Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Clarification, Commitment, and Courage

"Cheshire Puss," she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. "Come, it's pleased so far," thought Alice, and she went on. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
- Lewis Carol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This is a deep observation. It's easy to get *somewhere*. We have
only to walk long enough. But if we want to get somewhere
*particular* in life, we have, first of all, to be very clear on
the destination.

But there is more to it. Once we do clarify where we are going,
we have to be committed to getting there, and we must have the
courage to find the path and stick to it.

This gives us a three-part recipe:

1. Think hard and clarify for ourselves what we believe in, what we want to do, what we want to be, what we want to have. These are our principles and our goals. We must make them as explicit as possible to ourselves. Write them out.

2. Resolve and commit, wholly and fully, to achieving our goals, while staying true to our principles. It helps to close one's eyes and visualize oneself as the person who has what we want, who does what we want to do, who is what we want to be.

3. Now, act with courage and stay true to the commitment. This means being patient and willing to put in the time needed to learn. It means being resilient and not backing down or giving up on our dreams when we face setbacks (and we can be sure there will be many!). It means being willing to learn from failure and change to do something new when an old and familiar approach doesn't work. It means recognizing our own freedom and ability to change our environment in myriad fruitful ways, and exercising this freedom to move closer to the achievement of our goals. Above all, it means being fearless and willing to court disappointment often.

There are challenges to be faced at each step.

The challenge on the first step is set goals that help us meet our true potential, and bring joy into our lives. As we learn and grow and are exposed to more opportunities, we can and should revisit and adjust our goals. We may find that some of our earlier goals truly no longer matter to us, and other new goals arise.

Once we get past goal-setting, the second and third steps are still very hard because we are wired evolutionarily to be risk averse, to avoid disappointment, and, when disappointed, to become unhappy, give up readily, and aim lower. Our latent fears make it very difficult for us to believe the significant extent to which we can shape our environment.

We can perhaps view life as a dynamic stochastic optimization problem, a particularly hard one, in that there is a time-varying multi-dimensional objective function that is not predefined! There is no deterministic guarantee that this three-step approach of i) clarifying our goals and principles, ii) committing to them, and iii) maintaining the courage to pursue them through difficult times, will ensure that we get what we want. However, I contend that this policy will maximize the probability of this happening. (The probability thus maximized does depend on factors out of our control, including lack of adequate resources and other socio-economic constraints, but in most cases is a lot higher than we might have imagined). And following such a policy is likely to yield us the satisfaction of leading a principled, meaningful life.


I started this post with a quote related to clarification of goals. Here are two more quotes I like, one about commitment and one about persistence, which is, of course, the essence of courage:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!”
- W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
- Calvin Coolidge

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