Pushing and pulling goals — Scott Alexander

Last updated 2019-09-25

At least once a month, I think of Scott Alexander’s distinction between “pushing” and “pulling” goals. I’ll let him define the terms:

A pulling goal is when you want to achieve something, so you come up with a plan and a structure. For example, you want to cure cancer, so you become a biologist and set up a lab and do cancer research.

A pushing goal is when you have a plan and a structure, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it. For example, you’re studying biology in college, your professor says you need to do a research project to graduate, and so you start looking for research to do.

I often noticed these two types of goals when I was training to become a data scientist. Some of my colleagues approached their projects by asking, “What is a problem I want to solve?” Then they would look for relevant data. This is the pulling goal approach. Many other people, myself included, would start by asking, “What data do I have access to?” Then we would look for things to do with it. This is the pushing goal approach.

We pushing people would complete our projects more reliably than the pulling people, but our completed projects often felt like zombies—husks with no real substance to them.

Alexander is critical of pushing goals, making the point that they often feel inauthentic and meaningless. I used to spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas for novels, so this passage hit close to home:

Sometimes on Reddit’s /r/writing I see people asking “How do you come up with ideas for things to write about?” and I feel a sort of horror. So you want to write a novel, but…you don’t have anything to write about? And you just sit there thinking “Maybe it should be about romance…no, war…no, the ennui of the working classes…or maybe hobbits.” I can understand this in theory – you want to be A Writer – but it still weirds me out.

Around the time I read this post, I also read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. He describes how much he loves writing—not Being An Author, but the act of telling stories. King’s novels are pulling goals, then. By contrast, I could see that my own stories were pushing goals—zombie projects with no inner spark. I decided to set aside my aspirations to be a novelist, at least for the time being.

One potential lesson here is that you should only work on projects that are immediately meaningful to you as ends in themselves. Write if you have things to say, or if you have stories to tell, but not because you want to be A Writer. Surely there is some wisdom in this.

Then again, can any project feel truly meaningful at all times and at every stage? Surely Stephen King experiences periods of writer’s block between novels, and needs to deliberately seek out his next source of inspiration. He must also have moments in his writing when he lacks the motivation to get through a particular chapter and needs to set a word target for the day. This would suggest that pulling goals may not be enough on their own.

Maybe the trick is to identify your pulling goals and then set up smaller pushing goals that will support you along the way. I have found that identifying pulling goals isn’t a trivial task that can be completed all at once, so my strategy is to collect them passively in lists of things I want, questions I’m interested in answering, and problems I think should be solved. This helps me to at least aim at the right targets when I sit down to work.

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