The Four Steps of Purposefulness

 Posted by on 29 September 2002 at 4:44 pm  Uncategorized
Sep 292002

In reading the chapter on living purposefully in Nathaniel Branden’s The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, I was struck by the insightfulness of his four “core issues” of living purposefully (133-5). Branden argues that to live purposefully, we must:

1. consciously formulate goals and purposes
2. identify the actions required to achieve our goals
3. monitor our behavior for alignment with our goals
4. attend to whether the outcomes of our actions are consistent with our goals

Clearly, we cannot live purposefully without consistently engaging in all four of these aspects of purposefulness. But we should not make the mistake of seeing these four core issues as independent of one another. Rather, they are a progression of steps, such that failures of productiveness are essentially failures to move beyond the first, second, or third step. (In what might appear to be an odd coincidence, but surely is not, in the “Examples” section later in this chapter, Branden’s the three examples correspond to the three basic types of failures discussed below.)

The Idle Dreamer: Some people stop at the first step of formulating goals and purposes. Those goals, however, are nothing but idle dreams and wishes without a plan of action to translate them into reality. (Of course, if no action is taken as part of step two, then there is no need for monitoring behavior or outcomes in steps three and four.) I remember having this mindset when I was an undergraduate pondering pursuing philosophy professionally. I just expected great things to happen somehow, without any planning or forethought or innovation on my part. That attitude is one of the reasons I’m very glad that I chose to “waste” a few years programming instead of jumping right into graduate school. The clash between my idle dreams and reality would have been quite unpleasant.

Barbara Branden makes a related point in Lecture Five of Principles of Efficient Thinking with respect to valuing. She argues that people who claim to value something but exert no effort towards achieving it can hardly be said to value that thing at all. As an example, she cites people who say they want to live in a world like Galt’s Gulch, but do nothing to make it real, instead waiting for someone else to make it happen. (People armed with such attitudes can then conveniently blame all of life’s failures and miseries on the world and other people rather than on themselves.) As Branden notes: “The man unconcerned with means is the man unconcerned with ends.”

The Time Waster: A person who only completes steps one and two (by formulating goals and identifying required actions) is certainly better off than the Idle Dreamer. But serious problems still loom because day-to-day actions are not aligned with long-term goals. As a result, time will silently slip away, leaving those goals unfulfilled. My garden suffered from such neglect this summer, as I would only occasionally work on it in exhausting, irregular, and inefficient fits and starts. As a result, my goals of a beautiful, fun, and (relatively) easy-to-maintain garden seemed hopelessly out of reach. After recognizing the problem, I began working on it for a few hours each weekend and was stunned and delighted by the progress I made. If such problems of time management go unnoticed and uncorrected, over time the goals themselves may fade, leaving a person with few meaningful long-term projects to energize and excite them in life.

The Misdirected Actor: A person who completes steps one, two, and three (formulates goals, identifies actions, and monitors behavior) but fails to do four (attend to the outcomes) is not yet fully purposeful. Often, we are mistaken as to what actions will or will not accomplish our goals. By failing to notice and change those actions which do not achieve the desired results, we may wander off-course entirely, destining ourselves for failure. For example, in writing papers I sometimes find myself stuck, unable to make progress in my work. Sometimes my lazy work habits are to blame, but more often than not the stickiness results from a structural or conceptual flaw in my work that I must find and correct in order to continue writing. (Unfortunately, my subconscious can remain remarkably tight-lipped about where the problem lies.) In such situations, I become a Misdirected Actor if I ignore the problem and attempt to force myself to keep writing. Only by changing my strategy for a time, by taking time to carefully review my work, can I remain purposeful and effective in my writing.

This fourth aspect of purposefulness, attending to the outcomes of our actions, strikes me as the most difficult and subtle aspect of purposefulness. After all, it is often difficult to accurately identify the causes of failure. In my paper-writing example, sometimes stickiness may be the result of sheer laziness, in which case I must simply discipline myself to the task of writing. As a result, I have often wasted days on the wrong strategy: attempting to make myself write through force of will when I needed to take time to identify the problem or vice versa. With time and experience, I will likely become more skilled at quickly and accurately identifying the cause of my writing stickiness, but I may never achieve full and easy mastery. So whatever the goal, identifying the causes of undesirable outcomes can indeed be a difficult task.

Although I’m sure that we can fail to be purposeful in ways other than those described here, I suspect that Branden has captured the great majority of common problems with purposefulness in identifying these four “core issues.”

Update: While I don’t disagree with anything in particular in this post, I no longer think well of Nathaniel Branden or his recent work as I did when I wrote this post. My reasons can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.

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