Setting goals can change your life

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Goals in life and in learning

Picking a lofty goal helps focus and energize the mind. It helps choose strategies. Goals are also a blessing in learning. Goals have a powerful impact on the pleasure of learning. On rare occasion, learning for the learning's sake can become pleasurable too. However, all students should know that clear goals benefit the quality of their learning, esp. if goals roughly coincide with the program of study.

To maximize your brain potential, I suggest you follow my genius checklist. The list mentions a "clear goal" as a means that can propel you to greatness. Recently, a world famous British quantum physicist questioned two points on my checklist: (1) self-discipline and (2) the need to set goals. He noticed that he does not need those two to have fun with science. On closer inspection there is no disagreement with my claims.

Does a genius need goals?

Self-discipline and clear goals are not conditions sine qua non for achieving genius. The famous physicist can set himself as a good example of "natural achieving". In his own quest, intellectual curiosity is the prime motivator. Curiosity and the learn drive can indeed propel a human mind to unscaled heights. However, the freedom of the mind is easier to proclaim for a scientist with a well-established reputation and a long list of achievements. It is much harder as a proposition for a teen looking for the right path in life. It is harder for a teen who faces an obstacle course of constraints imposed by society.

In learning, the main value of goals is their association with the learn drive. Goals seed the love of learning. As the learn drive is powered by knowledge (see: the knowledge valuation network), goals serve as an epicenter of value from which rich dendritic connections underlie and guarantee the pleasure of learning. Without goals it is hard to value knowledge and without value it is hard to develop a pleasure and then love of learning. For a genius mind with extensive knowledge, goals may play a lesser role. Knowledge is a self-propelling vehicle in that the more you have, the more you crave.

Goals for a young student

Imagine a young student of law. She got no great dreams about being a great lawyer or solving a specific problem for mankind. Her motivations are more likely to be related to locations, friends, family, job opportunities, and even, at worst, a simple lack of other options. Without dreams, she is more likely to follow the obedient path travelled previously by billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel was blinded in a competition for grades, tests, exams, degrees, and certificates. He was just about to inch closer to the Supreme Court clerkship when a minor failure woke him up to the fact that he was on a mill. He revalued his life and founded PayPal. The young student of law needs a dream that will transform all menial chores at school into a true pleasure of learning. The mill of tests and grades can devour the less resistant mind and sent him out on a path of forced learning and a forced career where self-discipline and hardship are the only survival strategies. Naturally, aiming at Supreme Court is a great idea too. However, that goal needs to be pursued in compliance with the fundamental law of learning. It cannot be a road of torment.

For a young student, it is only natural that dreams not always coincide with career prospects. It is hard to convert a passion for music into great outcomes at law school. However, the lack of dreams and goals can be remedied. It cannot be hurried or forced onto a young mind. It is all about small steps and small decisions. Those decisions cannot be painful or hard because they can bring the opposite effect: the dislike of the subject matter. An example of a small step decision would be to submit to no less than 5-10 minutes of inspirational reading (e.g. in the area of law here). During a lazy summer, it is very easy to think: "I got long hours of learning and reading ahead during the school year, I better take a breather and freshen my mind". However, just 5-10 minutes of reading can seed those little areas of interest that will later by magnified by the run through the compulsory material. Taking a break from learning will have the opposite effect. Instead of freshening the mind, it is more likely to result in a decline in the learn drive and learn habits. With schooling, there is never a guarantee of a match between knowledge and interests. There is never a guarantee of passion. However, preparing the ground and looking for seeds of interest is a great strategy for making the whole experience fun and productive.

Learning style affects the learn drive

I pick the area of law intentionally. This is the area that is notorious for destroying the learn drive and the passion for life. Hence the saying "nobody likes the lawyer (until they need one)". The law is in flux. This magnifies the emphasis on short-term memory in learning. While a student of medical science can be sure that the styloid process will be in the same place hundred years from now, the student of law, needs to cram current regulations only to see them change in a month. Both students need to employ cramming at the cost of learning, but it is the student of law who will be penalized harder. This is why SuperMemo is not too popular with lawyers.

Without the right approach, the flux of knowledge is awful for the morale, for the love of learning, and the attitude towards one's own career.

Seeding passions

The solution to mastering complex, detailed or messy knowledge is to look for commonalities and generalities. The solution to the flux of law is to look at it from the birdseye view. Great lawyers are not detail oriented in how they view the law in general. They do not memorize tons of paragraphs. They look at theory or philosophy of law. The volume of knowledge is too huge for anyone to master. The key is to memorize a few golden rules and focus the mind on the big picture. Great lawyers solve problems through abstraction and generalization, not by memorizing all details and paragraphs. For digging into detailed laws in a particular case, written documents are good enough. The brain can be free to see the big picture. Big picture and abstraction are actually a formula for all creative pursuits. The smarter the brain, the less inclined it is to focus on detail. The smarter it is, the more it seeks patterns and rules.

To foster the right approach, the seeds of love for learning need to be planted early. It should happen before the hectic mill of cramming affects one's attitude towards college. Clear career goals are extremely helpful at that seeding. A few minutes of creative reading in the field should help locate areas of interest. These could be role models or missions. An inspiring personality could do the job: Cicero, David Boies, Ronald Dworkin, or Thurgood Marshall? Perhaps a mission to reform the EU, battle for human rights, or restore homeschooling in Germany and Sweden? Perhaps a dramatic legal case like that of Domenic Johansson could spark a passion? Great minds, great personalities, good or evil, can be found everywhere. They tend to affect the raw emotion and seed passions that can be used to build the knowledge valuation network. That framework of knowledge can make learning fun. Great lawyers like most great people love their work. They love it because of the expertise that comes through years of respecting the learn drive.

Genius needs no rules

As for the genius quantum physicist who sparked this text, I am not surprised with his point of view. He does not need clear goals. He can perfectly follow his learn drive. He has already scaled the summit and can safely forecast that whatever his mind comes up with will be of value for science and the world. In the worst case, it will be just a new publication. The great mind has already got his great passion, great track record and a great prospects for more ideas. A young student entering college is on a less certain path. One of the biggest dangers is the possibility of having the learn drive suppressed. While a great scientist operates in conditions of freedom, a young mind is often enslaved by the system and the circumstances. This is why goals help preserve the learn drive and resist all forms of limits on freedom.

Once you reach the heights of genius, you can relax a bit and follow your instincts. Goals and discipline are no longer that quintessential. A genius mind set free of constrains might be most productive indeed. In short, a genius will no longer need my genius checklist.

In the meantime, I will plan for my next marathon. This has nothing to do with the learn drive. However, I love the power of habits. Goals help develop healthy habits too.