are and some fuzzy idea of where they want to be -- rather than the gain they accrued between a past starting point and the present.

After finding the "positive focus" of listing wins helpful, I wanted to reinforce the lessons and better understand the insight, so I downloaded and read the ebook, which is free upon registration. I was impressed and glad that I did.

One of Sullivan's insights is that many of us have vague ideals about what we want to achieve, or at least don't know how to use those ideals to set achievable goals. (I read Sullivan's use of the term ideal to include major ambition, moral ideal, or any combination of the two. Some of this whiffed of Platonism, but I don't think it detracted from his message significantly.)

Sullivan summarizes the practical result of this kind of confusion quite well:
Someone who's used to measuring their goals and progress against their ideal will get used to feeling disappointed because they can never actually reach the ideal.
And, a bit later:
It's important to protect your ideals. A good way to do this is to not use them for measurement because that will leave you disappointed in your ideals, and you'll become cynical about them.
Setting vague goals can lead to learned helplessness and cynicism. This is is a profound and liberating insight, and his solution makes a great deal of sense. It can, with habit-forming practice, transform one's ideals from a millstone around one's neck into the lodestone they ought to be.

When reading this, the following quote about philosophy came to my mind:
As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown. -- Ayn Rand
Rand is speaking of the burden that bad philosophy can cause. But even correct and well-thought-out ideals can be a burden to someone who has not found a way to use those ideals effectively.

I think this short book -- which can be read in an afternoon -- can help someone make a good start on the process of making the ought into an is.

-- CAV

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