One Thing Relentlessly: Why Humans Always Fail

There’s a line in Citizen Kane, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money” that captures something fundamental about being human. Any goal is very much easier to achieve it’s your only goal…But being human almost always means having more than one goal.

Let me illustrate with a famous example from philosophy used to illustrate the limitations of artificial intelligence. If you had to come up with away of achieving a singe aim – minimizing human deaths from cancer – then achieving it would be incredibly simple. You would simply kill every human straightaway before they could die of anything else. But that doesn’t capture anything of why you wanted to eradicate cancer.

Now suppose you add just one more variable. Maximising human life while minimising human cancer death. Now this would become hugely complex. It may just about be possible by tying humans to drip machines, feeding titrated nutrients and performing constant robotic surgery. Again, hardly what you had in mind.

Add just two more – still inadequate – variables – minimising pain time and maximising pleasure time – and now the problem has become so complex that it is in all practical senses insoluble.

And yet, look at what happens on January 1st each year. You will see thousands of people posting on social media that this year they want to be realistic so they’ve set just a handful of goals, say: quit smoking, get a promotion at work, spend more time with their children, save for a deposit, and run a half marathon.

That all sounds reasonable. And realistic. And “SMART”. Yet come February 10th, say, many of those people will be utterly despondent and feel cut adrift from ever achieving any tiny part of them.

The problem isn’t to do with whether the goals are SMART or not. It’s to do with the fact there is more than one of them. In fact, there’s one MORE than the four we have already established would provide an insurmountable challenge for the smartest artificial intelligence we could devise. It’s no wonder that people procrastinate and feel trapped in a cycle of inaction when facing their goals!

And this is the basic conundrum. To be human is to be complex. Almost no one JUST wants to make a lot of money. Or even to “be happy” – if that could even be expressed in simple terms. Yet the only means we have for framing the many complex and interrelated things that make up a human life are ones that break down when confronted with multiple strands.

So how do we reframe this t give us some chance of not descending into failure or inaction? One simple but really clever approach is that taken by the coach Michael Serwa. When he starts coaching people he asks them to rate their satisfaction out of 10 with 10 different aspects of their life, and also to rate their overall satisfaction in life out of 100. He has found over the years that the two totals almost always correspond pretty much exactly. So his coaching target – raise overall life satisfaction by working on the one or two areas with the lowest scores.

I would suggest two things. First understand ALL of your goals. That is, understand that one of the reasons you don’t just want to make a lot of money is because you also want to spend time with your family; another is that you want to live in a better society and single-minded self-interest is incompatible with that; another still is that you value experiences as well as things. This won’t help resolve the complexity but it will help you understand it.

Second, I would suggest that you at least try, at least some times, to stop thinking in terms of goals. Goals lend themselves to creating complexity problems because they are convergent – they exclude things. Rather, think about the make up of the life you would like to be leading – something divergent, that includes things. Rather than thinking about actions that help you converge on a point, spend some time thinking about actions that contribute to a wider picture.

From a goal-oriented perspective the result may be that you achieve less – but accepting that goals are poor ways to measure a human life may help you to see that this isn’t the problem you once imagined it was.

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