Custom versus mainstream goals

I’d like to share Cal Newport’s article arguing that conventional-but-competitive goals are better than highly customized goals:

This seems a bit counterintuitive to me. What are your thoughts and experiences?

I seem to disagree. Goals need to come from our own desires/ambitions/needs. Why would I work towards a goal that my aunt will appreciate?

I can’t follow the author’s logic at all. Chasing after whatever everybody else says is a good goal is often not a good use of time. I know that in my industry, people with IEEE IT certs on their resume are considered bad candidates because the certification involves learning lots of useless stuff. Ever notice how every restaurant says it is “Award Winning”?

I do think there’s some value in tracking similar things similarly. For example, if 10 people all want to clean their houses it might be better if all 10 of them tracked it similarly so they could compare. It can also help you avoid reinventing the wheel, if a particular metric is difficult to automate. Beeminder’s integrations and IFTTT channel help with this. But I don’t think this is what the author was talking about.

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The author’s main point seems to be: if you want to really improve/be good at something, it’s imperative to pursue goals that will get you critical feedback. I think that’s solid advice, and it can be psychologically very difficult to put yourself in a position of receiving critical feedback, so if you really want to improve, it makes sense to use a commitment contract of some sort.

Of course, there’s several other things conflated here: (1) Sometimes I don’t care about something enough to make critical feedback important. In that case, who cares what kind of metric I use. (2) Sometimes the “conventional” goal is NOT actually a good way to get critical feedback, as in drtall’s example of IEEE certs.

So in the end I think the author makes a good point about the importance of critical feedback, but it needs to be disentangled from this other stuff.


I agree that’s solid advice, but I think you actually need to get into the dirty details of how the goal is measured. The author’s (anti-midwestern-female suggestion) that your Peoria Aunt needs to understand it suggests to me that you ought to be able to explain the goal in plain terms. But often the details are very important.

For example, my mother was concerned that because I am Beeminding time spent talking to her, the frequency of my calls might become unacceptably low. She suggested I Beemind number of calls. I said that I was worried about the incentive to make lots of short crappy calls (or pretend to get disconnected). I told her I could put a safety buffer cap but I don’t have a premium plan, etc. We ultimately agreed on time spent talking, but the conversation had to get into the details.


The core context of Cal’s post seems to be the pursuit of certain types of ambition. We’re not cleaning house or phoning our mothers more often. [1]

The message I take from his article is that there’s value in pursuing well-recognised quality-signals in your pursuit of self-motivated goals. [2]

I think it’s no accident that his core example is of writing. It’s possible to self-publish an awesome book, but even easier to get mired in the false-progress sense of his #2. It’s easier to self-publish a terrible book than it is to get it accepted by a traditional publisher.

[1] My mother is pretty happy that I beemind the number of calls that I make to her, because it’s at least tripled how often we speak. I use auto-ratchet to make sure that there’s not too much time between each call (or attempted call), so that speaking twice in close succession doesn’t give me a huge grace period.

[2] If you think about the best people you’ve worked with, some of them have been certified. If you think about the worst, they’ve all been certified. :slight_smile:
(h/t Alec Sharp, who first told me this…)


Thank you everybody for your clear thinking and well-thought-out replies.

As an aside, this conversation shows just how important it is to suss out the underlying assumptions of good advice. In the case at hand, Cal Newport’s well-recognized quality signal (tenure) coincides neatly with the mainstream goal (publish a lot). But that’s really the exception.