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On Trajectories

Posted on:February 15, 2022 (5 min read)

I frequently find myself worrying about the future. Will succeed and achieve my goals? What is success? Do I have the right goals? I’ve done this since I was a kid, but the outcome is usually the same: I’ll get an idea in my head and work as hard as I can to make it happen. It’s only in recent years that I’ve started to reconsider this approach.

I wouldn’t say the outcomes are bad: throughout my life, through some combination of skill, hard work, and luck (a very, very large quantity of the latter), I’ve been able to achieve most things I set my mind to. I didn’t end up where I planned, but at no point did I have a particular place I wanted to go. Instead, I set short-term goals and wore myself out trying to achieve them. Often, my mindset was, “I need to work harder than anyone else to achieve what I’d like.” Thankfully, my short-term objectives laddered up to some nice long-term outcomes, but this was no means by design.

In fact, I often avoided thinking about the future or past altogether. Everyone says “live in the present,” right?

I think there are some long-standing personal beliefs behind my behavior:

  1. I am not like everyone else therefore I need to do things differently.
  2. To prove I’m not mediocre, I need to work as hard as possible.
  3. The things I want to accomplish necessitate constant maximal effort.
  4. To avoid the thoughts in my head, I will keep myself busy.

Upon reflection, I can see flaws in each of these:

  1. What other people are doing is irrelevant, the only thing important is the truth.
  2. Perhaps, but hard work is only effective when applied intelligently.
  3. Most things can be accomplished through planning and small actions taken daily. “Constant maximal” is a paradox as far as human beings go.
  4. Avoiding the uncomfortable is usually a bad strategy, this is no exception.

A resounding lesson from the past two years has been that trajectory is foundational to reaching a goal. It’s not more important than hard work— one steel beam on the Eiffel Tower isn’t more important than another, yet those at the top wouldn’t exist without their precursors.

Like layers of steel on a great tower, trajectory lays the foundation for hard work. Together, the outcome is beautiful.

It’s human to focus on the day-to-day, to live in the moment. Yet, even for the well intentioned, this can lead to a myopic focus. Without time to step back and reflect, taking life day-by-day won’t affect long-term change (for most). Our lives are comprised of years & decades, and true foundational change occurs on those timescales.

The only way to affect change is to consistently move in the right direction. Consider two busses going from New York to Los Angeles. One bus can go 50% faster than the other— which will arrive first?

It might seem like a trivial, but speed and execution are two very different things. More important than the bus is the bus driver. If bus #1 takes off in a rush and ends up in Miami, its speed is irrelevant. Ordinary execution from bus #2 will be superior.

The analogy has obvious carryover to personal goals, with a few caveats: none of us know our (final) destination and we’re not racing against anyone. What we can do is set interim personal goals that take us a step closer to who we want to be at the end of the day. Of course, that requires us to know who we want to be. 😉

The traits that result in us meeting our destination in as efficient a manner as possible are:

  1. Figuring out where we want to go.
  2. Charting out a plan to get there, which might take a very long time.
  3. Adjusting for challenges en-route.
  4. Pacing— Being consistent, showing up every day.
  5. Getting help where necessary, especially if it’s on direction.

Hence, I’m now inclined to believe that it’s the path we take to reach our goals that has the greatest importance. Without a solid trajectory or any consistency, hard work is misguided, ineffective, and unproductive.

Furthermore, a singular focus on work can distract us from outcomes. What’s worse than working towards a goal you don’t care about?

How often do we ask “If I continue on this path, where will I be in a year, five, ten?” This is difficult since it requires introspection and truth. Do I really want to confront my fears, sorrows, regrets? Do I want to acknowledge the facts of my life and the consequences of my decisions?

My childhood (and adult) fears center around uncertainty. Uncertainty cannot be eliminated, but it may be mitigated by doing the right thing. Perceived progress is reassuring. It makes us feel like we’re moving towards something. The solution to fears of uncertainty, therefore, is to first think and resolve, then take steps towards those resolutions.

I’ve spent so much time avoiding the truth and the facts of reality. By confronting them and recognizing what I want, I can remove a huge barrier to my goals. Setting small milestones allows me to have some sense of direction for where I’m headed and, hopefully, takes me somewhere I’m proud to be. There is no finish line, no leader board for success. The ambiguity only adds difficulty.

Hard work is inefficient with out a trajectory. A trajectory can be misguided without the truth. An accurate perception of reality is necessary to tell ourselves the truth. The ability see things for what they are is the most valuable skill out there.