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Five Things to Think About When Setting an Aim

If you aim and everything works out, you max out the score; if you aim in the right direction, you might still get some points for playing; but if you don’t aim at all, the game becomes pointless. Here are 5 things to think about to ensure the best possible outcome.


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Jonas Ressem

5 months ago | 9 min read
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Lessons from Archery, Psychology, and Philosophy.

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” — Tony Robbins

When my twin brother and I were younger, our dad made each of us a longbow out of wood. They were powerful, and it amazed us how far we could make the arrows fly.

At first, we simply enjoyed how far we could shoot them — a test of the bow’s potential. It didn’t take long, however, before we grew tired of that simple game. We wanted something to aim for.

A tree with a smooth trunk, between the branches of another, or a big plate of Styrofoam, were all suitable targets. Having an aim was a lot more fun than randomly shooting through the air.

Professional archers have a target in mind as well: the bullseye. They align themselves with it, aim, and take fire. While I’m not an expert in archery (a toxophilite), I see a similarity between it and life.

If you aim and everything works out, you max out the score; if you aim in the right direction, you might still get some points for playing; but if you don’t aim at all, the game becomes pointless. Here are 5 things to think about to ensure the best possible outcome:

The Brain is Your Sidekick

The future is a giant unknown. It’s not clear what will happen, and any predictions — especially long-term — are uncertain. You can ask your local weatherman and see if he agrees.

There’s a way, however, to make it a little less unknown, and that’s by having an aim. When you set an aim, you set a destination to guide you forward. A light in the dark that shows you the way. You’re drawn to it, like a moth is drawn to flames.

According to Neuroscientist Elliot T. Berkman: Your brain fixates on whatever it is you aim at, because in doing so, you are signifying that it is important — something of value.

You want it, plain and simple, and your brain becomes your sidekick in making that happen. Consequently, once you have an aim your brain will start to highlight things that will help you reach it. You’ll notice relevant information, because your brain is now on the search for it.

If you’ve ever encountered a new word, and then suddenly started to see and hear it everywhere, you’ve experienced the same kind of effect that having an aim trigger.

Something Worth Aiming For

Now, whether or not you’re aware of it, you’re actually always aiming for something. It’s just that, if you don’t know what it is, you’re blindly following whatever your unconscious mind desire. As Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist said:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

If you want to make it conscious — to be aware and in control — you have to explicitly articulate what you’re aiming for.

According to the Goal-Setting Theory (coined by Psychologists Locke and Latham,) a specific aim is precisely what you need. Establish what your aim is, as well as by when it should be completed. Another point of this theory is to set your goal as high as possible.

Combined, the two will lead to an increase in motivation. Because when it’s clear what you’re trying to accomplish, you lessen the uncertainty. And when you have to make an effort to reach it as well, you exhort more effort to do just that.

Furthermore, a good aim is always towards something valuable, because such a goal causes an intense stream of motivation. But what exactly is valuable, and thus, worth aiming for? In general, some of the most valuable things are the things you say are meaningful.

And by the laws of human nature, such a goal isn’t solely based on your individual motives. It’s an aim directed towards something greater than yourself.

Based on evolutionary theory, one can theorize this is the case because humans evolved in a certain way. We started out in small groups, aiming spears at mammoths to keep our bellies full. But as we grew together in larger societies, a surplus of tasty mammoth meat occurred.

Now, with our basic needs met, we gradually developed the ability to form abstractions (which can be seen in studies on students ability to learn).

You can say we went from aiming at mammoths to aiming at concepts of good. And the highest good — the pinnacle of responsibility — was that which provided the most value to society.

Consequently, doing something greater than oneself evolved to bring a sense of meaningfulness. Thus, the more good we do — for ourselves and those around us — the more meaning we’ll experience in our lives. As Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, exclaimed:

“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.”

When the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was a captive in the Nazi concentration camps, he developed the concept of logotherapy.

It was a therapy that concerned itself with saving people from meaninglessness. Although Frankl suffered greatly under the Nazi regime, he was able to find meaning in spite of it. And he found it, in part, through helping others. He said that:

“The self-transcendence of human existence . . . denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”

If you don’t have a why — a meaningful aim to guide you — you’re lost. You’re at risk at drifting and might spiral into meaninglessness.

Because if you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t be surprised if you end up in places you might not want to visit. To be in control, you need an aim. It shields you from the inevitable tragedies of life; it’s how you continue in the face of suffering.

The Solution to Anxiety Overwhelm

If you’re feeling anxious about any of your aims, you’re not alone. Because if the gap between where you are now and where you want to be is too big, a goal feels more monstrous than motivating.

The solution, however, is to have smaller goals along the way. By this method, you can keep your ultimate aim, but at the same time focus on completing smaller tasks — the things that are right in front of you. It’s as if you’re climbing a staircase.

Let’s say you’re going to run a marathon in 6 months. It would be foolish to start without preparation, because that would only make you feel anxious and stressed out on the big day.

You would be unsure of your own abilities, and thoughts such as, “I’m I prepared? Do I have the right shoes? Oh, god, did I remember to buy enough nipple cream?” might cross your mind at the starting line.

These are all serious concerns (especially the one concerning nipple-safety), but if you’re prepared you would feel a lot more confident on the day. Perhaps your first sub-goal could be running 2 km on low intensity, instead of 42 on high.

Then you next could be 5 km. And half-way, you could even run a half marathon. Then, on the starting line you would think, “I’ve accomplished all my goals so far, so I can accomplish this one as well — even if it’s a little harder.”

When you have a plan with increasing difficulties, you’ll be better prepared for when the ultimate comes.

Besides, you’ll better sustain your motivation this way: Instead of anxiety overwhelm, you can focus on what’s in front of you. When you take each step as they come, and learn what you need before you move on (or up), you’ll move faster and be more content along the way.

Aim high but focus on the day.

Are You Sure It’s Your Mountain?

Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world. Annapurna has the highest fatality rate (1 out of 3 that attempts it dies!). And your mountain, is the mountain worth climbing.

The key issue when it comes to choosing an aim, I believe, is choosing the right one. It must be something you want, not something you might think you want or something that other people think you should want.

While aiming at the wrong mountain doesn’t prevent you from reaching the top, you might find that it doesn’t make you any happier once you get there. You might even find that some of the best mountains are the ones that cannot be conquered. Getting to climb is often more rewarding than reaching the top.

So, before you choose an aim, think about why you would like to reach it. Is it something you genuinely want? And are the reasons for climbing it yours?

How would it feel to get there? Would it make your life better? Don’t think of other people’s expectations, external pressures or shallow motivations. Think of what you want and aim accordingly. Silence the noise and figure it out.

What if You Can’t Decide?

There’s a lot of things you can do in life. You can produce music, develop apps, play the guitar, teach, compete in sports, play poker, and do charity work. And there’s a thousand other things you can do as well.

Prior to writing, I tried many different activities myself. But because I constantly switched between what I was doing, I never got great at any one of them.

I couldn’t commit. And though I made some small feats, I never achieved mastery, which I desired. My attempts were half-hearted; I played my options and got average at them all.

We all know we shouldn’t play our options when it comes to choosing a partner (not for long anyhow), because that’s not how we achieve a great, sustainable (traditional) relationship. So why don’t we have the same mentality when it comes to choosing a creative endeavor or career?

In his book, The paradox of choice, Dr. Barry Schwartz explains how multiple options leads to indecision and half-commitments. When there’s plenty of options, you’re always wondering whether you made the right choice or not.

This keeps you from committing, and you never go all in. Consequently, you don’t get very good at things either, as you don’t invest enough time to develop your skills. To decide means to end all doubt but deciding to decide is the hardest thing to decide on.

While playing your options isn’t a great solution, committing to one thing for the rest of your life isn’t any better. What you can try instead, is to go all in on something for 3 months. And in that time, be fully committed. After the 3 months, one of two things will happen:

  • You will discover the thing you chose was something for you, which would lead to an increased liking and an extended period of commitment.
  • Or, you will discover that it wasn’t for you, have learned a lot along the way, and are ready for a new experiment.

Although it might sound scary, conducting short experiments like this is absolutely an effective method. You might not discover what you want at once, but you will discover something. To paraphrase Frank Martela and Michael F. Steger, two research-psychologists:

“The consequences of pursuing something should help people make sense of life. Not only because it provides structure and consistency, but also because when people ‘try on’ a direction, they likely learn something about themselves.”

Ultimately, you just have to pick something. Because going in any direction is better than standing still. Plus, you can always adjust later as you gain more knowledge of what you want. As Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, reminds us,

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

And that’s the beauty of an experiment. You can live forward throughout its duration and understand its value by looking back. It’s a mini life. Go explore it.

Summary

If you want to achieve your goal, you have to align yourself with it, aim, and take fire. If everything works out, you max out the score; if you aim in the right direction, you might still get some points for playing; but if you don’t aim at all, the game becomes pointless. To ensure the best possible outcome, remember that:

  • Your brain fixates on whatever you aim at, because you signify it’s something important. Consequently, your brain will help you move towards that aim by highlighting relevant information.
  • You’re always aiming for something — whether or not you’re aware of it. But by setting specific, high and meaningful goals, you take back control and gain the motivation needed to pursue the things you consciously want.
  • Big goals are often anxiety-provoking. A solution, however, is to make a plan with smaller goals along the way. You can aim high but you should focus on the day.
  • There are many things that can influence your aim, such as the opinions of others or shallow motivations. Making sure your aim is something you want is therefore important.
  • There are countless things you can do in life. So if you’re having trouble deciding what to do, you can conduct short experiments that will teach you more about what you want and don’t want.

Want to live a more meaningful life? Get my free PDF here.

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Jonas Ressem

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From Norway. Building onliving.life. Exploring life through psychology, philosophy and entrepreneurship. Come explore with me: http://eepurl.com/dAtfdv


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