Planning to Learn
Decorative gourd season has come & gone—which means it's now end-of-year review season.
To paraphrase the iconic McSweeney's essay by Colin Nissan:
It's end-of-year review season, mother%#$!ers.
We'll get plenty of posts, episodes, and videos recapping the year that was over the next few weeks. Some will be triumphant. Others will be staid and self-reflective. And still others will echo this delightful TikTok I stumbled on:
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I'm not here to rain on any end-of-year review parades.
I am all for reflecting on how things went. What I am here for, though, is to offer some context to this annual ritual.
Most end-of-year reviews center on recapping the goals the reviewer set at the beginning of the year and then reflecting on the progress made on said goals. Most of us take this cycle for granted. The passage from one year into the next is a natural time to reflect and reset. What have I achieved? And what will I achieve next?
Most of us also take for granted the imperative to get a little better, do a little more, become a little more every year. There's a growing, if niche, discourse about whether or not this is actually healthy or even creates the kind of lives we want to live. And rightly so.
By the way, I wrote a whole book about why we obsess over goals and how we might structure our lives differently. Click here to learn more.
Sure, achieving a goal is nice. But the satisfaction that achievement creates rarely stays with us very long. Instead, we find ourselves on a treadmill—setting and achieving goals that ultimately leave us feeling a little empty.
We experience something that makes us feel good and a bit happier than we were before. But in short order, our emotional state returns to the baseline. In the 1971 study that first described this phenomenon, psychologist Philip Brickman and social scientist Donald Campbell compared three groups: people who had won the lottery, people who had suffered a serious accident and become paralyzed, and a control group.
Brickman and Campbell discovered that while the lottery winners experienced a surge of positive feelings when they first won, they quickly returned to match the control group's level of happiness. Similarly, the people who had suffered major accidents experienced a surge of negative feelings in the immediate aftermath but soon returned to near parity with the control group. They concluded that we cycle through positive and negative experiences (and their resulting emotional states) but, ultimately, always return to our baseline of happiness.
In the 50-plus years since the original study was conducted, the theory has evolved—adding needed nuance and context. But the basic conclusion still holds.
I think anyone who's been through life's ups and downs will have put in at least a few miles on the hedonic treadmill.
Setting hedonism aside for a bit, it seems to me that the treadmill metaphor is a strong one for all sorts of human desires: the desire for stability, comfort, belonging, rest, etc. We seem to work toward and, ideally, achieve a goal in order to create a desired emotional state—only to see that emotional state dissipate, returning us to our baseline.
That sounds pretty bleak—so what's to be done? Brickman and Campbell concluded that the only way to create long-lasting positive psychological change was by "getting off the hedonic treadmill entirely."
Easier said than done, am I right?
I see the hedonic treadmill as the perfect example of how the logics of capitalism impact not only the financial particulars of our lives but also our affect and psychological well-being in practical ways. As growth at all costs became the guiding ethic of capitalist business over the course of the 20th century, so too did the achievement of more and more become the guiding ethic of our capitalism-colored lives. In both business and life, however, we find that growth and achievement are never quite enough. The positive effects only last so long before returning to the baseline.
Personal growth at all costs has downsides, just like business growth at all costs.
Constantly pushing for more gives the go-ahead to destructive and extractive practices. A company will squeeze everything it can out of its labor force, while an individual might squeeze everything they can out of a 24-hour period, or a relationship, or an opportunity for promotion. The result isn’t a stronger, more sustainable self or organization, but something brittle and on the verge of collapse.
A much more recent study looked at the effects of failing to achieve a goal. While the results were pretty predictable to anyone who has set a goal and failed to achieve it, researchers Jessica Höpfner and Nina Keith note that the effects of failure have been largely ignored in studies of goal theory. They also point out that this is pretty silly (okay, that's my word), considering that the types of goals found to have the best effect on performance are those that, by definition, have a 90% failure rate.
Höpfner and Keith found that failing to meet goals produced negative effects on "affect, self-esteem, and motivation." Like I said, pretty predictable. We feel worse, think less of ourselves, and aren't as drawn to challenging projects when we don't achieve the goals we set.
Höpfner and Keith conclude that while setting challenging and specific goals (the kind with a 90% failure rate) may improve short-term performance, the long-term effects of goal failure are detrimental to personal and organizational success. Repeated (perceived) failure is psychologically unsustainable.
So, if the hedonic treadmill leads to an insatiable quest for more and the negative effects of goal achievement theory are ultimately unsustainable, it seems like a wholly different approach is in order. For years, I’ve used the concept of practice to shape my approach. I still use it and will continue to—probably for the rest of my life. But I’m inspired to add something new into the mix.
The approach I'll be using to structure the year to come is learning.
Now, I've been talking about planning as a learning process for at least five years. This isn’t exactly new territory for me. The idea is simply that, instead of sticking to the plans we make, we should use every step of a project to learn more about what we're doing and how we can make our project successful. A plan doesn't have to be linear—it can be a feedback loop that welcomes change and adaptation.
That said, I've still put the focus on the projects themselves—make this, do that. Next year, I want to put the focus on the learning itself:
What do I want to learn?
For instance, I know that I want to learn better reporting skills next year. I'm not interested in breaking news or trying to keep up with the headlines, even in the realms of work or the economy. I want to learn to ask researchers and scholars to talk about their work with me. I want to get better at sourcing stories to build essays around. And I really, really want to learn how to spot story ideas in the wild.
So I'm planning projects that will encourage me to learn those skills. Through those projects, I'll gain the daily, deliberate practice I need to learn (and apply).
Learning, for me, is its own reward.
I don't need the surge of achievement-driven excitement that's here today and gone tomorrow. Nor do I need to put myself through the consequences of goal-related failure. I can find meaning in what I'm learning and how I'm learning it.
Unlike achievement, learning has long-lasting emotional and psychological benefits. The intent to learn can turn challenging activities into opportunities to play and experiment. Learning boosts our sense of autonomy, self-efficacy, and confidence. There is always a learning outcome within our control, something that cannot be said for goals!
With a focus on learning, we also have better tools for meeting uncertainty and dealing with novel problems. Ambiguity isn't a sticking point; it's a chance to formulate a new hypothesis and experiment. Encountering something unexpected isn't a reason to panic; it's an opportunity to ask new questions.
When: Thursday, December 14 at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT
Where: Live on Crowdcast
Who: Free for Premium Subscribers
Next Thursday, December 14 (12:30pm ET/9:30am PT), I'm leading a live workshop for Premium Subscribers. I'll walk you through the process I'm using to think about what and how I want to learn next year—and give you time to start working on your own plans for learning. Plus, I'll answer any questions you have!
If you're not yet a Premium Subscriber, click here to upgrade. I'll send out access info early next week. (And yes, it will be recorded!)
Attention group leaders! Do you lead a group of 10 or more participants who would benefit from this workshop and What Works? When you purchase 10 or more annual subscriptions for your group at 20% off, I’ll set up a private version of the workshop for your group (completed by January 31, 2024).
Must purchase 10 or more annual subscriptions to get the private workshop! But 20% off annual subscriptions is for any group of 2 or more.
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