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The Difference Between Experiments and Goals: How to Balance Spontaneity with the Focused Pursuit of Fame

July 16th, 2008 · 9 comments

To Start or Not to StartTarget

Three weeks ago I published a controversial post titled: Getting Started is Overrated. My basic point: If you want to become truly impressive, you have to focus on a small number of things, for a long period of time, to the exclusion of other activities. I don’t like the “just get started” approach to accomplishment because it makes exclusive focus difficult. As Steve Martin taught us, getting good enough to reap major rewards requires incredible dedication. Jumping at every project that catches your attention derails such monastic devotion. Instead, I suggested, you should resist starting — resist until you are absolutely sure that a pursuit is perfect for you. Only then will you able to give it the longterm dedication required. Anything less wastes time.

As you can read in the comments to the original article andin Ben Casnocha’s response, this post generated a lot of discussion. Some people agreed. For example, Stella said:

Great post! Having worked for a large multinational travel agency that forced the Culture of Start down my throat for many years, I have become very skeptical of the Richard Branson type of entrepreneur. Over the years, I have had many business and investment ideas that I’m so glad I never got around to

On the other hand, many others disagreed, such as Grad Hacker:

Starting is often the best form of research, and how do you develop a passion without starting something?

And Ben, who noted:

Some tasks give feedback faster if undertaken right away in a small dose as opposed to analyzing it from afar. Take Cal’s examples: If you want to become a writer, sure you can talk to writers and study the profession, but is there a better way to understand whether writing girds your loins than actually putting pen to paper?

The odd loin reference aside, we are faced here with a clear dilemma: who is right? I was struggling with a good answer — I see wisdom in both points of view — when a real gift came along; a gift delivered from my friend Scott Young, who recently posted a insightful dissection of this issue. His approach brings clarity to a confusing situation.

It goes as follows…

Separating Experiments From Goals

Scott makes the following observation:

I like to separate my pursuits into two broader categories: experiments and goals. Experiments are the activities you take with almost zero commitment… Goals are beyond the stage of experimenting. This is when you’ve had enough experience in an area that you want to accomplish something important within it.

Be careful about getting caught in the middle-zone. This is an area which is no longer an experiment, but you don’t have the focus and commitment to achieve anything meaningful. [Having] lots of activities in this middle-zone means you’re wasting a lot of energy that could be better spent achieving something important or finding new opportunities.

Right on, Scott! I think this model captures the best of both sides of the getting started debate. It’s okay to have both high-value goals — which require focus to the exclusion of other high-value goals — and small, low-commitment experiments — which require a small amount of time and are used only to explore. The real insight is to note that separation is key. The danger is letting an experiment reach a “middle-zone” in which it starts sapping time and energy away from your high-value goals but is still not producing meaningful results.

After thinking about this model for a few days, I want to add a few thoughts of my own:

  1. Make a distinction between achievements and habits. This discussion becomes clearer when we separate out our lifestyle habits, such as fitness, reading, social events, and even minor hobbies, like biking or joining a kickball team. These all fall under the category of enjoying your life. They don’t compete with your high-value goals. You can identify them by the following two features: (1) they aren’t meant to provide large rewards; (2) their primary purpose is your day to day happiness. When I say “don’t get started,” I’m not talking about these habits. Jump in and out of these as much as you like.
  2. Use experiments to explore potential new high-value goals. Unlike habits, experiments exist for the sole purpose of investigating whether a given pursuit might be worth transforming into a high-value goal. As many of you pointed out, jumping in and trying something, at a low, non-committal level, can be a good way to investigate whether or not to commit to that goal in the longterm.
  3. Keep experiments obligation-free. The easiest way to have an experiment slide into that dangerous middle-zone is to have it start generating regular time obligations. The best experiments require time only at your discretion. You can, if you want, stop at the spur of the moment or put it aside for 6 months without any negative consequences. For example: Don’t experiment with becoming a journalist by taking a demanding, 20 hour-a-week copy editor position with your college newspaper. Instead, work on submitting some unsolicited op-eds. Only once you’re ready to really commit should you jump into the time-consuming, obligation-heavy entry-level work.
  4. Stop experimenting once your goal slots are filled. This is perhaps the hardest advice for people to hear. Once you’ve settled on the 1-3 high-value goals that you want to commit to (the number depends on your situation, a student, for example, can support more high-value goals than a first-year investment banker), stop experimenting. Your attention needs to be focused on getting good at your long-term pursuits. Even though experimenting with new pursuits is more fun. You should only start experimenting again if you complete one of your high-value goals or start to really question whether you should replace one.
  5. Experimenting within the confines of a high-value goal, however, is always allowed. I must add a crucial distinction that I think caused some havoc in the discussion over at Ben’s blog. Within the confines of a given high-value goal, experimenting is good. Expose yourself to randomness. Try lots of different angles to make progress. Anyone who achieved something very impressive will probably credit at least some serendipity along the way. The key, however, is that this random moment happened — usually — after they had committed themselves to the general direction. For example, if you want to start a business, you might want to experiment, at first, with several small ideas and random networking events. This all falls under the rubric of your entrepreneur goal. Don’t, however, spend three months taking a screenwriting course. That would be an unrelated experiment.

I find this topic fascinating. But there are, as we’ve seen already, uncountable variations and issues that arise. This is, roughly, what has worked so far for me. But I’m curious: what are your thoughts on the balance between exploring and making it big?

9 thoughts on “The Difference Between Experiments and Goals: How to Balance Spontaneity with the Focused Pursuit of Fame

  1. nelsonway says:

    Great post. I love the discussion of the middle-zone. This is an area that eats up our time, probably provides no real reward, and we might not like or hate enough to think about changing. I am going to do some thinking about what my “middle-zone” activities currently are.

  2. Grad Hacker says:

    This post girds my loins. A perfect (juvenile) analogy comes to mind: If you want to see whether an intriguing female (male) is worth your time, just go on a few dates with her (him), and make a decision. Don’t get caught in the dreaded friend-zone where you’re helping them move and picking up them up for the airport but not reaping any “high-value” rewards.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    Don’t get caught in the dreaded friend-zone

    Brilliant analogy. Though I’ve long preferred the term “friendship spiral.” (Extra cleverness in the way that loin girding accurately describes the effect of this zone.)

  4. The “middle-zone” is a very dangerous zone. Unfortunately you will be in that zone at some time on some project. But the key is being able to recognize when you are in that zone. Then you can act to get out.

  5. Daisy says:

    I’m in the middle zone in one of my main projects… I’d better go reevaluate what I’m focusing on. :)

  6. Ah, this is reminiscent of the Seth Godin’s “The Dip.” The middle zone sounds like the “Cul-de-sac.”

    I like the distinction you make between experiments and goals. Seth doesn’t make such a distinction in his book, and this lack of distinction makes his advice to “quit extraneous projects” all the more hard core and subsequently harder to implement.

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