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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Friday, January 26, 2007

PLANS AND GOALS

I've been working over a distinction I've long emphasized between making plans and setting goals. What I want to show is that plans are useful but goals are worse than useless; goals are obstacles. Humans are both blessed and burdened by memory and imagination. They are what distinguish us from other animals: we have evolved the capacity to preserve a version of the past and picture futures. What we've achieved through these powers obviously includes law and literature, stories and theories, indeed most of human culture. The ways in which memory and imagination serve to create obstacles are less obvious, yet critical. The crucial point is that a plan focuses upon doing something now. I planned a swim workout for this morning and cross country ski training for this afternoon. My swim workout went well, but was shortened by coaching some of my students who showed up for instruction. Now, had I pictured a goal--say, my usual 2000 yard distance set--I would have been disappointed. Perhaps you see the point: goals focus upon outcomes, not actions, and outcomes are always uncertain. Indeed, to the extent that I imagine some outcome, I'm distracted from doing what I'm always certain to be able to do: namely the action before me now. That's how goals become obstacles. In aiming at an outcome, I neglect the task at hand, which is to do this next thing as well as I can. And when I do so, I'm never disappointed, for I don't suffer the frustrated expectations that accompany projecting a wish for some particular state of affairs. I'm looking forward to my afternoon workout. We'll see how it goes...

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