This is a distinction I’ve always found helpful.
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. Or you want to get rich, so you go to business school and send out your resume.
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. You already know the plan – you’re going to get books, maybe use a lab, do biology-ish things, and end up with a finished report which is twenty pages double-spaced. All you need to figure out is what you’re going to select as the nominal point of the activity. There’s something perversely backwards about this – most people would expect that the point of a research project is to research some topic in particular. But from your perspective the actual subject you’re researching is almost beside the point. The point is to have a twenty page double-spaced report on something.
School and business are obvious ways to end up with pushing goals, but not every pushing goal is about satisfying somebody else’s requirements. I remember in college some friends set up an Atheist Club. There was a Christian Club, and a Buddhist Club, so why shouldn’t the atheists get a club too? So they wrote the charter, they set a meeting time, and then we realized none of us knew what exactly the Atheist Club was supposed to do. The Christian Club prayed and did Bible study; the Buddhist club meditated, the atheist club…sat around and tried to brainstorm Atheist Club activities. Occasionally we came up with some, like watching movies relevant to atheism, or having speakers come in and talk about how creationism was really bad. But we weren’t doing this because we really wanted to watch movies relevant to atheism, or because we were interested in what speakers had to say about creationism. We were doing this because we’d started an Atheist Club and now we had to come up with a purpose for it.
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.
You may have noticed I don’t really like pushing goals. Part of it is an irrational intuition that they’re dishonest in some way that’s hard to explain. It usually ends up with me trying to figure out what to do my biology research project on, and I think “well, I can’t think of anything I really want to research, so maybe I should just do whatever is easiest”. But if I do whatever is easiest, I feel really bad, and worry maybe I have some kind of obligation to research something important that I care about. So I get my brain tangled up trying to figure out how much easiness I can get away with, then feeling bad for asking the question, then trying to come up with something important I honestly want to do, which doesn’t exist since I wasn’t doing a biology research project the month before my professor assigned it to me and so clearly I am only doing it to satisfy the requirement.
Another part of it is that it’s often a sign something has gone wrong somewhere. In the example of the Atheist Club, that thing might have been starting the club in the first place. But assuming that we genuinely want to start the club, then the presence of a pushing goal means we don’t understand why we wanted to start the club. If we wanted to start it because we wanted to hang out with other atheists, then that offers a blueprint for a solution to the problem – instead of planning all these movies and speakers, we should just hang out. If we did it because we thought it was important for atheism to be more visible on campus, then again, that offers a blueprint for a solution – spend our sessions trying to improve atheism’s campus visibility. If we just sit there saying “I guess we have an Atheist Club now, better think of something to do at meetings”, then it seems like something important hasn’t been fully examined.
The third part of it is that things done for push goals usually suck. Maybe this isn’t a human universal – my go-to example is Edgar Allen Poe deciding to write a creepy poem and coming up with The Raven from first principles – but it’s true for me. If I have to write a report on a topic I don’t care about, then even if I’m really trying to do a good job, it’s not going to be as good as something I actually want to write about. Sometimes I try to solve this by making lists of things I want to pull, then using them when the appropriate pushing situation comes up. For example, when I knew I would be assigned research projects and writing assignments on a regular basis, whenever I thought of something I wanted to research or write, I wrote it down, then consulted the list when I needed it. I have a similar list of interesting things to work into stories. This is one reason I’m not interested in journalism – I worry that if I have to produce specific articles on specific things within a time frame, they’ll probably suck.