Pushing And Pulling Goals

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.

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206 Responses to Pushing And Pulling Goals

  1. Alrenous says:

    If you’re trying to write a report you don’t care about, it means you don’t see how it serves your goals, but have also decided it’s necessary, which is a contradiction.

    Some solutions:

    Practicing empathy, vis a vis your report’s audience.

    As a means to butter up someone who you require the good opinion of.

    It’s not necessary, there’s no reason to care about it, and you shouldn’t write it.

    • Murphy says:

      I see you’ve never dealt with bureaucracies, large organizations, any education systems etc etc

      The world contains a lot of barriers to entry into things people actually want to do or be which are braindead boxticking. You can try ignoring it and if you’re amazing enough in other ways you might get a pass but the most likely outcome is that you won’t be able to get past the barriers to entry to get to where you really want to be.

      That doesn’t make it something you care about. You may know damned well that nobody is going to care much about your report and it’s sum contribution to the universe will be 6 minutes while someone leafs through it and ticks off points. That also doesn’t doesn’t make it something you can just not do.

    • wintermute92 says:

      I think you’re wrong to assert “don’t see how it serves your goals”. Better to say “see that the specifics of it don’t serve your goal”.

      The idea in the report example is that you have a goal, and know that writing a biology paper advances it. But the topic of that biology paper doesn’t matter to your goals at all. It’s a free variable – it needs a value, but what that value is doesn’t matter. So I might care plenty about satisfying a gatekeeper, and be very motivated to write a report that will satisfy the gatekeeper, but still not give a damn about what content goes in that report.

      In this sense, push goals are frustrating because they’re tasks that don’t proceed naturally from your goals. Pull goals are tasks that have intrinsic, logical connections to your goals. Even if you’re actually curing cancer, filling out tax-exemption paperwork for your grant will be boring because it’s only extrinsically connected to the work.

      • Alrenous says:

        I think you’re wrong to assert “don’t see how it serves your goals”. Better to say “see that the specifics of it don’t serve your goal”.

        It would never have occurred to me that those could be different things. Thinking about it, they are in fact not different.

        It’s a free variable – it needs a value, but what that value is doesn’t matter.

        There’s always a most efficacious choice and a most efficient choice.

  2. Pku says:

    I agree with the general point that pushing goals can be problematic, but they can also be better than the alternative. For example, someone whose goal is to become a medical researcher, then see what they can do, seems like they’ll do more than someone whose goal is to “cure cancer”. To take a personal example, I spent two years of grad school trying to solve specific problems my adviser gave me and got nowhere, but started actually solving interesting problems (and not just in the “get papers so I can graduate” sense, but in the “actually get good results” sense) once I switched my approach to “mess around in this field and see what comes up.”

    I think there may be a difference here between active and reactive roles – pull goals are better for active roles (like say the wright brothers trying to design an airplane, or someone writing a book), while push goals are better for reactive roles (say a doctor or a policeman, who train to be a vaguely doctor-y person in hopes that it helps them deal with the situation when it arises).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Interesting. This kind of gets to the heart of the problem, which is that I have a hard time defining the difference rigorously. It seems to me that somebody who really wants to become a doctor, who dreams of it and works really hard to make it happen, has “being a doctor” as a pull goal.

      But I agree that this is weird, in that compared to the goal of “treat disease”, “become a doctor” seems like a push goal, especially if you imagine someone eg trying to choose a medical specialty. Maybe the whole concept only makes sense defining goals relative to other goals?

      • Guy says:

        That’s sort of how I think of it. Push goals are really helpful in the context of having a lot of pull goals: “I want to do a whole bunch of different things, but there aren’t enough hours to do all of them; I really wish I had some structure to help pick one of them.”

        Similarly, and I think this is sort of what you were getting with the list thing, a (or some?) pull goal(s) is (are) really helpful if you have a big push goal: having a list of potential pull goals lets you stick one of them at the end of the path marked by the push goal, and motivates you to follow the path and accomplish the goal.

      • mrm says:

        I think the distinction can be made rigorous enough. If we equate ‘goals’ with ‘problems’ generally, a push goal is a problem of the sort “find the y such that y = f(x)”, while a pull goal is a problem of the sort “find the x such that y = f(x)”. This is more or less the difference between ‘proving’ and ‘computing’ as an activity.
        Of course this is all relative to whatever the individual’s situational utility function ‘f’ is.

        • me says:

          I’d be curious to hear what your idea of the difference between ‘proving’ and ‘computing’ is. I am not a computer scientist but am under the impression that the Curry-Howard Correspondence makes computing into a strict subset of proving

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I keep trying to champion the idea of “balance and tension”. I think it applies here is well.

      Push goals and pull goals need to be in balance with each other. Having a pull goal of “curing cancer” or “time travel” is a pull goal that is not in balance with structures that are available to support the pull goal.

      The phrase “getting out over your skis” might be useful to contemplate.

      • Guy says:

        Well said, though I have no idea what any of this has to do with skiing.

        • Nicholas says:

          It’s a turn of phrase meaning: “To set out a task, with either insufficient logistics or justification.” A man who says “Her eyes are so beautiful, I’ve decided to propose to her.” about a woman he just met, is out over his skis.
          A man who decides his first climb will be Kilimanjaro is also out over his skis, in a different domain.

          • Snodgrass says:

            I think Kilimanjaro *is* a reasonable first climb (in the way that Everest, or even Mont Blanc, isn’t); at least, I’ve signed up to climb it in February. I’ve done a fair amount of hiking, and some via-ferrata stuff in the Dolomites with an instructor who also did Kilimanjaro climbs and said the Dolomites were much harder work (though obviously much shorter) than Kili.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          From an origins perspective, it’s making a point about needing to keep your center of mass properly oriented over your skis. Somewhat forward is good. If you get too far forward, you lose control and crash.

  3. Julie K says:

    Funny, I would have reversed the “push” and “pull” labels (or maybe used different ones altogether).

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Agree, this seems backwards to me. You push something from behind — you have the means, but you don’t necessarily know and can’t necessarily see where you’re going; you don’t need to in order to push. You pull something from in front; you have to have some idea where you’re going in order to pull (but actually doing it is substantially harder than pushing).

      It’s pretty distracting, honestly. I keep trying to read the metaphor the way that makes sense to me…

      • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

        I have a slightly different intuition.

        When I have a nail that needs to be hammered, the future goal “pound in the nail” pulls me into the future. When I have a hammer and I’m looking for a nail, my “presently existing tool (the hammer)” pushes me into the future. In such a schema — my {ego, psyche, motivation} is the object being acted upon by an external influence (where the external influence is either the goal or my present situation).

        Weirdly though, push means the same thing to you and I. Hm…

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The last few people I talked to about this IRL also said this, but I thought they were just crazy. Since everyone except me seems to agree, I’ve reversed it in the article.

      • Thecommexokid says:

        Well that’s going to make a mess of the comments…

      • onyomi says:

        Personally, I don’t find either intuitive, as I don’t associate the motions of pushing and pulling with the achieving of goals, other than when I “push” myself to achieve something, which could be a goal of either sort.

        I’d suggest something like “instrumental” and “end” goals, which have the added benefit of hinting at the reason many feel “instrumental” goals are somehow inferior. An “instrumental” goal is a goal you only pursue for the sake of some “real” end goal. Like, the “instrumental” goal may be “write a 20-page paper with 5 citations,” but the “end” goal is “get a good grade,” which itself is probably an instrumental goal for the real “end” goal which, for most people, is usually “enjoy money, power, respect and the things that go with them.”

        Arguably everyone’s true end goal is “happiness,” but the question is whether you are doing x because it will make you happy or because it will allow you to do other things which make you happy–the difference between, “I run a business because serving customers brings me joy” and “I run a business because serving customers makes me money, which I use to buy sports cars, which bring me joy” (in real life there is often a mixture of both).

        This is where the traditional respect for the “amateur” artist comes from–even though the professional may actually be better because he spends more time, the idealized amateur, who does something for the love of the art, is considered more “authentic.”

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          I don’t find either one intuitive either – in fact I’ve already forgotten which one was which. From seeing them, my first reaction was to assume that they had something to do with approach and avoidance goals.

          I might use something like “vision” vs. “filling in” goals.

          • Alrenous says:

            want to achieve something

            Taking the low-status nature of push goals as canon definition, pull goals pursue intrinsic, natural desires, while push goals serve constructed, artificial ends.

            Often, a push goal produces a non-good, which nobody values, serving no possible end except to prove the producer can follow apparently-pointless orders. Pull goals (if constructively pursued) necessarily produce goods, either for the producer, or for trading to someone else for something the producer values.

      • rsaarelm says:

        The people with the opposite intuition (me included) might have been influenced by the Now Habit and its Pull Method. (link link)

      • Jack V says:

        … I was just about to say “they seem fine as they are”. So, uh, I guess that’s a vote that you did the right thing? 🙂

      • Fahundo says:

        I think the terminology most people use for pull goals is “goals”, and for push goals is “the dumb shit I have to put up with every day.”

      • Splotch says:

        An alternative might be to talk about “forward-chaining” and “back-chaining”

        • Lori says:

          Which is which? When I read about pull goals in the original post, the first thought that came to mind was “pushing a string,” which I guess is another vote in favor of the eventual switcheroo.

      • Rex Salisbury says:

        Another way of framing is intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Goals are often a means of motivating oneself, so naming the kind of goal it is can be misleading. You need to go a level deeper and describe the motivation.

      • fireant says:

        Wait why? … oooh, because a pushing goal is something that you want to push yourself (intrinsical motivation or something?), while the pulling goal is just pulling you in…? Intuitively, I think this is a more interesting distinction, but it does not feel equivalent to the interpretation given by [DES3264] below. More interestingly, however, is that I find it hard to say which of these models the text is actually referring to. Huh. I’ll have to think about this again next morning, when I am less tired.

      • taktoa says:

        My first thought was of eager/lazy evaluation in programming language theory (eager = push, lazy = pull), which is consistent with the current notation.

    • DES3264 says:

      I thought about myself as the object being pulled or pushed. In a pull-goal, I am being drawn by what lies ahead of me in the future, in a push goal I am being shoved by an unseen force behind me. This makes the revised version much clearer to me.

      • onyomi says:

        This makes it clear to me that neither version is clear, because they depend on idiosyncratic intuitions about metaphorical relationships.

        I again recommend “instrumental” and “end” goals, but if not that, I hope we come up with something else, since now I’ll never keep them straight (I could remember before the switcharound since I arbitrarily assigned one type of goal to the word “pull” in my head, and another to “push.” But now I will constantly wonder whether the person is using the old or new version, whether Scott has edited their post to reflect the change, etc. etc.)

  4. Jo says:

    But if you don’t feel like doing anything (i.e. your pushing goal isn’t displacing some more worthy pulling goal) then doing *something* can lead to a more organic inspiration. Also if you’ve never given a subject the time of day, an unexpected interest could develop. Must be part of the motivation for homework for kids?

  5. Sniffnoy says:

    Oh hey, Ozy wrote about this recently!

    Edit: Oh, whoops, not really the same thing, though related. Still maybe relevant?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hm, I don’t remember reading that, but when I look at it, it still doesn’t seem exactly like what I’m talking about.

      I don’t know if Ozy reads this, but I would be interested in their opinion on whether this is the same thing, and if it is I’d be happy to link to them.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      I just read it. I think it’s exactly the insight Scott was looking for. It unifies a lot of other comments. The central insight I took away from Ozy’s post was that “Push vs Pull” boils down to “Resource Acquisition vs Resource Expenditure”.

      It encodes the “Terminal Goals vs Instrumental Goals” dichotomy. Resource Expenditure is when you spend resources on something you want. This makes the object of expenditure (e.g. ice cream) a Terminal Goal. Resource Acquisition is when you acquire {resources, capital} (e.g. skills to write a thesis) so that you may {spend, leverage} them towards something you might want in the future. This makes the object of acquisition an Instrumental Goal.

      It encodes the “Internal Motivation vs External Motivation” dichotomy. The object of expenditure is often intrinsically rewarding. The object of acquisition often feels unnecessary because the reward is delayed.

      It encodes the Go example. Any particular match’s future board state is highly uncertain. The best strategy is to optimize inputs. I.e. by maintaining a strong board position, you {increase, preserve} your endgame opportunities.

      It explains why push goals are associated with career growth and business. Because career growth is about acquisition of capital and business is about acquisition of money. Consumers balance the dichotomy by spending money on things they like. Businesses only exist because they’re instrumental in satisfying customers’ terminal goals.

      The wikipedia article on Effectuation gives me the impression that the essence of entrepreneurship is about maximizing the efficiency of the resources you actually have (e.g. lemons) and exploring various opportunities to squeeze more out of them (e.g. lemonade), rather than pursuing some predefined goal (e.g. you passion). Which sounds reminiscent of Comparative Advantage.

  6. Julie K says:

    When I was in high school, we had to write reports with footnotes, so I put in footnotes, but it wasn’t until years later that I understood that footnotes actually serve a purpose – namely that people might disagree about the correct answer, so you should support your preferred answer with sources, and some sources are better than others.
    I didn’t like writing reports.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This reminds me of my high school bibliographies, where I would write the report, then spend a couple of extra minutes looking up sources I could cite and make a bibliography out of.

      • Agronomous says:

        If I found myself short of references, I just made them up. After a while, I started seeing how obviously fake I could make them. My favorite footnote was to “Why My Brain Hurts,” by A. R. Gumby. That paper actually won a prize in college; if anybody noticed the reference, they never let on.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Yeah, I did a similar thing in high school; I had to turn in both a rough draft and a final paper, so I wrote the final paper first and introduced errors into it to produce the rough draft.

      • hlynkacg says:

        I’m glad I wasn’t the only one.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I had to purposefully make mistakes to show I had a rough draft. It’s tough to misspell words that you can spell correctly with pencil and paper.

  7. Sniffnoy says:

    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.

    The third part of it is that things done for pull 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 push, then using them when the appropriate pulling 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.

    This is something that came up on LW a bit, IIRC. You don’t write a book by trying to write a book; you write a book by trying to write a specific book. You don’t become great by trying to do great things; you become great by doing particular things that are great. Etc., etc…

    • Scott Alexander says:

      See also the part in HPMOR about having ambition, which I thought was cute.

      • Phil says:

        googling “HPMOR about having ambition” gets me:


        is that the chapter you’re referencing?

        • Vaniver says:

          Yes, probably this bit (and what follows):

          And I suspect you will not be among them, Miss Davis; for although you are ambitious, you have no ambition.”

          “That’s not true! ” said Tracey indignantly. “And what’s it mean?”

          Professor Quirrell straightened from where he had been leaning against the wall. “You were Sorted into Slytherin, Miss Davis, and I expect that you will grasp at any opportunity for advancement which falls into your hands. But there is no great ambition that you are driven to accomplish, and you will not make your opportunities. At best you will grasp your way upward into Minister of Magic, or some other high position of unimportance, never breaking the bounds of your existence.”

          • zensunni couch potato says:

            It’s the difference between wanting to do X, and wanting the things that go with having done X.

    • Acedia says:

      You don’t become great by trying to do great things; you become great by doing particular things that are great.

      This reminded me of something Robert Oppenheimer wrote in a letter to his brother:

      “Everyone wants rather to be pleasing to women and that desire is not altogether, though it is very largely, a manifestation of vanity. But one cannot aim to be pleasing to women any more than one can aim to have taste, or beauty of expression, or happiness; for these things are not specific aims which one may learn to attain; they are descriptions of the adequacy of one’s living. To try to be happy is to try to build a machine with no other specification than that it shall run noiselessly.”

      • Hanfeizi says:

        When one contemplates the literal machines that Dr. Oppenheimer built, this quote quickly goes from “meaningful” to “grimly hilarious”.

  8. Daniel says:

    The sad thing is (and I don’t think Scott realizes), is that for many people, they only have pushing goals.

    • onyomi says:

      I think many of the instrumental goals largely exist because of social conventions which make stating, or, in some cases, even imagining certain end goals unacceptable or pointless.

      Like, what if only 10% of the population is good enough at something which they inherently love doing to make a living off it? The remaining 90% are left doing something they don’t really want to do so they can do what they really want to do, which is mostly sleep, eat, watch tv, and have sex. And yes, as hard as it may be to imagine for us over-achievers, there are many people who have no particular interest in say, becoming a violin virtuoso just for its own sake (and even us overachievers probably have to consider: “how much do I do x because I really love x, and how much do I do it, say, because I like being the sort of person who does x?”).

      But it feels weird to start the “let’s hang out with other atheists because we’re kind of lonely and want to hang out with like-minded people club.” It might also, conversely, be weird to start the “we think it would be good if more people on campus were atheists proselytizing club.” So you just start the “campus atheists,” which is the existing mold, and struggle to achieve your end goals within that framework.

      • Adrian says:

        Just a general piece of advice: It’s usually a bad idea to call yourself an “overachiever” unironically. In fact, saying “us overachievers” twice in a row comes across as extremely arrogant, and this rhetoric distracts from your actual arguments.

        • Phil says:

          ” this rhetoric distracts from your actual arguments”

          no it doesn’t


          I think this response makes his case

          too many people don’t pursue any end goals because they’re more concerned about not ‘com(ing) across as extremely arrogant’, than they are about not being able to pursue their end goals

          • Adrian says:

            Coming across as arrogant will hinder you in achieving your goals, because it alienates other people. I’m aware that some of us overachievers like to think that we just have to build a really great product/write down some really clever thoughts/devise some really insightful scientific theory, and people will recognize the genius that we are.

            Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. At some point, we’ll have to interact with other people and convince them of our product/ideas/theories, and this works a lot better if we don’t directly tell them how awesome we think we are.

            Besides, being arrogant is not the same as being confident, the latter of which is what helps you achieve your goals, while the former is what will cause you to misjudge your abilities and thus fail.

          • Lumifer says:

            Arrogance is situationally useful because it can help to cut through crap and scare off incompetent meddlers : -D

            Of course I’m talking about “true” arrogance which always comes paired with competence.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Arrogance is generally instrumentally irrational, something EY either never learned, or knows but can’t seem to put into practice.

            I think LW diaspora’s attitude about the value/worth of arrogance is one of those unfortunate things it inherited from EY.

          • Luke the CIA Stooge says:

            Compared to not wanting to pursue/admit your goal for seeming arrogant, the cost of being arrogant is remarkably small: having a slightly harder time with people while achieving your goal.

            There seems to be a reoccurring problem where we advise and correct people not for the stated goal of improving their outcomes but for the social goal of making them convenient and ignore-able. If your having trouble with people you can always make yourself more agreeable, if you’ve conditioned yourself to not try at life because “what would others think?” then your life is meaningless and you won’t come back from it.

            If there was ever a piece of advice i’d give a wide-eyed innocent it would be this: “Be an Asshole”

          • Phil says:

            @Luke the CIA Stooge

            Well said,

            Better than I was able to say it

          • Adrian says:

            @Luke the CIA Stooge:

            Compared to not wanting to pursue/admit your goal for seeming arrogant, the cost of being arrogant is remarkably small: having a slightly harder time with people while achieving your goal.

            That is a false dichotomy: It is very well possible to pursue even lofty goals without seeming arrogant. Depending on the goal, one might seem megalomaniac, but not arrogant.

        • onyomi says:

          It was meant self-deprecatingly because I, and I guess, probably many SSC commenters, live in a bubble where it is seen as normal to be pursuing all kinds of “passion” projects like contributing to the end of the guinea worm and learning to brew your own mead. Living in such a bubble it is easy to forget that most people don’t actually do this kind of thing. Which is not to say they don’t have hobbies, but they may not have a lot of goals related to those hobbies.

          • zolstein says:

            learning to brew your own mead.

            Just yesterday I received my first shipment of honey. That was really strange to read.

        • Adrian says:

          It doesn’t matter whether you are actually an overachiever – what counts in human interactions is how you come across. If you read my post, you’ll notice that I didn’t dispute onyomi’s achievements or abilities.

          That said, reading someone describe themselves as “overachiever” makes me doubt that claim, because most successful people typically do not speak of themselves in that way (since their actions and success tend to speak for them).

        • onyomi says:


          You are misreading my intended tone. In my experience, the word “overachiever” (as indicated by the word “over,” which implies excess) is not usually used as a way to brag about achievements. Rather, it can be used disparagingly to refer to e. g. the grade-grubbing nerd who does all the extracurriculars, or self-deprecatingly (though arguably it may sometimes fall into “humble brag”) to profess one’s own nerdiness. It isn’t meant to be any sort of claim about actual achievements; it just indicates a certain perfectionist personality type which may or may not go along with actually achieving anything.

          Donald Trump, not known for his humility, for example, doesn’t call himself an “overachiever.” He calls himself an achiever. (That said, the whole “lack of humility” thing seems to be working out pretty well for him…)

        • Guy says:

          Claiming to be an overachiever can come across as a kind of humblebrag, though: “What do I do with all these successes?”

          More standard self-deprecation focuses on excessive effort, rather than excessive success (as, in fact, your explanation of your meaning does).

        • Cord Shirt says:


          I wrote this reply to Adrian before reading on and seeing your explanation:

          No it doesn’t, it sounds like self-deprecating humor. It points out both “our” difference from Upstanding Normal Folks (it is of course *bad* to be different from those, so a self-insult), and also the “fact” that this difference comes not from actual ability (god forbid!), but rather just from “overachieving” (the opposite of underachieving, IOW, not commensurate with ability).

          It’s basically calling “us” “silly neurotic workaholics who should Just Stop Already, amirite?”

          Cultural difference maybe, but just saying.

          Now I’m even more convinced it’s a cultural difference, since I took away the intended meaning and Adrian took away a completely different meaning.

        • Adrian says:


          You are misreading my intended tone.

          I believe you. However, several different people from different social circles have told me that I come across as very arrogant, and that they don’t like this side of me. This always baffled me, because I never intended to sound arrogant, nor would I have guessed that I sounded that way. I was lucky insofar that my wife quickly saw through my behavior early on, or else we wouldn’t be together now, but I can only imagine that I pushed off a lot of people.

          I could have said “They are all wrong, I don’t sound arrogant”, but sometimes other people are actually right even if I disagree, so today I’m reflecting on how I appear to others, and work on myself.

          Please note that I don’t want to infer your personality from that one post of your’s, and you can make of all this what you want. Like I said in my original post, it’s just some piece of advice.

        • Tracy W says:

          Just a general piece of advice: It’s usually a bad idea to call yourself an “overachiever” unironically.

          But does it in this case?

          In fact, saying “us overachievers” twice in a row comes across as extremely arrogant, and this rhetoric distracts from your actual arguments.

          Just a word of advice. Stating an opinion with utter confidence without stating any supporting evidence, let alone caveats, tends to come across as extremely arrogant, at least to me.

          Although to give you your due, no one could fairly accuse your use of rhetoric here of distracting from your actual arguments.

      • PoignardAzur says:

        I’m personally distrustful of any reasoning that boils down to “most people except me and my ingroup are inherently wrong and they can’t realize it”, because it’s really easy to build false but compelling narratives around that theme.

        So I’m not convinced by Daniel or onyomi’s point that most people only have pushing goals and no terminal goals to be pushed (other than undignified-sounding hedonism like watching TV or having sex). For one thing, it’s probably really hard to observe and prove that theory one way or another.

        And the obvious alternate hypothesis is that most people are like me and want [A] to make money and resources as a goal to push [B] sleep/eat/watch TV/have sex/take drugs/play video games/debate on the internet/read xkcd/hang out with friends/give to my favorite charity/talk politics with my crush/help fix the economy (somehow)/write something meaningful/all of the above, at the same time.

        My point being, just because you have a lot of pushing goals or a really boring pushing goal like “make money however you can” doesn’t mean you have no dreams or aren’t properly achieving them, and I see nothing that would indicate that most people fall into that category.

  9. MikeKaster says:

    What if you don’t have any push goals, aside from the generic ones most people have (like earning more)? Would you pull some goals into being for the sake of having goals?

    There are social benefits to having push goals/being interesting, eg in dating or general socializing. Also, depending on your career, pursuing personal projects are economically important. Should you pull out ideas for personal projects?

    Also, to some extent, creating is more fun than consuming in the long term. Someone can know that and still not have anything they especially want to create. So should they just pull until they can push?

    • MikeKaster says:

      Ah, pushing & pulling’s meanings were swapped in the original post since I posted this. FWIW, the original terminology made sense to me because you “pull” an artificial goal out of nowhere and “push” for something you really want.

  10. Ilyushechka says:

    One of the highest-rated comments on MathOverFlow was stimulated by a student-mathematician who (in essence) wanted to get busy “pushing”. This poster was repelled by category theory, which the poster perceived as a “pulling” mode of cognition.

    Keerthi Madapusi Pera wrote the following high-rated response, which stimulated further comments:

    The point of category theory is to clear out the fluff, so that you can see what the real nitty gritty low level’ stuff is.

    In any case, it’s a bad idea to look for a field based on points of repulsion rather than points of attraction: That is, ask yourself “What do I most want to work on?”, not “How can I avoid category theory?”

    Applying Pera’s advice more broadly, aren’t atheists / rationalists / conservatives well-advised to inquire of themselves “What goals do I and my community most want to work toward?”, rather than “How can I avoid religious / empathic / progressive modes of cognition?”

    The point being that, depending upon circumstances, history demonstrates with multiple examples that the embrace of religious / empathic / progressive modes of cognition, developed assiduously and applied sympathetically, can help “clear out the fluff” … by emphasizing modes of cognition (both mathematical and moral) that are grounded in considerations of universality and naturality.

    This point is emphasized with particular clarity in the comedic elements of works that extend from Mark Twain to Lewis Carroll to Stanley Kubrick to Monty Python to Patrick O’Brian to David Foster Wallace to Annie Proulx.

    • Ilyushechka says:

      After all the push ↔ pull swapping, it appears that “push” and “pull” have settled down to:

      Push (?)  We have good goals and are looking for good tools.
      Pull (?)  We have good tools and are looking for good goals.

      The ideal state, obviously, unites good goals with good tools.

      Example  We’ve got a raft (the good tool) and we’re working to deliver our friend Jim to a free state (the good goal). Now we’re in Paradise (as near as the human condition allows):

      Everything smiling in the sun
      and the songbirds just going it!

      It’s all good — both literally and literarily — until we drift by Cairo in the night. Then our tools don’t look so good and our goals don’t look so close. And doesn’t this happen all too commonly, all too comically, and all too tragically?

      Most folks are fortunate enough to have at at least some days in their lives in which “everything is smiling in the sun and the songbirds are just going it!” (either occupationally or socially, hopefully both).

      At bleak times in our lives, when such days never come to us, we seek therapy and/or medication and/or new friends and new partners … or else we board a raft! 🙂

  11. Ransom says:

    This plagues my travel ambitions. I want to have gone places, but I don’t care to come up with something to do in Turkey or Japan or wherever.

    • Nonnamous says:

      Buy a Lonely Planet guide and it will have step by step programs where to go and what to see each day.

    • Lumifer says:

      So why do you want to “have gone places”? If nothing specifically attracts you in some place, why go there?

    • Rock Lobster says:

      I’ve had a similar thought. I sometimes use the more trivial example of Chicago. I’ve never been there, and I’d love to go, but I’ve never had a conference or job interview there, and I don’t have any friends there who need visiting. It’s not the type of place I would go to as a vacation destination, so it just remains unvisited.

      You may remember when Charlie Sheen in Wall Street says that he wants to make a bunch of money so he can just ride his bike across China. I suspect that would get old very fast. There’s just no end goal, and so like Buridan’s donkey, what will he do when he has no reason to stay or go in this or that little village in China?

      A partial solution, I’m finding, is to try to be ruthlessly honest about what exactly you’re interested in in different places. For example, I went to the UK a couple years back. You would think that London would be the most attractive tourist destination in the UK, but I actually found that I didn’t like it. (Don’t get me wrong, London is an absolutely fine city, I just already live in NY and I felt like London was basically a NY/DC hybrid). I had the most fun when I got away from London and hit up Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish highlands. So now when I think about travel, I try to be introspective about what I will actually enjoy, and what I would just be seeing to check it off on a list. For me, I like countryside and mountains, and not so much cities. I already live and work on a giant slab of concrete with great ethnic restaurants and blah blah blah, what’s the appeal of going to some other guy’s slab of concrete, unless there’s something specific I want to see there? BUT, I should add, when I went to Irelans with some friends a while back, I had a great time in Dublin because we could all enjoy the festive bar scene together. I’ll just allow that contradiction to stand.

      Sorry this comment got rather long and even now I’m not sure I’ve quite expressed myself as I would have liked to.

      • Ilyushechka says:

        You may remember when Charlie Sheen in Wall Street says that he wants to make a bunch of money so he can just ride his bike across China. I suspect that would get old very fast.

        For some folks, yes. For other folks, no. As my better half avers: attitude is everything.

        What P. G. Wodehouse’ characters call “the big broad flexible outlook” definitely helps too! 🙂

      • Ilyushechka says:

        You may remember when Charlie Sheen in Wall Street says that he wants to make a bunch of money so he can just ride his bike across China. I suspect that would get old very fast.

        For some folks, yes. For other folks, no. As my better half avers: attitude is everything.

        What P. G. Wodehouse’ characters call “the big broad flexible outlook” definitely helps too! 🙂

  12. SDr says:

    For the opposing view, here’s effectuation from entrepreneurship:
    | Experienced entrepreneurs seem to be more likely to use “effectual reasoning,” wherein they start with a given set of means—their personal strengths and the resources they already have at hand—rather than a predetermined goal, and then allow opportunities to emerge to which they can react. In contrast, non-entrepreneurial executives tend to use causal reasoning, in which they set a goal and then seek the best ways to achieve it. For more details, see Sarasvathy (2008).

    | [..]In the effectual model, the decision-maker does not start with a predetermined effect or a predefined market. Instead he or she begins by identifying a set of possible means as given (who the decision-maker is, what he/she knows and whom he/she knows), and then proceeds to create and choose among several possible effects in a contingent manner, continutally fabricating and taking advantage of new opportunities. The evidence shows that effectuation is intrinsically path-dependent – especially stakeholder-dependent, rather than goal-driven or resource-dependent.

    This is useful under the effectual Problem Space:
    1. Knightian uncertainty – it is impossible to calculate probabilities for future consequences.
    2. Goal ambiguity – preferences are neither given nor well ordered.
    3. Isotropy – it is not clear what elements of the environment to pay attention to and what to ignore.

    (from: Effectuation: Elements of entrepreneurial expertise)

    And here’s one from Academia:
    | This final grad school adventure would not have been possible without me actively seizing opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have been given. If Robert hadn’t told me about the San Jose work- shop two years ago, if I hadn’t submitted and presented my IncPy paper there, if Margo hadn’t liked my paper and introduced me to Elaine, if I hadn’t kept in touch with Elaine, if I hadn’t spontaneously said hello to Margo again at last summer’s conference where I pre- sented CDE, if she didn’t send me a gracious follow-up email, and if I didn’t take a risk with my unusual counterproposal to her, then I would have still been back at Stanford struggling to find one last project and thesis committee member. (source: http://www.pgbovine.net/PhD-memoir/pguo-PhD-grind.pdf )

    • 27chaos says:

      To me, pull thinking is easier and more desirable when it exists, but push thinking seems like a useful tool, and I wish I enjoyed it more and was better at it. I think the distinction between the two might not be “real”, though. Most goals involve subgoals of the opposite type, or are themselves subgoals to some goals of the opposite type.

  13. Kaathewise says:

    That is actually weird.
    To me the “pull” problem is sounding like “become a doctor to help this particular patient” or “become a software engineer to create this particular project/startup/etc.”
    While the “push” problem is sounding like “become a [whoever] because you find that interesting in some sense and you think you might be good at it, and then look at the subproblems that life presents to you and repeatedly choose from them to your liking”.

    I am deliberately exaggerating, but it seems more natural to find and plan for the area that you want to be working in generally, and then look at the particular and the most interesting projects in that area; instead of knowing what exact problem you will be solving 10 years ahead.

    For me personally, both when I was doing research in Maths and when I was working as a software engineer the particular topic/project itself almost never defined my interest in it. (The only thing that was important about it was the amount of expertise that I had in it.) What really defined my interest was the richness and complexity of the challenge, which is orthogonal to the subject itself.

    In short, it appears to me that with the “push” approach you end up enjoying the everyday process of what you are doing and with the “pull” approach you end up aiming for some higher goal you may never reach and that you might even reconsider in several years, which is painful.

  14. I feel like you just articulated the reason why my job search feels like such a halfhearted mess. I know that I ought to “get a job” but I have no idea what I actually want to do. Besides maybe live near rationalists, but I don’t have the tech background to get a job in the Bay Area that will pay enough that I’m not sleeping on the streets.

    • Niall says:

      Ha this sounds extremely familiar to where I was ~10 years ago. Just graduated with a maths degree, could apply for a huge range of finance/science jobs but couldn’t say exactly this is what I want to do. So got interviews but really difficult to answer the question about why do I want to work for them if the real answer is a half shrug and something mathy would be nice.

      I ended up as an accountant, and this is still a problem actually. Like just give me some budgets and some datasets and some projections and I’m in my element, but the type of company I work for is almost irrelevant. So it’s difficult to sell myself as someone who wants to work for your company.

      • Wency says:

        I think most people in most places ask that question because they feel obligated to, but they all know in their heart of hearts that they’re at that company because the work is OK, it was the best opportunity available to them at the relevant time, and they haven’t yet found a better opportunity at another company.

        The only places this isn’t necessarily true is at a company that has a cult of cool surrounding it, certain nonprofits/universities, and when you’re speaking to a company’s owner/founder.

        So the question is mostly a test of your ability to come up with and tell a pleasant white lie.

        For the record, I now own my own company, and I only ever lied when asked “Why do you enjoy working here?” or “Why do you want to work here?” prior to this.

      • Loquat says:

        Sounds like me, too – I have a math-related degree, graduated with no idea what I wanted to do, and wound up in health insurance essentially because I got a temp job in the field and turned out to be reasonably good at it.

  15. Roughly, you contrast looking for a profitable scam vs. following your obsessions. Former, if sustained as a system (with curiosity + intelligence) is probably more financially rewarding on average*. Latter probably takes less willpower, as you observe. Would say it’s down to high-T (risk-taking/ambition) vs. flow.

    * guessing. it’s a continuum anyway, and probably depends on your gifts+ethics.

  16. Aegeus says:

    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.

    I’m someone who hangs out on /r/writingprompts a lot – which means I write a lot, but I generally don’t pick what I’m writing about – so I think I can take a stab at this. First, writing is fun, in and of itself. I’m going to enjoy writing whether I write a noir mystery or a fantasy adventure. So having a goal of “Be a writer” makes sense, because I don’t particularly care what the topic is. I just need something to spark my creativity.

    Second, it’s much easier for me to expand on ideas than to generate them ex nihilo. That first idea can be chosen from anywhere within the possibility space – it could be hobbits, it could be the ennui of the working class, and you can’t decide which. Choice paralysis. But if someone prompts you, “Write something about hobbits,” then your choices are constrained to something manageable. You can focus on concrete questions like “What does a hobbit-hole look like?” or “What would happen if 12 dwarves and a wizard showed up on a hobbit’s doorstep?” and the story starts to flow naturally.

    Writing a story really doesn’t make sense as a “pulling” goal to me, because you don’t start a novel knowing what the final product will look like (and if you did know that, you wouldn’t have to come up with a plan, you could just write the thing). You want to write a novel about hobbits, but you don’t yet know that it’s going to involve a magic ring and dwarves and a dragon under a mountain. It makes more sense as “pushing” – you start with an idea, then you use various techniques to expand that idea into a plan (Five-act structure, snowflake model, scene-sequel, etc), and then you execute the plan and a novel comes out, and if you planned it well and you’re good at the technical bits, it’ll be a novel that people want to read.

    I think writing is a special case because there are so many different ways to satisfy your goal. If you follow the “write a research paper” plan, then it matters a whole lot what your target is, because one of your research topics might cure cancer and the other might not. If you follow the “write a novel” plan, then it doesn’t matter whether your target is a paranormal romance or a fantasy adventure, because they’re both going to be entertaining.

    EDIT: Push and pull got swapped in the OP, so I swapped to match.

    • Pku says:

      This reminds me of an piece I saw by Neil Gaiman, where he said he gets annoyed when people as him where he gets his ideas (or conversely, tell him about cool ideas they have), because coming up with ideas is the easy part; the hard part is actually turning an idea into a book. In the pull/push goal dichotomy, this seems to say that the main part is just “being a writer”, not writing at a specific goal.

      This issue also appears for me when playing Go: a mistake amateurs (and me on my bad days) often make is to decide which territory they want, and go get it. As they advance, they learn that “make moves that put you in a good position”, or just “be a good player/make moves that look like what a pro would do” is generally a much better strategy. (I suspect this is also why Go is so hard for computers).

      • Mary says:

        Aspiring writers are warned about souls who come up to them with an offer to tell them their cool idea — and split the proceeds when the writer has written it.

        The usual advice is to run away screaming.

    • Guy says:

      I think there is something appealing in the idea of “writing something that you want to read”, which is something I’ve occasionally done with varying success. So if I don’t like a lot of the short stories people tell me to read, maybe I’ll write one that appeals to my tastes. This makes it a lot easier for me to build the structure of the story, which is something that I have trouble with. That said, I absolutely understand what you mean about preferring to expand rather than come up with ideas ex nihilo.

    • Mary says:

      Well, there can be constraints. If you set out to write a sequel.

      Or worse, a prequel. Prequels are boxed in all sorts of ways, especially if they write to occur shortly before the original book.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      you don’t start a novel knowing what the final product will look like

      IIRC, J.K. Rowling constructed the ending and the origin story first, then filled in the middle details.

      Also, I think we have different intuitions of what push and pull mean. I can’t put my finger on it though. FWIW, my mind classifies both the Rowling example and the Tolkien example as pull goals (intrinsic motivation). To me, a push goal is looks more like the LOTR trilogy: an extraneous sequel.

      There’s a phenomenon where someone writes something spontaneous and cohesive. And it’s really good. So the audience wants more. So the author writes a sequel to satisfy demand, but it’s not as cohesive and kinda sucks. The original feels like it was pulled, while the latter feels pushed.

  17. Jeffrey Eldred says:

    I like this notion.

    There are definitely circumstances when I think pushing goals is a very good thing to do. When you trust a larger system to identify what is needed and you are in a position to become what that system needs (what you are pushed to).

    So for example I am a physicist, and I would say I have a healthy mixture of pull and push research topics. My pull research topics are my own original ideas, that may or may not pan out but may be worth pursuing. But I also think its important to have push research goals because that means being a team player. Physics, these days, is mostly advanced through large collaborative projects that require many physicists with different skills. If a project is missing personnel with critical skills, the whole project may suffer. So I pride myself on being open-minded enough to go where I may be needed, because that will ultimately serve Physics the best. I know of many cases in which physicists insist on only doing the kinds of physics jobs that they like to do, and is often very selfish because it can result in duplicate or irrelevant efforts.

    The flip-side of push goals is that when physicists are only concerned about being an effective part of the collaboration, the collaboration can lose its sense of purpose. There is a potential for boondogglery, where a group of people are happy to collect a check for their work, happy to vouch for each other, and they don’t care if its amounts to something*. So the key ingredient is that you have to be able to verify that the goals for the larger projects are generated in a reasonable way. And so I do verify the project I join is worthy even as I am open-minded about which project might need me and what they might need me to do. And when I climb the ranks, I will one day be in the position to help determine what the projects are and why.

    Joining the military is another obvious example of a push framework that comes to mind. A new recruit needs to know that they believe in the larger mission, but the military will actual determines how each new recruit will be used.

    *For the record – I’ve not observed any cases where physicists have conspired to engage in a complete exercise in boondogglery, only physics projects that I thought were slightly overrated and overshadowing a more worthy but less connected project.

  18. Richard says:

    I’m not sure about either type of goal really, is there such a thing as a no-goal?

    Like when you think “brewing beer sounds really fun, let’s brew some beer”, then after a while you get a series of problems like “what do we do with all this beer?” and after solving those problems, you suddenly find yourself owning a fairly successful microbrewery.

    The goal has just been “Do things that are fun” (which is pretty basic as goals go) and every actual outcome is (or at least feels to be) totally coincidental. This describes the entirety of my existence and I think I like it.

    • Kaathewise says:

      You’ve expressed much more concise that what I’ve spent 4 paragraphs on.

  19. Outis says:

    I think these are more commonly called specific and generic goals. You have the generic goal of writing a paper, but not the specific goal of writing a paper about something in particular. You have the generic goal of having an atheism club, but not the specific goal of doing a particular thing at your atheist club. But putting something into practice requires filling in the specifics, which can be difficult.

  20. DensityDuck says:

    Lifting weights is a pushing goal, in the most literal sense. All you’re doing is pushing weights up in the air.

    “But wait, I’m not just doing that for the sake of pushing weights up into the air! I’m doing it to maintain or improve my state of physical condition!”

    Well. Looks like it’s a pulling goal after all, just so long as we word it correctly.

    The goal of pushing goals is not the goal but the pushing. Undergraduate research projects are seldom expected to contribute much to the field in themselves; what they do contribute is a person who’s had experience of writing a research paper. When that person decides to do it for real they’ll have some idea of how to go about it.

    • Randy M says:

      Surprised it took this long in the comments to be said, but I think this is often the distinction. In push goals, the real goal is some change in *you*, whereas in pull goal, the goal is some external object.
      The pull goal of “I want to poach eggs” mean there is a specific thing you want to have. Even if that thing is vaguely defined, it is an external motivation. “I want to cook something” is pull if the motivations is the external object of food.
      The push goal of “I want to learn how to cook. What should I make?” is a push goal because the goal is to become a better cook. Presumably because there is some reason down the line cooking well will help you in tangible ways, but for the moment the only results of interest is a “level up.”

      The less motivating push goals are those where we aren’t sure that the change we are making in us via the project will actually matter at any point, but we are doing it to meet some requirement an authority or trusted adviser suggested.

      • Psmith says:

        Just so. I think a bunch of people are incorrectly conflating “push” and “pull” with external and internal motivation (insofar as the latter is even a meaningful distinction.). One can want to be the type of person who does research for “internal” reasons, or want to find a cancer cure for “external” ones.

    • Push? Do you even deadlift bro?

  21. Kaathewise says:

    Oh, and I have just realized that you are mixing two problems here:

    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.

    The real problem here is not that the student first wants to write a paper and then looks for a subject. The problem is that ze might not want to write that paper, but has to. If the student started with “well, I want to write a paper about something in biology because it is a particular skill that is useful, and I am also wondering what it takes”, and then thought of a subject, that might sound a bit strange, but the sequence is perfectly fine.

  22. whatnoloan says:

    This reminds me of Elon Musk’s school, which you could think of as based on pull goals.

  23. Thursday says:

    RE the writing thing

    Most really good creative writers seem to like writing or storytelling or fiddling with words for its own sake. It’s writers who have a message to get across or a subject matter to discuss who rarely make good art.

    This makes sense as a good writer does have to have an interest in technique. But it does mean that good creative writers are going to be motivated in a different way than most people.

    • Mary says:

      Style is the Rocket

      I also recommend the entire essay collection published under that title.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        I think that “Style is the Rocket” is correct, but it’s beating a horse that died about twenty years ago.

        Back in the ’90s, David Foster Wallace and some other literary writers of his generation pioneered a movement called the “New Sincerity.” Basically, it called for an end to the total irony, detachment, and focus on form over content which characterized most modern and postmodern writing, and a renewed focus on characterization, emotions, and narrative. The “New Sincerity” writers still used a lot of modernist and postmodern stylistic techniques, but they subordinated them to the demands of the narrative.

        Wallace and co definitively won their struggle pretty quickly. Almost all of the Pulitzer-winning novels from Jhunpa Lahiri’s “The Interpreter of Maladies” in 2000 onward, and most of the Man Booker winners from JM Cooetze’s “Disgrace” onward are much more in the New Sincerity mold than they are in the James Joyce or Annie Proulx mold.

  24. This could perhaps be better expressed as internal vs external goals. The person who becomes a doctor because they are passionate about curing cancer is internally motivated. The person who becomes a doctor because their parents told them to is externally motivated. The cancer-curer will only be interested in specific sub-fields and be willing to make substantial sacrifices in pursuit of their goal. The family-pleaser is likely to only care about sub-fields insofar as they make their family happy and provide a pleasant life.

    Students generally write papers because they are being forced to (for a mild definition of forced.) They don’t want to write a paper, but they have to in order to get a good grade, pass the class, get a degree, get a job, etc.

    If you happen to like the subject, you may be able to combine motivations–say, taking advantage of an assignment by writing on a subject you’ve been interested in for a while.

    • Kaathewise says:

      I think the pull/push terminology creates confusion by mixing two better-defined dichotomies: internal vs. external and close vs. far-fetched goals.

      UPD or even three, also with concrete/abstract goals.

      • InferentialDistance says:

        And I think push/pull is excellent metaphor because it maps to push/pull in phsyics where pushing is harder because any errors get exacerbated by Newton’s third law, whereas pulling corrects for them by the same mechanism.

        • onyomi says:

          So it’s intuitive for people who know physics…

          • InferentialDistance says:

            Yes, which since we all live in physical reality should be EVERY SINGLE LAST PERSON*.

            [*] Certain people with extreme disability may not be able to move through physical reality to a sufficient degree to gain this intuitive understanding of pushing and pulling. BUT THE REST OF YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE!

        • 27chaos says:

          Never knew this consequence of the law, thanks!

          • InferentialDistance says:

            It might not exactly follow from the third law, I think I’m accidentally eliding between that and inertial properties and normal-forces because they’re all related (i.e. when you want to predict what happens when you push or pull something you need to know the mass of the objects, the vectors of force, the angles of contact, etc…).

            More simply, when you push something you make it move away from you and therefor make any errors in angle move the object away from your target (you push it away from the desired vector of motion). When you pull something you pull it towards you and therefor any errors in angle end pulling in towards the target (you pull it into the desired vector of motion).

            The advantage of pushing is that you only need to spend enough energy to move the object, whereas when you pull you need to move yourself to the target too. The disadvantage is that you aim has to be very good to push something somewhere (think throwing). And the farther away something is, the better your aim has to be because the margin of error shrinks.

            And all this applies to pushing or pulling people; it’s more time intensive to pull someone since you have to be there with them and help them every time they make a mistake and so on. But if you try to push someone, if you try to give them a plan (a direction) and some initial motivation (initial energy, resulting in a vector) and then go off and do your own thing (no course correction), unless your aim is excellent and you’ve given sufficient motivation they’re probably not going to accomplish what you want.

            But wait, there’s more! Negative affect is pushing, positive affect is pulling. You use hate (violence, coercion, trespass, etc…) to push people off of places (physical and metaphorical) you don’t want them to be, but unless you’ve perfectly calculated the angle of application (hint: no one perfectly calculates the angle of application) they’re not gonna end up in a good place. You use love (kindness, asking, consent, etc…) to pull them towards places you want them to be, by standing there yourself. A good society uses both; we push people away from bad things with violence (i.e. murder is illegal and we back that up with coercive violence) and pull people towards good things with kindness (reward donating blood with cookies, for example).

            And because the brain is a bayes net, if you do this consistently, people will learn that doing good things will result in nice things happening to them, and doing bad things will result in mean things happening to them. But you have to make the world actually act that way, goddamn, the brain isn’t stupid, it actually pays attention, you can’t hate someone nice unless you literally hate every single kind of meanness that exists all the time and no one has the energy for that it’s like trying to move the entire universe around the object instead of the object through the universe what the hell stop that.

  25. Anonanon says:

    “We were doing this because we’d started an Atheist Club and now we had to come up with a purpose for it.”

    Oh god, the last few years suddenly makes perfect sense.

    • InferentialDistance says:

      Basically defines my experience with Less Wrong weekly meetups. Great people, though.

  26. Ron says:

    The dichotomy isn’t very clear from Scott’s explanation (Sorry!), so Iv’e tried to sort this out for myself.

    Maybe push goals are deprecated pull goals?

    It makes sense to want to be a doctor to make your parents happy when you are a child, but makes less sense when facing medical school.

    Also, lack of motivation is an evolutionary lifehack to discourage pursuing deprecated or not-updated goals.

  27. suntzuanime says:

    People who are pulled are really great, and everyone loves them. Everyone wants to be loved, even people who aren’t pulled. If you aren’t pulled, then in order to be loved, you have to trick people into thinking you are. That means pushing.

  28. onesome says:

    The philosophy of school seems to be that you have to push before you’re allowed to pull.

    …Except when it comes to individual assignments, where the reverse is the case.

    I think school has it backwards in both cases.

    • wintermute92 says:

      You just identified one of my longest-running frustrations with (American) schooling.

      The tasks I felt pulled on came with push frameworks: Nixon’s Vietnam policy is fascinating, but I don’t want to write exactly 4 pages using these 6 documents about it. And the tasks I felt pushed on came with pull frameworks: learn this crappy and inaccurate style of critical analysis because knowing critical analysis is Good and Valuable. Teaching math as a rote push task to students who could learn it as an elegant pull task seems to be one of the biggest errors we have going.

      I’m not sure about the large/small dichotomy, but this issue was definitely present. It also seemed to be way worse than chance; the vast majority of the system felt backwards to me.

      • Wency says:

        School would be great if every student and teacher was a highly motivated genius.

        • wintermute92 says:

          Obviously true, but I would settle for paying some kind of attention to which students are knowledgeable about
          or interested in the topic.

          Where I went to school, the current idea is to get rid of tracking and lump everyone into the same classroom, then try to cater to 25 different levels of knowledge and engagement in the same room. “Differentiated instruction” is the buzzword, which in practice meant “teaching lessons that are mismatched to 90+% of the audience”.

          Geniuses aside, making a student who literally can’t read analyze To Kill a Mockingbird is a waste of everyone’s time.

  29. Rachael says:

    This is really interesting because the distinction seems fairly similar to Scott Adams’ “goals vs. systems”, except that he recommends systems as superior. He says that rather than setting goals like “get a book published” or “lose X amount of weight” (which definitely correspond to your pulling goals), you should put systems in place like “write every day and send a query letter every week” or “eat fresh vegetables and go to the gym” (but I’m not completely sure if they correspond to your pushing goals or not).
    I think he would approve of your goal-less Atheist Society – set it up, meet every week, and see what emerges.

  30. Lori says:

    I don’t see anything dishonest about pull goals. Maybe trying to pass off a pull goal as a push goal is dishonest, but that would be an example of the SNAFU principle (in your professor and research assignment example, anyway), not some principle that claims human nature is dishonest.

    I will admit that some of my pull goals feel like cases of moving the goalposts. When I was young and naive, I understood the definition of “success” as “achievement of stated objectives.” As if life is billiards or something. I now know that that supposed understanding was probably the biggest barrier to success that I faced. Definitely on my time travel bucket list…counseling younger self on the folly of push goal machismo. Like Stephen Stills teaches us: “Love the one you’re with.”

  31. Jugemu Chousuke says:

    In Scott Adams’ most recent book he makes roughly the opposite claim – that “systems” are better than “goals”. ie I think he would say that it’s better to have a habit like “write every day” than a goal like “write a book about hobbits”. Not sure which (if any) is correct as both arguments are largely anecdotal.


    • InferentialDistance says:

      “Write every day” is a goal, too. It’s a better goal, because the human brain is a bayes net and bayes nets need repeated access to new data to calibrate (i.e. you need to practice to get good at something).

    • Mary says:

      Writing at least regularly, if not every day, is widely recommended by all sorts of writers for good reason.

      I add that you should probably have a quota that consists of the number of words it takes you to get warmed up, writing.

  32. InferentialDistance says:

    Pushing goals often come from outside. Someone demands you fulfill some criteria, and you then have to push yourself to do so (and they’ll push you themself if you don’t). This is hostile and coercive and humans instinctively resist it. Pulling goals come from internal desire. They are harmonious with human autonomy and therfore don’t get instinctively resisted.

    • wintermute92 says:

      I think this framework applies even when ‘push goals’ aren’t applied by other people. ‘Push goals’ seem to encompass lots of things with no natural or intuitive association with the thing they advance.

      That can be makework and gatekeeping, but it can also be “yak shaving” tasks where you’re trying to resolve indirect impediments to a goal. Examining biopsies for cancer research feels like part of the path towards a cancer cure – it arises directly from the nature of the goal, and so there’s motivation for it. Washing a bunch of petri dishes because something spilled on them might be equally necessary to curing cancer in your lab, but it feels less natural. The task didn’t arise from the goal, so there’s no desire to do it.

      • InferentialDistance says:

        Yes, you are correct, there are entirely internal variants of pushing/pulling.

        I’d define them differently, however. Pushing is not wanting to be or do something. Pulling is wanting to be or do something. If you’re washing petri dishes because you don’t want to be a messy person, this is a pushing goal. If you’re washing petri dishes because you need some clean petri dishes for the experiment you’re just about to do, it’s a pulling goal (assuming the experiment itself is a pulling goal).

        And yes, the I know, negation means you can reduce pushing to pulling and vice versa. However, just because pushing the entire universe around an object results in the same relative motion as pulling the object through the universe, that doesn’t mean it takes the same amount of effort (vice versa also applies, pulling the entire universe around an object rather than pushing the object through the universe). You can figure out whether the push or pull framing applies by figuring out how much effort each takes (examine the rest of the person’s life) and choosing the easier one (i.e. are they generally messy but surprisingly good at cleaning when they need to be?).

  33. onyomi says:

    This definitely happens in romance, too. I know at least one woman who was much more interested in the idea of being married, than in being married to any specific person. The stereotypically male equivalent might be the having of a trophy wife, or of having a career not because you are particularly interested in doing anything, but because you need one to get respect as a man.

    • Lemminkainen says:

      I think that the most direct stereotypically male equivalent is probably something like wanting to get laid in high school or college but mostly not caring who it happens with, or, later in life, wanting to have had sex with a whole bunch of different women (as opposed to wanting to have sex with a large set of particular women). One of the most characteristic features of PUA writing is that the pleasures of sex almost always get subordinated to the hobby’s competitive/scorekeeping aspects.

  34. John Schilling says:

    Pulling goals, once completed, tend to turn into push goals. Partly from the sunk-cost fallacy, but by the time you’ve done whatever was pulling at you, you’ve probably accumulated a particular set of related skills, resources, and alliances that really look like they ought to be put to some good use. And the victory condition for your pull goal is probably kind of fuzzy, so there’s not going to be a point where you clearly want to put all those goal-related resources on the auction block, say goodbye to your comrades, etc. Having done (most of) what you set out to, to the point of diminishing returns, there will be a push to do something similar and a tendency to rationalize it as an extension of the original goal.

    Hmm, can we maybe just take it as given that yes, Social Justice is the push goal that comes out of the Civil Rights pull goal, and look for more interesting and maybe positive cases of this? One of the classic examples is the March of Dimes, founded to eradicate Polio in the United States and pushed into other areas of maternal and neonatal health care.

    • wintermute92 says:

      > Hmm, can we maybe just take it as given that yes, Social Justice is the push goal that comes out of the Civil Rights pull goal, and look for more interesting and maybe positive cases of this?

      On this topic: women’s suffrage was a narrow, pull-goal driven movement. After getting the vote, it basically vanished in a puff of success, and the “women’s movement” was delayed by a number of years. Abolition appears to have taken a similar road, where it partially repurposed into seeking safety and opportunity for Southern blacks, but lost a lot of momentum because it had been so narrowly targeted.

      This seems to be an obvious difference between something like suffrage and modern feminism. The latter asserts broad goals like ‘resolving situations where women are treated unfairly’, with specific topics like ‘STEM representation’ treated as stepping stones. That seems to have given the movement much more staying power in the face of its own victories.

      Without drawing value judgements, I’ll bet movements with obvious directions to transition in last far longer than movements with constrained end goals. I’ll also bet that setting distant, amorphous pull goals produces smoother campaign-level transitions than switching from pull to push goals.

      • Mary says:

        OTOH, surely the point of a campaign is to achieve an end, not last forever?

        • wintermute92 says:

          True enough, I guess I was thinking about people who have a lot of associated goals they want, but center their movement around only one. So March of Dimes was ‘about’ ending polio, but afterwards they realized that they had a big effective charity infrastructure and a lot of people who still cared about helping sick kids.

          I’m not sure where the line is. You might as well redirect when you ‘win’, but too much transitioning leads to aimlessness, inventing causes, and internal schisms.

          At a guess, you redirect when the new topic still has the support of almost all of your movement? So healthcare charities are easy to redirect – everyone still cares about helping people be healthy – but social movements are hard because your coalition stops agreeing on the issues.

  35. Jacobian says:

    I think that CFAR’s goal factoring technique is an excellent way to find if your push goals have better pull goals behind them. In brief, you pick an activity to goal factor and write out the benefits you get out of it, breaking things further and further. For example, the benefit of atheist club can be (learning about atheism / hanging out with people / having something to do on Tuesday). Hanging out with people is then broken out into (enjoy being around people I like / make long term friends based on shared interests).

    If you get to a few final goals/benefits that intrinsically motivate you by themselves, you can turn these into your pull goals. You may keep doing the original activity, just with a clearer sense of purpose and more motivation. Or, you find something else to do that satisfies these goals better. If you didn’t find anything particularly exciting in the goal factoring (i.e. you joined atheist club because of a vague sense that it’s what atheists in college do), you can quit with a clear conscience.

    *Obligatory reminder that you’ll only really learn CFAR techniques in a CFAR workshop, not from blurbs in online comment sections. Scott, have you done a workshop yet?

    • Mark Z. says:

      Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds like a great technique to talk myself out of doing anything.

      1. Hey, this sounds like fun.
      Let’s do it and see what happens.

      2. Hey, this sounds like fun.
      Why does it sound fun? Break it down into ways that it benefits you. Repeat until the process becomes tedious. At the Nth level of analysis, is there anything left that’s really exciting? No? Everything sounds boring and stupid? Guess it wasn’t worth doing, then. Think of all the time you just saved!

      • Nicholas says:

        Clearly, this technique requires you to be the kind of person who doesn’t find flow charts tedious, but does have a tendency to engage in activities without having a clear thread of why you are doing them.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Once the process gets intuitive, you can do it pretty quickly in your head or by scrawling down notes about it, in my experience. As with any skill, it can be a bit tedious at first, but becomes easy once you get the hang of it.

      • Jacobian says:

        Mark, I’ll try to explain a little better. Goal factoring does the opposite of what you think. The point of it is that “going to Atheist club” isn’t necessarily something by itself that sets your heart on fire. If you realize that you do it because you want to make lifelong friends, imagining yourself with a trusted friend 5 years down the road is much more motivating than imagining yourself in the club next Wednesday so that’s your real motivation (or your real pull goal). You may realize that you’ll be happy doing anything that may lead to deep friendships, and then can figure out if atheist club is a good way to get there.

        In any case, you’re looking for things that are intrinsically fun. Things that abstractly benefit you but don’t motivate you minute to minute are exactly the opposite of that.

  36. Adam says:

    I once had a job where the manager used the push goals. His philosophy was that if you build a good team that’s capable of stuff, the work will come to them, whatever that work is. After spending a few years with nothing to do and then a few more years with a poorly organized and managed project, the company decided to get rid of the entire team and we all got laid off.

    If you can’t articulate your goal, there is a serious problem and no amount of structure, talent, or technique will fix that.

    • wintermute92 says:

      Interestingly, though, there seem to be a lot of successful startups that simply established good teams with plans like “build a lucrative website”. The usual story is that those startups have a lot of freedom to do whatever suits their circumstances and thereby avoid failure.

      I wonder if this is “different motivation for different people”, or if startups using this logic operate with a pull goal of “be really successful and get rich” that’s missing from teams in larger companies.

      • Salem says:

        It may be that the incentives are not properly aligned. In many companies, a team who make a lot of money for the company will not get rich.

      • Adam says:

        I think there’s a trap here, namely selection bias. How many startups succeed vs the total number of startups? I find anecdotes about startups to be very suspicious because there are A LOT of startups that fail, yet we only here about the successful ones.

        • wintermute92 says:

          There’s definitely a bias risk here, though I’m not sure it takes that form.

          Far more than dead hedge funds or failed athletes, people do relentless, thorough post-mortems on failed startups. The “undirected wins” narrative comes from some of the better VCs, who are looking at a biased pool (notable companies + companies they invested in) but have plenty of failures in that pool.

          My bigger concern is that it’s a fragile, multi-factor field. Predictions about startups share the problems of grand, sweeping historical narratives. You get tons of overfitting and hindsight bias, even if you choose your examples fairly.

  37. Rex Salisbury says:

    Another way of framing “pushing” versus “pulling” goals is to frame then as driven by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. I think that one of the most damaging features for certain parts of our education system is the sole reliance on extrinsic motivation. Go to any college and you’ll see thousands of kids going through the motions. They are there because college is “A Good Thing”. Go to a coding boot camp though and you’ll see quite the opposite (I went to one). People are there because they choose to be. A lot are there because they want a job and want to work on interesting problems during their careers. Coding bootcamps are by no means perfect instruments, but many of them have figured out how to attract and promote extrinsic motivation amongst their students, something I would love to see become more pervasive in just education, but work and life more generally.

    • onyomi says:

      I was above suggesting “instrumental” and “end” goals, but “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” motivation seems like it might also work. Possibly better, since it doesn’t run into the problem of trying to define end goals as “happiness,” “personal fulfillment,” etc.

    • Nicholas says:

      I think there is a difference between push/pull and intrinsic/extrinsic. The difference is that what we’re really talking about is two difference kinds of uncertainty with regards to planning. The kind we’re discussing here is that it is possible to have in plan in which either A) The end state we would describe as success is clearly defined, but our method to achieve that state is uncertain, or B) in which the pathway we will be executing is clearly defined, but the end state that serves as a Stop:Success signal is unclear.
      The difference between the two is most clear if you only think about extrinsic goals you have from interacting with a hierarchy like a job: You can be given a clear end state, but no procedure to achieve it, or a procedure you must use with no feedback on what success looks like. In either case, you have an extrinsic goal, assuming you only work at this company because they pay you, but you have two different kinds of subgoal in those two situations.
      I also think the problem with college is that you mostly have a group of people for whom college is intrinsically motivating (study topics in college is the goal) and a group of people for whom college is mostly extrinsically motivating (get some kind of skill or understanding is the goal, with the purpose of using it for something). And these two people are your faculty and your students respectively, and they have to collaborate to make a college education happen, despite intense unstated disagreement on why they are doing it.

  38. Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

    Sounds like government work.

    “We got $X amount of money from Congress this year.”

    “What should we spend it on?”

    “I don’t know. But if we don’t spend it all, we won’t be able to argue for $X from Congress next year”

  39. wintermute92 says:

    Interestingly, conventional wisdom for startups argues that push goals are far more likely to succeed.

    If you have a team of smart people with complementary skills, and they want to build something big and useful, they will probably find a way to do so. If you have a team of people (even if they are smart, with complementary skills) who all want to cure cancer via gold nanoparticles, they’ll likely hit some roadblock and fail.

    As discussed about startups, this is a choice between proceeding from resources and proceeding to objectives. (Incidentally, that from/to division is probably what people are considering when they tell you to use push/pull this way.) The “from resources” paradigm tends to ensure that you’re taking on work you are suited for.

    The downside of all this is that external, pull-goal motivation seems to be better at driving people to enormous effort and peak performance. It might produce a lot of failures, but it discourages ‘pivoting’ when the going gets rough.

    • I’ve heard the opposite. I heard that a lot of successful startups come out of someone who personally needs a good or service who then goes out and creates it. That’s clearly a pull goal.

  40. Immanentizing Eschatons says:

    About pushing goals in relation to the hypothetical biology student, I think what’s generally happening is that the student finds biology interesting/fun/otherwise desirable in general, but is leaving specifics open because they don’t know what they will be good at or importantly what opportunities there will be, and it lets them be more flexible- at least that’s mostly how I feel in college. It’s not so much dishonesty as just not knowing what will happen in the future.

    • Jordan D. says:

      When I was in law school, I found an odd dichotomy between the people who had specific goals- ‘I want to be a defender of the underrepresented/A good and neutral judge, respected and wise/A tough-as-nails prosecutor who gets the bad guys’- and the people who were just ‘I just like the thought of being a lawyer, really.’

      (I was the second)

      I always wondered if that would cause problems later, since the majority of my former classmates went on to jobs that had nothing to do with their original driving goal. It doesn’t seem as though it has.

  41. Joline says:

    No wonder Judaism hasn’t worked out for you. It’s the ur example of a push goal. (trying to pretend it was a pull goal all along :P)

    I think push goals are a natural consequence of the fact that we impulsively act and then come up with a rationale on the fly. This is a scary abyss to look into since it rubs our noses in the arbitrariness of meaning and values.

  42. James says:

    I think there is a use for push goals: Practice. Say I want to be a writer, and I know that to be a writer I have to develop certain skills. The only way to do that is to use those skills–in other words, to write. So I decide “I’m going to write for ten minutes a day”. The push goal would be to find something to write about for ten minutes a day–it could be anything, but it has to be something.

    The key is that the immediate end is not the ultimate end. The push goal–find something to write about for five minutes a day–serves a pull goal–become a writer. And pretty much any field that requires development of specific skills is like that, including schools. The only way to get good at a skillset is to utilize the skillset in a mindful way, and that means developing push goals.

    In other words: It’s a problem of scale. The specific, immediate activity may be a push goal, but so long as it’s derived from and supporting a pull goal it’s probably okay and likely falls under some heading line “practice”. Where the Atheist Club fell flat, it seems, is that it was a push goal NOT derived from a pull goal. You had no program/project/overarching effort that it was part of, so there was no criteria by which you could evaluate what you should be doing. (I’ve seen a LOT of stuff like this in the private sector: companies make little groups in the company “to boost employee moral” or some such nonsense, but because the goal is so ill-defined the groups are about as effective as an inflatable dartboard.)

  43. Jeff says:

    This sums up exactly why I was turned away from journalism after a few years on my school newspaper. Day-in day-out of pushing goals is awful.

    Unfortunately, the same holds true of most white-collar jobs as well. As a programmer and writer, I find myself getting work done far faster and at far higher quality when it’s a self-generated “start from nothing” goal.

    • Kartick says:

      Aren’t self-generated vs externally-imposed goals independent of push vs pull? One can have a pull goal at the office (build an app that fulfils need X) as opposed to a push goal at the office (we have this team of people who have run out of things to do. What can we do next?).

      Similarly, in our personal projects, one can have a pull goal (investing is too complex. Simplify it) or a push goal (learn iOS programming). So, they seem orthogonal to me. Anything I’m missing?

  44. Kevin Binz says:

    Pulling vs pushing goals seem to conceptually overlap with intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

    The analogue isn’t perfect of course, but I suspect both refer to the same cognitive mechanism. A mechanism which, unfortunately, I do not yet understand.

    • 27chaos says:

      Relevant is that, oftentimes, once I begin work on a goal that feels like a push goal, it quickly turns into a pull goal. Yet anticipating this does little to make the push goal more motivating initially.

  45. Will says:

    Let me try and give a grand unified theory. Suppose you enjoy woodworking and are skilled at it, and like helping people. Then you should ask anyone you know to see if they need any wooden furniture. I don’t think anyone sees a problem with this. If you have some capability, you search for goals you can accomplish using it that serve some larger super goal. There are bad ways of doing this, though. To do it right, you need to actually have the capability, and you need to be willing to give up and do something else if you don’t find a use for this.

    This describes research academics. They understand the methods of their field of study, the conventions of academic writing, etc. They, hopefully, enjoy doing research in their discipline. They are looking for ways to use these skills.

    This explains your problem with schools. Professors want to turn other people into professors. Other teachers imitate professors. How do you do this? You have to learn these research skills, by practicing them. For this, it doesn’t really matter what they use that on. If your students are self-motivating and come up with good topics on their own, they’ll probably be good researchers.

    I think it’s reasonable to fear that people who want to write, but don’t care about what, may not enjoy writing as much as they think they do, and may not be as good as they think they are. But I think your concerns are more primal. For you, writing comes from a burning need to communicate an idea. You just write down the words that are in your head. Going backwards feels wrong to you.

    But you know that not everyone can write in the same way. So I would say your concerns are valid, but to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    There are a lot of people who enjoy your writing on pretty much any topic. I think we would probably enjoy it even if you were writing about a topic you didn’t really care about.

  46. anonymous says:

    I think the explanation for such questions on /r/ writing is far more wholesome: Writing has become a standard self improvement outlet, or effigy, like golfing, exercise, meditation, and many other otherwise-boring, and bad, games.

    And in the case of writing the discipline in question involves hugely transferable skills, including “improving stuff that’s really hard to improve, and subtle.”

    For much the same reason, it’s in greater danger of never amounting to anything (and I don’t mean getting published: more like never getting more and more interesting daydreams), but that goes with the territory I think.


    Btw I’m not saying it’s not a fashion adopted for dumb reasons, in those cases, but if it is, I think the broader fashion is still really really good compared to other fashions.

  47. Jill says:

    What an interesting topic. This leads me to several different strands of thought.

    It seems like, in a healthy and prosperous world, we would all have mostly pulling goals and then sometimes would have pushing goals as steps along the way.

    Why would people lack pulling goals? This question makes me think of the articles about how children today don’t have much free time. Many of them seem to be scheduled to the teeth, mostly with pushing goal activities scheduled by their parents, although this of course will vary by family. In such a situation, I can see how the child might lack pulling goals, because they have no free time to figure out who they are and what they like to do or are interested in, or to use their imagination.

    Some people seem to have too many pulling goals but lack the capacity to push when necessary. They are pipe dreamers, who think of interesting projects but procrastinate forever, so they may never actually do them– or maybe they will only do the easy fun parts.

    The idea of keeping lists of, or journals about, pulling goals, makes sense. You might have areas of interest you would have forgotten about, by the time you are assigned a research project, and then you can dig them up.

    I guess for very low income people, or people otherwise not able to function as they’d like, you just have survival goals, that are pushing goals. They never get the time and the free space o find themselves and their interests.

    Depression seems to sometimes involve a lack of pulling goals– e.g.when the person feels as if there is no good reason to get out of bed in the morning.

    It seems like the world would be better off if most people could somehow get some pulling goals. It seems like to get them you need to play around a lot. E.g. if you are interested in engineering type areas, maybe as a kid you take everything apart and put it all back together again.

    Or if you like biology maybe you need to observe lots of cells under the microscope, or go on a lot of bird watching trips. It seems that having a lot of varied experience within your areas of interest would bring up your curiosity and your pulling goals for your research.

    It’s maybe a shame that we don’t have as much basic research as we used to, rather than more applied research. I wonder if scientists do very much playing-around informal research e.g. just dump whatever herbs or chemicals you can think of on groups of those cancer cells in your lab, and see what kills them. It seems like that could be very helpful in some fields.

    I remember reading about one of the discoverers of the DNA molecule dreaming about the double helix. So his imaginative dreaming seems to have had an excellent result.

    I remember one of my psychology professors in school asking me once “How can you go beyond observing what is there, in order to see also what is missing?” At the time, I didn’t know the answer. Now I think the answer is “You need to get a lot of experience. E.g. you need to see a lot of full and complete X’s, so that you know when you are seeing an incomplete X. You need to observe the mechanisms by which different cells do Y, so that when you find a cell that lacks the mechanism to do essential function Y, you know what that is what’s missing.”

    I remember going to a psychotherapy training workshop by Michael Yapko, this guy here.


    He was quite good. Someone asked him how he came up with all those strategies to help his clients. And he said that he was so curious about coping, that he was constantly asking those friends and acquaintances of his, who seemed to be healthy and coping well, how they did it.

    • On the subject of over scheduled children …

      Some years back, I attended a reunion of my high school class. The school in question was a high end private school run by the University of Chicago.

      Listening to the staff tell us about how good things were, I concluded that what I was hearing was “the Devil finds work for idle hands” theory of child rearing. If you just keep the kids sufficiently busy with homework and after school activities and stuff, they won’t have time to do drugs or get pregnant.

      It struck me as an approach with a considerable down side.

  48. Mary says:

    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.

    And their name is Legion — “Where do you get your ideas?” is among the top questions writers get asked, if not the top one.

    Harlan Ellison took to answering, crisply, “Schenectady,” from which evolved the SF and fantasy writers’ little joke about a mail order firm in Schenectady that sends out packages of five, ten, or (economy-sized) twenty-five ideas a month for the aspiring writer.

    The problem with telling that joke to an audience is that people will (I have been assured) come up afterwards and ask for the address.

    • Jill says:

      Yes, the ideas of recognizing and exercising one’s own imagination, and of immersing oneself in aspects of the world that will give one ideas, are foreign concepts to many people.

      If you want to write, it helps to read first. And not just to read books, but also to notice and “read” your environment– especially those areas of it that are interesting enough to you that, once you get a feel for them, you will want to write about them– or do research on them, or whatever your interest is.

    • Mary says:

      However, I will then add that writers who have buckled down and do write often face the problem that often what you get is one half, or a third, or a quarter of a story idea, and you have to develop it. For instance:

      * Reading criticism of a sword & sorcery world that all the pirate ports were situated nowhere near shipping routes. Got an idea for a magical solution for that. . . but got nowhere until I figured out who would be the main character in that port nowhere near shipping. That allowed me to start outlining it, but then I had to figure out what would happen to him.
      * Reading about some ancient Mesopotamian rite and wanted to put it into a story. For which I needed a person to try to perpetrate it, and a victim, and a setting where it all fit.
      * Wanted to rewrite a ballad as a story. This required not only developing all the details that you expect in a story, but fixing a couple of plot holes.

  49. Jill says:

    I also think about how specialization can be a problem, e.g. in biology, because a researcher may have depth of experience in one area– but they may lack the breadth of experience in biology that would be needed to come up with grand theories of how the whole human body system functions and balances and malfunctions and gets out of balance– and what to do to heal the malfunctions and imbalances.

    I often think that humanity could benefit from professionals having more multidisciplinary conferences. I went to a small college for a while where the psychology department was on one end of a floor and the engineering department was on the other end. The professors were great friends. The psychology professors helped the engineers with their writing and human relations issues. And the engineers helped the psychology professors with their biofeedback machines and other machines they used to do their research. It was sort of a marriage made in heaven.

    I think also about the addictions and compulsions that are so common. They are sort of like pulling goals but in an unhealthy way. And there are pushing goals that are unhealthy too, of course, like pushing oneself to choose an extroverted career when you are an extreme introvert, just because your family members or peers think that’s a great kind of career to have.

    But maybe in that case the person thinks it’s a pulling goal. Because they perhaps have not had the time and the space and the freedom from outside pressure, that would be needed to recognize and develop their own talents and interests.

  50. Agronomous says:

    Pushing goals almost invariably involve a huge amount of waste. Not just when the end product is completely without use (e.g. a paper in college), but even when it’s basically useful, but lots of useless crap gets tacked on.

    The canonical example is the Great Big Pile of Software Requirements, All of Which MUST BE IMPLEMENTED. But 50% of them never get implemented, and 50% of the implemented ones never get used, so the actual value ends up fairly dilute.

    One way to separate out the (valuable) pull goals from the (wasteful) push goals is to ask “Why?” to multiple levels. In the discussion above, this is sometimes enough to link push goals (write the paper; why? in order to get a good grade) to pull goals (why? in order to become a doctor). In my line of work, it’s primarily useful to distinguish what’s actually needed from what can be skipped.

    You’d think people would be happy when you take pointless work off their shoulders, but a lot of people seem to have a day-to-day goal of Keeping Busy (or anyway Looking Busy), preferably with things that are in their comfort zone. I’d be happy if they’d simply spend the freed-up time reading, but for various reasons that I’ll blame on the Protestants and their Work Ethic, nobody seems very comfortable with that.

    I have a strong suspicion (because of the association with waste) that push goals are intimately involved with rent-seeking, but I’ll leave that exploration to the actual economists around here.

  51. Katja Grace says:

    I suggest that the important distinction in this vicinity is not about whether the plan and structure precedes the apparent goal, but rather about whether you have to pretend to have a goal you don’t really have, and especially whether there is some conflict or confusion around this (e.g. you can’t even straightforwardly admit that you are pretending). Which is often associated with the structure preceding the goal, but not always. I think it is also associated with some other goal requiring you to make up a new goal, where it doesn’t much matter what the new goal is.


    1. Taking part in a holiday celebration that doesn’t mean much to you. You did actually decide to celebrate christmas (goal) before you decided to hang flashing angels on stuff (plan for achieving goal), but maybe the goal decision was made under duress and you are having to pretend to care about it more than you do. I claim that this will look like a pushing goal nonetheless: you will end up not very enthusiastic and sort of uncomfortable about hanging up the angels, except maybe to the extent it fulfills a real goal of being done with this so you can go and hide in your room again. You also won’t do an amazing job of hanging the angels, unless you invent some other goal you do care about regarding angel arrangement.

    2. Talking about a topic that you don’t care about, to get to know a person who you do care about. Even if the goal (figuring out how good that new restaurant is) was handed to you at the same time as the plan (an opportunity to talk to the person) I think it might feel like a pushing goal.

    3. My guess is that composing The Raven didn’t have the bad psychological features of pushing goals—the content of the poem might have been chosen to support Poe’s goal of composing a particular type of poem in a systematic way, but he was probably enthusiastically driving toward trying out his strategy for achieving his structural goals. Because he didn’t have to pretend that he cares about the poem’s message any more than he does.

    4. A similar example I know much more about: just now I was rewriting the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s song ‘You belong to me’ to be about cause selection. It’s not that I strongly want to say something about cause selection right now, such that I would be willing to in another format. Mostly I just wanted to make a good, catchy song, which has pleasing rhymes and parallels in it, and I find the activity of rewriting lyrics engaging. I chose the topic after listening to the song a bit and seeing what it lent itself to. Yet this feels much closer to the cluster of pulling goals than pushing goals, though it involves setting out to write without knowing what I want to write about.

    I wrote about all this a bit before, as it pertains to socializing, which seems to be full of this kind of thing: https://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/social-games/

    I’m not especially confident about any of this – it is just my own view of the situation, which hasn’t been dislodged yet.

  52. Jason says:

    >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.

    There’s two types of journalism.

    1. The old kind where you talk to people and find out what they think and write it down. In this kind you’re not pushing your own ideas. You are pulling people to talk. It’s easy to do on deadline

    2. The new kind of journalism where you sit down with your macbook and dump ideas on the page. This is a pushing goal only if you don’t have a plan for what you want to write about in advance. Today, for example, I wrote two stories of the new kind of journalism. One ended up terrible, took 6 hours. One turned out great, took 2 hours. The second one was the one I already decided I wanted to write.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Those are not “old” and “new”. What you are calling “new” is just opinion/editorial.

      Now, internet journalism is dominated by opinion, and has been referred to as new journalism, but it’s not like op/ed pages are anything actually new.

  53. Kaj Sotala says:

    Nate Soares discussing this (excerpt):

    …imagine that I woke up one morning and said “I’ll try to run MIRI well today.” (MIRI, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, is an organization I run.) If I did this, I’d be in trouble. How does one run a research institute? What would my next actions be? Things that seem plausibly like what people-who-run-institutes-well would do? Things that seem defensible to the board of directors? I have no idea how to “try to run MIRI.”

    Now imagine instead that I woke up and said “I’m going to glance at my MIRI priority list, update it if today happens to be Monday, and then identify MIRI’s biggest bottleneck and work on it directly.” Now I’m in business, and might do something useful with my day.

    Notice the difference. In the second case, I’m not asking myself whether I can run a research institute. I’m not asking myself how to run a research institute (though “study the strategies of people who ran other successful institutes” does occasionally get to the top of my priority list). I’m assuming myself capable — not consciously, but as a background assumption. I’m not assuming success — either I can run a research institute or I can’t, the jury’s still out on that one — but my capability is not the focus of my attention. I fret about much more practical things, like the tone to strike in a fundraiser announcement post, or how to prioritize paper-writing versus novel research. I’m never “trying to run MIRI;” I’m just working on the next top-priority task.

    This, I think, is one of the main distinctions between “trying to try” and “actually trying”.

  54. Rival Voices says:

    You highlight something extremely important, but the distinctions carved don’t cut to the crux of the issue, I don’t believe.
    If I understood correctly, a pulling goal is when you create a plan and a structure because you want to achieve a particular thing. A pushing goal is when you come up with plan and a structure and then figure out what to achieve with it.
    I find the examples confusing, and I think this follows from the issue being confused in your head (I say this with no ill intent.). You feel horror at the reddit aspiring writer, but zir certainly has a pulling goa zir is trying to achieve: to be A Writer. Their plan and structure is to ask about how to get ideas to write about.
    I think the solution to the confusion comes a few paragraphs down when you write “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.”
    This appears to be the crux. The aspiring writer doesn’t want to write, zir wants to be a writer. On the contrary you passionately want to write. At every moment that the aspiring writer writes zir is torn with self-doubt and queasiness about whether zir is in fact coming closer to the goal. On the other hand you are coming closer to the goal with each word you pen down.
    I don’t think your intuition is, in this case, being irrational, nor do I think you should so easily discount it: it is extremely psychologically draining to do things for instrumental reasons unless you integratedly believe they will get you the thing you want. To do so actually pits parts of your self against other parts and in that sense is dishonest. Very much so.
    Much better to do things that are in and of themselves pleasant.
    I propose to you that this is the crux and a better distinction: Is the activity in-itself motivationally compelling or is it an activity you are only doing because of something else?

  55. MadRocketSci says:

    I was writing out a giant blurb stream-of-conciousness thing to think about problem solving from a general perspective the other day.

    Sometimes, if you have a specific final goal in mind, you can work backwards from the goal until you have a series of “moves” you can make from whatever your starting state is. But sometimes, you can’t get there from here from what you can deduce by working backwards.

    So you work forwards from your current state by trying to map the space of the problem by testing or thinking about potential things you can do and where you can go from here, and see if you can meet in the middle anywhere.

    Or you don’t have a final goal yet, because you don’t have a good idea of what is possible, so you just need to explore aimlessly for a bit to generate some intuition about the space you are working in.

    That might be tangentially related to this. On the other hand, as a current student, I can state with certainty that it is *painful* working on a project that you’ve long since stopped caring about for anything but the purposes of having X papers to graduate. On the other hand, some of my best work was done for a completely optional class for a completely optional project where I was actually interested in the answer.

  56. arbitrary_greay says:

    Hrm, the bias in this thread is strongly slanted towards pull goals, but the metaphor that came to mind for me was discovery-science vs. engineering.

    Engineering is all about pull goals. You have standards and requirements that you aspire to, an implicit ongoing goal of optimization.

    Some forms of scientific research are push goals. You pick an area, gather data, and then draw conclusions from the data. Now, there have been more than a few posts about how aimless research isn’t good for analyzing data for complex situations as in the social sciences, as then you don’t know what markers to look for, or what kind of factors to use to avoid drawing conclusions from trends that are explained by other factors.
    However, it can be argued that some of the most fundamental and pioneering research are push-goal oriented. Remove any existing expectations in order to actually see the data as it is. Gather data on a whole bunch more factors than the ones you expect, because you don’t know which factors are actually relevant parameters. Don’t just discard that chemical experiment result that fails at your intended properties, check to see if there’s an amazing accidental invention in there! Study the mantis shrimp without knowing that your findings might have military applications. Yes, it can be argued that “study mantis shrimp” is a pull goal, but then you’re also coopting all of the science where practical applications/implications weren’t developed until long afterward.

    There’s definitely a stance that the need for all science to be engineering, to justify its own existence financially, to make all research pull goals, has resulted in more than a few of the perverse incentives in academia. That some research worth doing has been stymied in favor of getting just enough edge on an existing product to beat the competitor.

    (I say this as an engineer whose personality is not at all well suited to push goal research. But one complaint about our R&T department has been that we’re just chasing competitor material, trying to copy their mechanisms, instead of exploring new mechanisms, doing actual research, making our own new unique products.)

  57. Gen517 says:

    I think that there are certain arenas where general goals are better than specific ones (using the terminology suggested above, which I like because it highlights why e.g. goal factoring is good, and exclusively general goals from management make workers frustrated).

    Notably, my blog. I build little web widgets that are either (theoretically) interesting or useful for every post. I’ve been on a schedule (something every 4 days) because I’ve noticed I get into this state of panic about what my next post will be. My low-level anxiety and the unknown time constraint (I actually have to build the thing after I think of it) grow less low-level and more frightening until a strange creative dam breaks and I build something I never would have built otherwise. And some of those things are things I’m actually quite proud of (although many of them lack more than a cursory visual polish).

    If I waited for the goals to get specific on their own, maybe four or five of the things would have been made. The useful ones, or the ones I imagined polishing the most. But not, for instance, the small game I made making fun of a rude joke by some minor players in this election cycle, which is actually the thing I get the most compliments about. And tons of other great stuff would be missing from the world as well. No one reads my blog but I’d miss it.

  58. LPSP says:

    This is exactly the reason why I bear no love, and a fair bit of contempt, for modern universities. It’s why I stopped attending one, why I find my current occupation as a private tutor so satisfying – and also the only reason why I’d ever consider going to a university, as a shortest-route goal to getting more/better qualifications so that I may tutor even more kids. Make no mistake, I am very leery of any course that smacks of that dishonest, labour-for-it’s-own-sake quality Scott describes so pertinently. Mickey-Mouse “find a book to write about, even though you’d never read or write about this big in your life otherwise, nevermind write about in this contrived manner” activities are poison. I long for straight up testing – “here’s some facts and rules, apply them to achieve X result in this situation”. Boom, ability to achieve X measured.

    • LPSP says:

      Also, my parents have expressed an interest in my going into journalism for a few years now. My response is identical to Scott’s – trying to write about meaningless topics for which I am emotional avalent would destroy any potential for quality in the text.

    • James says:

      That’s all well and good when dealing with something where there is a concrete “ability to achieve X” to be evaluated. However, for many careers (those the university system was built to teach, for example) there’s no concrete “ability to do X”, or the X in question is “write this book on this obscure topic”.

      Again, the act of WRITING THE PAPER is the important thing being tested in many of these situations. The content is often largely irrelevant to the end-goal of the activity. I once wrote an essay arguing that swords should be considered artworks, not weapons, for example. The content was, I’ll admit, silly; the teacher encouraged silliness, so it fit. But that’s because the content was largely irrelevant. It was the act of establishing reasons, subreasons, etc, and presenting them in a logically coherent way that supported a conclusion that was the important thing. Again, it’s all a matter of scale: if the class is part of an over-arching program to reach some self-driven goal, the externally-driven goals are valid.

      There are also situations (particularly once you get past the 200/300 level courses) where there is no one right answer, even in the sciences. The goal isn’t to establish a knowledge base; that was done in the 200/300 level classes. The goal is to train you in how to process that data effectively. Straight up testing would be horrible at that. My favorite tests were my Evolution class tests–they consisted of two to three lines describing the essay the professor wanted, with almost two pages to answer the question. They tested your ability to apply extremely abstract concepts to horribly complicated systems, in a way that simply can’t be done without writing an essay. Would I ever write an essay on duck penises? Probably not without someone telling me to–but the principles of evolution demonstrated thereby are fascinating, and understanding the interaction was best facilitated by doing so.

      The issue isn’t (necessarily) that universities can’t teach. The issue is that they’re being used for the wrong jobs. Universities teach very specific skillsets, which are applicable to very specific jobs–but our culture demands that EVERYONE attend a university, whether they have any intention of doing those jobs or not. The training necessary to become a paleontologist is so wildly different from that necessary to become an electrician or an accountant that the idea of one institution teaching all three is absurd, yet that’s what we demand of the university system.

      • LPSP says:

        The content of that second paragraph – the one about writing silly essays on swords-as-art just for the sake of it – almost fits the criteria for a useful test I outlined. The teacher is giving you a line of reasoning and asking you to demonstrate your ability to work with it with a sample task. The difference is that the teacher expects you to look up facts about the history of swords – but then I sincerely doubt the teacher would check your paper for sword factual accuracy, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

        • James says:

          If writing an essay about how swords are an art form while studying to be a paleontologist doesn’t fit the criteria of “find a book to write about, even though you’d never read or write about this big in your life otherwise, nevermind write about in this contrived manner”, I have to ask whether the criteria has become too broad to be applicable or not. The task was literally “Write an X-page report on some topic”. I opted for something I took a personal interest in, because if I must do something I’d like to at least enjoy the thing!

          Again, I think it’s all about perception/perspective. Viewed in the context of my education, it made sense–the skill being learned was applicable to my career (a scientist is a professional writer as much as anything else). If, however, I lost that context, the task would become petty to the point of self-parody. (That was, incidentally, how my parents saw it!) Viewed in the context of my life as a whole, it was a golden opportunity to explore a topic I have always been interested in, but which I otherwise could never find the time to dig into in sufficient depth. So there are at least three different ways that paper could–and were–seen.

          I’m not saying EVERY push goal is like this. I’ve been on jobs where my task was literally “Show up so we can check this box on this form. Don’t die.” They suck. They kill your spirit, and no matter how you try to spin them to being something positive they just aren’t. But I think viewing goals in isolation, which is what this dichotomy is tending to cause people to do, isn’t accurate either.

          I think there’s a lesson here for management types (parents, teachers, managers, coaches, etc): to motivate underlings, one should inform their perspective so they don’t see the push goals in isolation, but rather as part of an over-arching program. I know the best jobs I’ve been on have been the ones where I could see how my contributions affected the whole, and college was a six-year experiment in defining what that “whole” was for myself.

  59. NilkadNaquada says:

    The “how do you think of things to write about” example might not be the best, since it’s not generally quite “I want to write but have no idea what the subject matter should be”

    To use my own example, I have a reasonably specific idea for a book I’d like to write, which is partially consisted of push goals and partially consisted of pull goals; a cyberpunk book with an atmosphere similar to that of Snow Crash, but played a little bit straighter than it is in Snow Crash. That’s a pull goal. I want it to star a character I came up with who is a highly skilled assassin who thinks he’s very cool and intimidating, but is in fact just this tryhard edgy ponce who nobody else really takes seriously at all. That’s another pull goal. But, a book has to have a plot in order to function properly, and I can’t think of an actual driving force for a plot that wouldn’t be unbearably cliche. So I have a very specific idea for the atmospher I want and a verys specific idea for the lead character that I want, but I can’t think of any interesting events for the book to be about. I’m not looking for plot ideas out of a sense of wanting to be A Writer ™, but rather out of a sense of “I need a narrative onto which I can graft this character that interests me and this tone/atmosphere that interests me.”

  60. vheissu says:

    Another close dichotomy to this is the bottom-up/top-down one. Ken Thompson famously said that he was a very bottom-up thinker.

  61. Darius Bacon says:

    About Poe’s essay on “The Raven”, it seemed like trolling to me even before I ran across a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, which must have influenced Poe’s and which he doesn’t mention at all in the essay. There are probably good examples of ‘push’ achievements, but this isn’t one I’d trust.

  62. Andy Gough says:

    Perhaps it’s not all about you?

    A tutor/tyro (or teacher/student) relationship involves both the tutor and the tyro. The tyro wants to learn; the tutor wants to teach. The tutor has the advantage of having the map of the entire knowledge space and effective methods to learn it. [This is why the tyro values and needs the tutor.]

    You don’t like the biology research paper assignment. However, at least you did a research paper instead of doing nothing. The tutor wants you to learn how to research and write it up. It gives you experience to know how to do it — when you need to do it, and the tutor is not there to help you.

    Have you ever heard a student say this:
    Do we need to know this for the test?
    After the teacher says yes, the follow up is:
    I’m never going to use it.

    Ah, but how does the tyro know this? The tyro doesn’t have the map.

    Many times, the best way to learn something is not to be given the answer — it is to be shown the path to arrive at the answer. The wise old master never answers “What is the meaning of life?” The Master instead directs the Seeker onto the path to learn the answer. More contemporarily, Kung Fu Panda would have never understood “There is no secret ingredient” without first having his adventures.

    >Give us a prescription, Doctor

    Now here is a push project for you:
    make a graph of sin(x)/x for x in the range of (-16,+16) or so
    A few thoughts on this:
    1. It will not match what you’re currently imagining in your head
    2. You will find it harder than you expect
    3. You’ll be able to do similar graphs easier in the future.
    Yes, there are a few aspects of this that will bedevil you.

  63. HHELLD says:

    “push goals” might be viewed as “here’s the tool we have, and there probably is some purpose for which we could be using it, for our good, but we haven’t figured that purpose out yet”.

  64. Sergey says:

    Yes, great post, thank you.

    Though there seems to be a lack of definitional clarity around what defines a “Pull Goal” vs a “Push Goal”, perhaps if we continue to consider it here, we can arrive at a clearer and therefore more useful definition.

    Intuitively this does seem like a valuable distinction that has repeatedly reappeared in western philosophy when it comes to living “The good life”. In its modern “psychological science” incarnation, Push vs Pull seems to mimic the Intrinsic vs Extrinisic goals dichotomy; foundationally Intrinsic goals seem to be “Pull Goals”, because they are based on satisfying an internal psychological need that creates what is commonly called “passion” e.g., one can be passionate about becoming a great painter (having the ability to paint a great work), but not about painting as a path to X. While foundationally extrinsic goals seem to be “Push Goals”, because you are driven by acquisition of goods and/or an appearance that is not inherently valuable in and of itself to you personally, but is merely a means to some other end e.g., painting to pay the rent so you can live in an expensive city with X, Y and Z.

    Perhaps there is a sequential relationship between Pull and Push goals, which is difficult to see clearly because people do not “know themselves” well enough. In the painter example above, the pull goal could be “Become and remain a cosmopolite” which requires push goals of acquiring money. Perhaps every push goal is really a subset/prompted by a larger pull goal, some of which we consciously know and others which we cannot/do not want to admit to ourselves, e.g., who wants to admit that their intrinsic goal in life is to be a cosmopolite? (Yet, many have this and only this goal when it comes to living in an urban center.)

    In a more classical sense a push goal might be seen as “merely a means”, while a pull goal could be seen as an end in itself. The scenario in which there is seemingly only a push goal being a simple case of the person not knowing their underlying motivations, there being a pull goal that they are not aware of. In other words, every push goal/push goals has an overarching pull goal which may or may not be known by the person. Does that seem right, or am I way off?

    The most relevant example I can think of is the reason for why someone would give for “starting a company”; Push would be as a means to maintain a state/appearance and/or acquire goods, while Pull would be as an end in itself, satisfying an internal psychological need to create X change in one’s surrounding environment. The people with a pull goal they don’t know/won’t admit to themselves e.g., I want to be an entrepreneur, will only see their push goal of make large company X, while those that “know themselves” better will see a clear pull goal and create various push goals as a means to achieving the pull goal, they will also suggest that everyone think about the situation as they do; having a clearly defined pull goal.

    A more succinct version of this might be; https://twitter.com/rabois/status/755436530877865985

    Looking forward to hearing your reply/comment.

  65. Jim Stone says:

    Love the distinction. A couple thoughts:

    1. Perhaps ‘hammer goals’, and ‘nail goals’ would be more intuitive, playing on the old adage, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    2. I also like the way PKU mapped these onto different kinds of professionals — creators and responders. Creators thrive on finding problems and developing the tools and plans to solve them. Responders have to wait for problems and hope they can solve them with the tools and processes they developed ahead of time.