Goals are for Losers

life   coding   🥚  


I needed to grow my skill set, and fast.

I had been working as a freelance software developer. At the time my now-husband and I traveled constantly, living nomadically out of one or two carry-on bags each. All my worldly possessions fit in my 40L backpack. Like a fine wine, I paired this lifestyle with an equally freedom-filled career. I worked on short contracts, hustled for clients, and generally had the time of my life.

Career-wise, I was about to hit a wall.

I was a capable software developer; but in an increasingly tech-literate world, capable software developers are a dime a dozen. It’s a great time to be a tech employer, and a highly competitive time to work in tech. If I was going to stand out in any way, I was going to have to do more than be capable. I needed to add both depth and breadth to my skill set, and to stay ahead of the curve I saw coming, I needed to do it on a shorter time scale than “years.”

To my great fortune, I had a good mentor. Among other advice I took, I did not set a goal to become a better software developer.

Goals are for losers.

Failing every day

Zig Zigler was a pioneer in his own right. His work inspired a new class of motivational speakers. I especially enjoy this quote:

For 24 years of my adult life, by choice, I weighed well over 200 pounds. I say “by choice” because I have never accidentally eaten anything.

Zigler’s Seven Steps of Goal Setting introduces important paradigms for making achievements in life. It helps you to enumerate goals, identify motivations and obstacles, and develop a plan with a deadline. It misses the mark in just one respect: implementation.

For some goals, enumerating the benefits may be enough motivation to get you up that hill of changing your behavior. Unfortunately, attempting to solve most challenges with positive motivation alone is a Sisyphean effort. Humans don’t change their behavior based purely on benefits – if we did, I venture more of us would be public speakers.

The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine, and we’re hard-wired through evolution to pay more attention to bad things. Before we had 5G-connected smartphones and could worry about how many Twitter followers our last tweet turned away, we were dealing with the pressing concern of whether that movement in the bushes was lunch or a creature that wanted us for lunch.

Tomes have been written on why this is the case, and the topic is far too complex to summarize here. For a deeper dive, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This quote sums up the point concisely:

The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce.

In the frame of goals, this inclination towards negativity is a baked-in disadvantage. Why? Say you set a goal to lose weight. Let’s pretend you want to lose ten pounds. You say to yourself, “I have a goal to lose ten pounds.” You go through Zig Zigler’s Seven Steps of Goal Setting. You list benefits, obstacles, learn about calories and exercise, join a healthy eating support group on Twitter, and plan to eat boiled chicken and broccoli until you hit your goal. What happens tomorrow? Do you wake up, having lost ten pounds?

No, of course not. Any goal worth setting isn’t, in all likelihood, going to be achieved in a day. Tomorrow you’ll exercise, eat your boiled chicken and broccoli, check in with your Twitter group, and go to bed. And all the while, your silly, wonderful, negatively-inclined brain is whispering to you, “I failed to achieve my goal today.”

The day after that, you’ll go on failing. Every day until the day you’ve lost ten pounds, you will have failed to meet your goal. I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds terrible. Why would anyone do that to themselves?

In my experience, only one thing changes human behavior with enough consistency for me to call it a reliable interface to our unreliable brain.

Winning every day

To become a better software developer, I created a system that resulted in the rapid growth of my skills and knowledge in the fields of computing and cybersecurity. It resulted in me writing one in-depth technical article on a topic that was new to me. Each week. For six months.

My system was simple. It was July. I decided I was going to make a small change to each week until the end of the year. On Sunday, I looked for a new technical topic that I was unfamiliar with. For at least an hour a day during the week following that, I researched and wrote about it. The next week, I posted my article to my website and two other technical communities I’m part of – whether or not I thought it was done. I was learning. In public.

A system is sustainable. I picked an hour a day of writing because for me, that was a sufficiently small task that I thought, oh sure, I can do that. Systems are highly individual; to be sustainable, it must be appealing to you and your lifestyle.

A system is a practice. Unlike a goal, you don’t need to “achieve” a system. There is no pass or fail grading. It’s a behavior so precise that you can boil it down to the simple fact of whether or not you do it. On Sunday, I either found a topic, or I didn’t. Every day, I either spent some time writing, or I didn’t. The next week, I either posted my article, or I didn’t. Usually, I did.

Instead of failing to meet a goal of building a better skill stack on day one, I spent the first Sunday with my new system as a winner. The next day, I wrote for an hour and won again. In fact, every day for the next six months, I won.

I produced 23 technical articles in 23 weeks. Plus an extra one, for Christmas. I got feedback from folks that helped me learn, or gave me new topics to write about. I got feedback from folks who said my articles helped them learn, too.

It’s hard to learn and write about two-dozen new technical topics and not improve the breadth and depth of your skill set; so, yes, I became a better software developer. As it turned out, my articles helped inspire my current employer to send me an email and ask if I’d like to interview for a position.

Though I’ve reduced the frequency of my published articles, my system is still in place. A few months after starting at my new company, I was promoted to their Director of Engineering.

I’m still winning.