More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

Do We Actually Want Our Goals?

In the book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright is honest about his goals and explains a feeling that I think is not well addressed by most people. Focusing on the times when the direction of our life seems to be able to shift, Wright comments on the difficulties and challenges of pivoting. He encourages us to reflect on our path and destination, and be prepared for moments when our path takes a sudden turn, and we find ourselves moving toward a new destination. At these times, when our course changes, he encourages us to ask why we were on our original path? What set our goals and built our motivation to reach those goals? What are the stories we have been telling ourselves as travel toward our goals? These self reflective practices dive deeper into who we are and what we want than we often allow ourselves to think, and they can help us be more flexible in our journey, and more aligned toward goals that actually help us get to a place where we belong.

 

Wright asks, “If one’s goals are suddenly within reach but one doesn’t take them, what does it say about one’s knowledge of oneself and the truth of those goals?” I interpret this quote in two ways. The first being that we are complacent and our goals are impressive, but not more important than the status quo in our lives. And second, that we strive toward goals that were never in alignment with what we actually wanted. Wright continues in the book to detail what the second interpretation means, and I will explore both briefly.

 

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and author, is relentlessly striving to wake people from what he describes as the complacent class. He believes that people too often favor the status quo, don’t push for change, and don’t have a strong enough drive toward worthwhile goals. My first interpretation of Wright’s quote aligns with Cowen’s views on the complacent class. Sometimes our goals are out there and within reach, but we need to take uncomfortable steps and put ourselves in challenging positions to reach the goals.  We can achieve what we tell ourselves and others that we want, but we make excuses for why we can’t actually achieve our goals or why this moment isn’t the right time for us to take the tough steps toward our goals. When we stop and reflect, we can see how far we truly are from success and begin to ask what we can do to move forward. If we see that we can achieve our goals, but do not put in the effort to reach them, then we must assume that they are not important to us, and that we are more comfortable where we are. This can exist at a base level of an individual who says their goals is to get a job, but instead plays video games, or at the executive level with an individual who states that they want to be a CEO, but never steps forward when an opportunity arises.

 

The other view of Wright’s quote is that we are striving toward goals that other people have set for us, or that we have adopted to try to please others. It could be that the individual in my second example above has felt pressure to be a CEO because her parents always wanted her to succeed and challenge barriers in society, but she may feel perfectly in alignment with her current position and lifestyle. When we put goals in front of us that do not fit who we are and what we truly want, steps toward our goal will actually be a detractor from our overall happiness. When we see the way to reach out goal, and we recognize that we are procrastinating, we should reflect to determine whether our goal is something we actually want and if it is in line with who we are or want to become. If we see that it is, then we should lean into the obstacles that slow us down, but if not, we should redirect ourselves and find goals that better fit who we are as opposed to who others want us to be.

Avoiding Extremes

Colin Wright is an author, podcast host, and in to some degree full time traveler writing about his experiences and the ways in which he has come to see the world through stoic principles of self-awareness and mindful consideration. In his recent book, Come Back Frayed, Wright details his experiences living in the Philippines and explains ways in which his lifestyle contribute to his being able to not just survive, but thrive in very different environments and places. One of Wright’s traits lending to a successful lifestyle of travel is his ability to avoid extremes in terms of thought, behavior, and desires. Regarding extremes he writes,

 

“Extremes are insidious because they’re incredibly valuable until they’re not. At some point on the usefulness curve, they transition, hyde-like, to harmful. Even water is deadly if you drink too much of it.
Avoiding extremes has become an integral part of my lifestyle, because I find that walking up to that line, toeing it, and then stepping back to stand on healthier, more stable ground is what allows me to work and live and enjoy the world around me without suffering the consequences of burnout, sleep-deprivation, ill-health, and fanaticism.”

 

I enjoy this passage because Wright explains the importance of remaining even and level in our actions. It is easy, tempting, and often encouraged to push toward an extreme in whatever we are doing with our lives, but in the long run the consequences of living on the extremes can be disastrous. Pursuing diets without flexibility, driving toward completing incredible amounts of work, and even participating in non-stop leisure can lead to worse outcomes than if we had been more balanced in our approach. Focusing so highly on one area may help us find incredible success, but as we push further toward the extremes, we must out of necessity, and limitations on our time and energy, give up attention for other areas of our life. Without stopping to take notice of our focus, we will find that suddenly, our laser detail on one extreme, has allowed other areas to become problematic.

 

This is the sudden change that Wright discusses in his quote above. Extremes push us to places where the supports that allow for our behavior become weakened and unable to further support our specific efforts. Because our focus is so set in one area, it also means we are oblivious to areas we have chosen to neglect, and when problems arise, we might not know where to look to find solutions.

 

Greatness and deliberate action are things to strive for, but we should recognize what we are sacrificing to reach those goals. As we drive further toward extremes in pursuit of excellence, we will notice that we must take our focus away from other areas. Being conscious of our decisions and recognizing when we are approaching extreme points will help us find a place where we can continue to seek greatness on more stable footing.

New Avenues for Movement

One of the ideas in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is developing a focus on other people and things beyond ones-self and one’s immediate wants and desires. Holiday follows stoic principles to build a more purposeful and meaningful life, and one of his strategies is to think more deeply about others. He encourages present mindedness in our thoughts, but in a way that is reflective and understanding, beyond a presence that is concerned about what we have, what we want, and what others have that we do not. By applying this type of thinking to the challenges we face, Holiday give us a new vision of obstacles, the difficulties we face, and how our challenges relate to other people. He writes, “Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?”

 

This quote shows the importance of thinking beyond ourselves when we are faced with obstacles. The easy thing to do when we are stuck and unable to see potential solutions is to give up and complain about how unfair our situation is. What Holiday argues is a productive response to being stuck, is to stop thinking about ourselves and how limited our possibilities are. By shifting our focus of the problem away from our own “stuckness” and instead thinking of what we could do to help those who are in similar situations, we give ourselves new pathways forward. They may not be the pathways we originally envisioned, and they may not lead to the same destination, but they do move forward.

 

The crucial idea in Holiday’s quote is that thinking of others allows us more growth through deeper reflection. This mindset provides an opportunity for us to develop deeper connections with other human beings through the struggles we share. We likely will not find ourselves in situations that are truly unique to only us. Others have certainly been in our shoes at some point, and many more will experience situations similar to ours in the future. Thinking about what would have been helpful for ourselves, and creating ways to share our experiences, attempted solutions, and successes allows us do something meaningful at a point where none of our actions seem important.

 

This thought process gives us a new direction and new goals. we likely will have to shift our aim and pursue new actions to try to implement ideas that benefit others, but in doing so, we abandon our stuckness, and open doors for others. We experience new energy through acts that do good for others, and we create new opportunities for ourselves that we could not have predicted had we not been creative during our struggles. Holiday’s simple idea gives us an oblique approach to forward growth and a more meaningful life for ourselves and those around us.

Things Will Go Wrong

The importance of anticipation and preparation for challenges is one of the items that author Ryan Holiday writes about in his book, The obstacle is the Way. In true stoic fashion, Holiday encourages us to step back and anticipate what challenges we might face along our path, and plan ways in which we could overcome our obstacles or the challenges ahead of us. Holiday also highlights the importance of understanding that our plans will not always go the way we want, and that it is important to handle negativity and failure in a calm and objective manner. Setting up this idea he writes, “the only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.”

 

No matter what, our plans to do not take place in a vacuum and we are always dependent on other for our success. The more people we involve in our plans, the more opportunities for things to go wrong, but at the same time the more people included, the further we can go. What Holiday explains in his writing is that we should expect situations and demands to change, meaning that our actions and endpoints will also change. Our plans may seem extraordinary, but they may not always be realistic given the actors and expectations we have, and we should be willing to adjust accordingly in reaction to the real world around us.

 

When our plans completely crash, Holiday offers additional advice. “And in the case where nothing could be done, the stoics would use it as an important practice to do something the rest of us too often fail to do: manage expectations. Because sometimes the only answer to “What if . . . “ is, it will suck but we’ll be ok.” When we fail to reach our goals and when our plans do not work out the tempting thing to do is blame someone else and make excuses for why things went wrong. Holiday instead encourages us to move forward and understand that we are still ok. Rather than letting ourselves be wrecked because a plan failed, be it as small as the rout we plan to take to the movie or as large as our plan to get a new job, we should recognize that nothing has truly affected us, and it is simply our mind that decides whether we are impacted at all.

Perfection

When we think about what we want, the solution to a problem, how the world should be organized, or what we expect for many other things, we often think in the world of perfection. I don’t really know whether striving for absolute perfection is a net positive or not, but there are definitely some negatives that we should consider about striving for perfection.  Author Ryan Holiday explores this idea in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. Specifically, Holiday looks at the path our lives take and asks whether we should be expect a perfect path to our version of success, or whether we should be happy with a path that turns and changes as we get from point A to point B. In regards to pragmatism and realism, Holiday writes, “you’re never going to find that kind of perfection. Instead, do the best with what you’ve got.”

 

Holiday’s quote reminds us that we must not always compare our lives to the imaginary perfect version of our lives that we see reflected in tv shows or other people’s Facebook feeds. We won’t always have all the answers, and we can never predict how our life will turn out, so rather than hold ourselves to some sort of ideal perfection, we should do our best to move forward, aware of the world around us and the opportunities we have to improve not just ourselves, but everyone. The key to accepting the reality of our lives and our journey is flexibility. Being able to adjust to changes and accept that some goals are going to be more realistic than others, or at least to accept that some pathways will be more realistic than others, will help us find more content and be more engaged on our journey.

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about politics, I have returned to school for a masters in public policy, and I think this idea is one that we need to put toward our politics. We all envision a world were politics are simple and the country works in a smooth and straight forward manner. The perfect idealism in our head however, is not exactly possible. In the United States we have 330+ million people, and assuming that our narrow and limited political idealism is going to fit for all 330 million is a naive mistake. I recently read John Rauch’s book, Political Realism, and he discusses the ways in which our perfect ideology stunts the action of the government, because it puts our elected officials in a place where they cannot act to compromise, because perfection is the only approved outcome in politics. Beginning to see that perfection is unrealistic, and that striving for it can be cataclysmic, will help us begin to advance and make changes in our politics, and in our lives.