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Progress is about moving goals not meeting them

Action without challenge is meaningless

When we normally talk about making progress we usually take that to mean taking steps towards a goal. And that is progress, no doubt.

But there is danger with this view because we use the same definition when thinking about Progress in a larger sense of where our life is headed.

This higher level kind of progress is more about growing as an individual, whether that be in terms of knowledge or skills or achievements. It is living as a sentient being with agency rather than an intelligent animal being driven by instinctual emotions.

“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” is a psychological theory that helps to visualize this distinction. It’s commonly illustrated as a pyramid showing the progression from basic survival necessities to higher intellectual needs that take us from living in the sense of not dying to living in the sense of feeling fulfilled.

At the top of this pyramid is self-actualization. Literally taking our potential and making it actual. Being all we can be.

For most of us, it’s this sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that is what we really mean when we are talking about progress. The tactical progress we make towards a goal is a measure that helps us steer but feeling like we are making progress in our lives is why we have those goals in the first place.

But the thing about fulfillment is that it is never done. When we exercise and grow stronger, our potential increases and thus our goals need to expand to keep pace.

So we really make progress when we move the goal posts, not when we meet our goals.

That is very uncomfortable for us because there is a degree of unknown. If we always shift our goals then how do we know we are done? How do we know we’re doing okay?

This discomfort comes from the fact that our instincts are designed for a context where making a mistake could have catastrophic consequences.

For our inner caveman, the unknown is very dangerous because even if most of the time that rustle in the bush is just the wind, when we are wrong we could end up in the belly of the tiger.

The result is that at a motivational, emotional level we avoid taking risks because we are designed for a world where when a potential risk became an actual event, that event was often death.

For the world we actually live in, our instinct for self-preservation activates erroneously. As a result we are overly sensitive to unknowns.

The problem is that the unknown is where we make progress. We grow by reaching beyond what we can already do.

We don’t make progress by being prepared because that implies that we know what we need to do. That’s not really progress, that’s executing on a plan.

You just follow step a, step b, step c and arrive at outcome d. Sure there are plenty of decisions and adjustments we need to make along the way but the overall goal generally doesn’t change that much.

But the implication of a plan is that you know the steps to take to reach the goal. And by definition if you know something, you are not learning something. The result could be real but meaningless progress, mistaking movement for direction.

If we only tackle the things we have a plan for then we will only tackle things we can handle and thus we will never grow. The only reason you wouldn’t need to grow is if you are already succeeding. If you are not already a success then you need to grow beyond what you are.

This transition from beginner to expert is very uncomfortable. I recently saw a lecture by Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator, where he said awkwardness is a sign of learning. It means you are moving out of your comfort zone and are growing.

So when you feel that uncomfortable feeling you should embrace it because it is a sign that you are pushing yourself beyond what you can already do. And as an indicator of growth, the lack of discomfort.

If instead of avoiding discomfort we make friends with it and see it not as a sign of danger but as an indicator of growth then that mindset will help us succeed by helping us recognize when we need to push ourselves to make our goals more challenging.