Monday, September 27, 2004

Passion, Process, Goals

by Asim Jalis

Here are some thoughts I had this morning that I wanted to write down before I forgot: There are two kinds of passion. Passion related to the process, and passion related to the end. There are other ways to describe this. We could call the first one, something with an immediate pay-off, and the second one, something with a long-term payoff. Again there might be other ways of slicing passion, but I am interested in exploring this particular slicing right now. Examples: Let's say I want to end world hunger. This is an end-inspired passion. To do this I will have to write letters, cook food, work in a soup kitchen, fill out forms to create a non-profit, do minor book-keeping, file tax returns, and many other details necessary to execute towards the goal. I might not necessarily enjoy these activities, but I will engage in them because this would be only way I see to drive towards my desired end. Now, let's look at an example of a process-driven passion. Let's say I really like to cook. I cook every day, for myself, for my friends, and for anyone else who shows an interest. Over time I create a restaurant, I start a TV show, I write a book, and become a big cooking celebrity. Even though the cooking was a means to many of the things I achieved, my passion was not for those things, but rather for process. I continue to cook even when I can hire other people to do it for me, because hiring someone else would be absurd. This is all familiar ground. We have talked about this before. Now for the bold hypothesis. It is not possible to have a passion that is both process-driven and end-driven. It is not possible for the means and the end to be in harmony. Let's consider programming for example. If I have a process-driven passion for programming would mean that I really enjoy the process of programming. I enjoy creating beautiful code, and refactoring it to make it perfect. If I have a goal-driven or end-driven passion for programming, that means that I program because I want to make a lot of money selling the program, or because I want establish myself as a creative and endearingly eccentric developer of the next big killer app. If I program in the goal-driven mode, and I am inspired by the vision of making money, I have to be in a hurry. I don't have time to write beautiful code. I crank things out as quickly as I can and then try to ship whatever I can slap together to make the release. I will also program whatever the market wants. If I see a market for GUI applications, I will write GUI applications. If web applications are big this year, I will create a website. On the other hand if I am programming in the process-driven mode, I can easily spend hours chiselling a piece of code to perfection. Each time I look at the code I will find some duplication, or some other kind of symmetry, and I will eliminate it. (Well-factored programs have low symmetry. A high symmetry suggests that either the programming language, or the programmers, are incapable of removing symmetry.) It is easy to see how this process-enjoying approach will make it harder to achieve specific goals. Now let's revisit our previous insights about goals and process. We know that goals are an illusion. Actions have consequences that ripple out in many different directions. The idea that an action will lead to the achievement of a goal, i.e. that we can arrange the universe like a row of neatly arranged dominos, and can expect a tap on the first domino to end in the toppling of the last, this idea is a mental illusion we use to give meaning to our lives. (Ends provide meaning.) As we act, we learn more about the universe, and as we learn more we revise our goals. The goal is a mirage that we are always approaching and that turns out to be something other than what we imagined when we get there. While we control our actions, we have little control over the fruits of our actions, except in extremely structured environments, or on extremely small scales, and in spaces where we understand the rules. Unfortunately, most domains are not like this. Even when they appear to be like this, they are not. So when goals are so illusory and such a self-deception, why do we all have them? And why is it that many people who succeed in different endeavors claim to have used goal-setting to get there? The reason is that without goals our lives become chaotic. Our actions do not leverage each other. They also do not leverage our actions from the past. Each action cancels the effects of the others. The actions interfere with each other destructively rather than constructively. Even after the realization that goals are an illusion, it is important to have goals, because they allow for leverage to occur between actions. This leverage allows an engagement with the universe which leads to new understanding. It's much easier to find passion in the process when we are engaged in a meaningless goal. And so perhaps the way to resolve this tension between the short-term enjoyment and long-term payoff, is to devise weak or meaningless goals, and then to find satisfaction in working to achieve them.