Sunday, July 31, 2016


Over the past 9 years or so since starting this blog, I have had a goal of publishing at least once post per month. I totally missed July, so I'm posting this with a July date to make up for it. Cheating? Maybe.


I have missed a few months here and there, some at the beginning when I didn't have as firm of a goal of publishing every month, and other times when the time has just gotten away from me. I always make a backdated post a day or two into the next month to make up for it. Other months I have written at least once a week and probably more.

July was just crazy busy, and so was the first half of August. Here's what I was doing in my day or two grace period when I could have been late posting for July:

That's my thinking spot on a cliff overlooking the shore of Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the continental US (in Yellowstone), which we accessed with an 11 mile canoe trip in to our camp site. Preparing for and going on the scout trip took precedence.

So did my goal fail? It depends on how you define your goal.

Too often our goals are some massive accomplishment that we have less control over than we like to think. Hint: if your goal requires that someone else do something, it's a bad goal. If you set a goal to climb Mount Everest, is that a bad goal? I'll say that it is. There is too much you don't have control over, even in the best of circumstances. A better goal would relate to physically preparing yourself to be in shape to climb and to learn the skills necessary to pull off such a feat.

Scott Adams talks about goals as being bad and suggests replacing them with systems instead. He tells the story of failing multiple times to climb a certain mountain near his house. When he instead focused on a system of getting in shape, less on the specific goal of hitting that particular summit, he was actually able to achieve the goal.

I tell students all the time in my classes that when they get overly focused on the fact that they are having a hard time learning the concepts they are studying that they need to focus less on memorizing the concepts and more on how they might use or currently do use those concepts in their daily life. I've had students tell me that they don't care about learning - they just need to know what to do so they can pass the test. Thus, as they focus too much on what they need to do to pass the test, they fail the test. When they embrace the concepts and think about how to use what we're talking about and really learn it, the side benefit is that they will be able to pass the test, because they have learned it better than trying to study it out of context.

But I think Scott Adams makes an artificial distinction in contrasting systems and goals. I know why he does it. By branding it as something different, it's easier to accept a different definition than what we traditionally think of. A goal is traditionally always something big at the end, so focusing on the steps along the way needs a different name to make it stick (and to sell books).

Call it a system or whatever you want, but it's still a goal. It's just a good goal instead of an unattainable goal. It's not that climbing a mountain or having all your students pass a class is unattainable in that there is a 0% chance of those things happen. It's that there's not a 100% chance of those things happening, because things out of your control may prevent them. There may be a snowstorm when you plan to summit, or a student may not study as thoroughly as they should have.

The steps along the way are, or should be, the goals in the first place. Providing a study hall session the week before the final exam won't guarantee everyone will pass, since not everyone will attend or do their due diligence. But you can accomplish your goal by providing the session and inviting everyone to it, thus giving the opportunity to others. Scott would call that a system. I just call it an attainable and relevant goal.