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The recipe for watering down a goal

Sun 14 Aug 2022 by mskala Tags used:

The overlapping circles of "life coaching," "mindfulness," and certain fluffy religions, have a highly-developed technology for achieving personal goals, and it works well - provided you're willing to follow the recipe.

The recipe is a series of steps to redefine the goal into something that cannot ever be definitely said not to have been achieved. If you can do that, then - surprise - you'll never be in the situation of having failed in your goal. But is that really such an accomplishment?

Step one: state your goal as a declarative sentence, as if it's a fact already true. "Ten thousand people read my Web log daily."

But then there's step two. You have to remove anything specific or measurable, like numbers or deadlines. Various philosophical justifications are put forward for doing this, including nice-sounding ideas like that you "shouldn't limit yourself," not to mention the old reliable Argument of the Beard. The practical result of step two is to discard falsifiabily. "Many people read my Web log frequently" - and if that seems not to be the case, well, what do the words "many" and "frequently" actually mean after all?

Another important step is to rearrange the words to make oneself the subject of the sentence. "I write a Web log that many people frequently read." The claimed justification here is to give oneself power; but it also shifts blame onto oneself, for events not under one's own control.

A metaphysical interlude at this point, popular in the more religiously-oriented systems, may involve denying the literal existence of persons other than oneself. All are one in oneness, and so on.

So, recognizing that a goal depending on other people could possibly fail without it being your fault, we have to protect against that possibility by making it about you alone. "I write a Web log that is worth reading." That can be true whether many people actually do read it or not; we've trimmed away not only measurability of the goal, but also all the problematic aspects of dependence on others.

But it's still a statement, however vague, about facts in the world. For a Web log to be worth reading is in principle a matter of objective fact and not entirely just subjective opinion; some Web logs actually are better than others in a way that is real. To protect against any possibility of saying the goal has not been achieved, we have to rephrase further to make the statement be about feelings instead of facts. "I feel that my Web log is worth reading." With sufficient emotional control, which is a skill that can be learned cheaply, almost anybody can be sure of achieving that much.

As a final garnish on top, let's adopt a rule in our community against ever uttering the word "not," or any word that is "negative" however indirectly so. That's a significant handicap on what kinds of things we can possibly say - in symbolic-logic terms, it means we can only ever evaluate monotonic functions, not that evaluating functions was ever really part of this mode of thinking anyway. Of course, we can't say that the word "not" is forbidden because forbidding things is now, itself, forbidden! Instead let's frame it that we're speaking in a superlatively positive way. Who could object to that?

By this point we've guaranteed perfect success in achieving our goal - except it's not recognizable as the original goal at all. Everything that was important about the original statement has been trimmed away along with the possibility of failure, and achieving the watered-down goal is not much of an achievement at all.

I take the view that if we're going to pray to the gods, this recipe is not a good one to follow. Don't hedge your bets, as I've written before. A god who exists and is worthy of worship should be able to hear a prayer that measurably exists in the world outside the worshipper's head, and even involves others.


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