Tuesday, August the 12th, 2003

I was talking to someone earlier today, and some really stark, not so nice, realizations hit me. To condense these and put it bluntly, I don’t think I can deal with failure very well.

The reason why I say, “I don’t think I can deal with failure very well”, as opposed to saying, “I don’t deal with failure very well”, is quite simple. I don’t fail. Now, normally, this would be a very good thing if I were some uber talented genius insightful type who goes on achieving whatever goals he could possibly conceive and effortlessly handling all challenges that get thrown his way. But that, obviously, is not the case. I instead do (and I assume a lot of other people out there do too) something else. I’ve decided to call this, adaptive goal setting.

This, in simple terms, is, go after only what you almost know for sure (no, you know for sure) that you can achieve. If it looks too hard at any time, suitably modify the goal in your head, rather than accept you couldn’t cope with what you had initially aimed for.

That’s it, my secret to “success”. Modify the definition of success till it matches actuality. What am I so afraid of? Who am I fooling?

An example of this had come up quite recently. A friend of mine is starting off on the arduous application process and wanted to read my SOP to “see how it looked like”. (I’d like to use the word “steal” or at least “inspire” here. But for some strange reason, people like taking, but don’t like being called takers.) I digress. Anyway, being in a helpful frame of mind, I decided to dig it up. I found it, and for some reason, read it before sending it to her. At that time, I was brimming with pride on how I had described my gradual specialization with time from early schooling to the extremely narrow corner of science I am at right now pursuing my PhD.

(Sure, branches of knowledge are infinitely dense like the real number set, and no matter how deep I go it’s still infinitely large to cover, but that’s not where I am going with this.)

Anyway, looking at it today, I know exactly what I was doing. I wasn’t specializing because I had “inherent aptitude” or was “inherently attracted” to these branches. I was adaptively modifying my goals. When I was a kid, I presume like many others, I wanted to know everything. Nothing short of comprehensive comprehension would do. A little later on, around 5, I started realizing that I am going to come no where close to achieving that. So, I slowly modified that to, I wanted to know physics and comprehend and rationalize any and all phenomena. Soon, that narrowed down to mechanics. You can see where I am going with this. And, right now I am in one subset of a subset … of that. I was specializing because I had to. The primary objective couldn’t be achieved and I was failing. (I was slowly realizing what a professor of mine said years later, knowledge is infinite, it is a pity our time here is finite to attempt to grasp it all) What could be done?

a. Try harder and still risk failure
b. Modify the primary objective and convince yourself that’s what it should have been

Obviously, since (a) had a probability of failure, and I am chicken, that was out of the question. So, choosing (b), I picked out subjects and their subsets which I was fond of. Now, being fond of and being able to “do them well” were closely coupled with positive feedback. So it, evidently, made choices firm. I gravitated towards something, worked on it, did well, liked it more, worked on it some more and so on. So, in a sense, this is dependent on “inherent” aptitude or fascination, but not terribly so.

Point being, I’ve continued to do this till, well, I’ve brought it down to a “manageable” size in my head. And the scary thing is I’ve been doing this for all aspects of my life. Will I know enough or be able to do enough to “succeed” in this “reduced primary objective”? No worry, if not, I just reduce it some more.

It’s sad. But it has, oddly, “worked”. Sure, I might have achieved a lot more had things been different. I might have, say, climbed Everest. But, hey, my (so conditioned frame of) mind goes, at least you didn’t die falling off some glacier trying. At least you’ve got this far. It has helped, quite directly, build confidence and so on, since I would say I’m inherently not exactly confident. Some people seem to be born with it. I need to try, do, succeed, feel good about myself and then build it. This helps.

It also hurts, in subtle ways. On the theme of, not living up to your “potential”, it tends to reduce living to mere surviving. I am content with little or nothing. There is no drive to ever do anything. To minimize this, adaptive goal setting tends to work in the other direction too, though not as often. If things seem too easy and the end seems “too close”, the goal can be made harder to be the driving force.

In the end, I’ve made my choice, and just wish that I were as happy as others appear to be.

So, just what is it that you do? Do you adaptively modify your goals? Do you try to bite of more than you can chew, crash and burn, learn from that experience and build character along the way? Do you try harder or laugh it off? Does it affect your self esteem? and so on …

I’d really like to hear some thoughts.

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2 Responses to “Adaptive Goals”

  1. Vigvg says:

    I’m B. Bite off way too much, try to chew and then puke it all out. Story of my life. I don’t know if I learn.. I try to.. but Im not too sure…

  2. wahgnube says:

    I’ve noticed people do that. I tend to avoid it, for the whole (over?) confidence building scheme of events.

    I find it more helpful to try to be an “achiever” (however the definition of that word is at the point) over one who “can’t do”.

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