Dream Big, Think Small

Recently, I workshopped an interesting challenge with a potential applicant that makes a good case study on some of the unique ways we like to tackle ambitious goal setting and career planning.
This person has a long-term goal of working for the company SpaceX who has an incredibly rigorous, demanding, and competitive application process.
Because the path of most successful SpaceX employees looks much different than that of the average Praxis alum the potential applicant wanted to chat to see if we still made sense for them.
What we came up with during our discussion makes for an interesting case study on how to set ambitious goals, break them into manageable chunks, and protect yourself from the sunken cost fallacy.

Potential Risks with Big Goals

What I love about the SpaceX goal is that it’s large and ambitious enough that it should provide sufficient motivation to push through tough times and periods of low energy.
However, there are a few potential challenges that I’ve often seen both on my own and with Praxis participants who set cool and exciting goals.
In short, we tend to get started and through the process of action discover new information that can change our perspective drastically.
In the SpaceX example, a few things came to surface with just some cursory examination and research:

  1. A potential philosophical difference with the founder of the company
  2. No knowledge if the process of electrical engineering itself would be enjoyable
  3. The discovery of some ancillary fields working on problems related to the mission of SpaceX that seem exciting and cool

To be frank, both scientific research and anecdotal evidence tell me that we’re terrible at knowing what we really want or predicting our future satisfaction.

A Probabilistic Approach to Ambition

With those potential pitfalls in mind, I still think it’s worthwhile to approach the goals and ambitions we have now as something to pursue wholeheartedly.
However, I always suggest to people that they start thinking probabilistically.
In the SpaceX example, I asked the potential applicant to give a rough estimation of the probability of getting hired by the company if they put in a significant amount of effort into the application.
With a bit of research, we both agreed that the likelihood is most likely hovering below 1%.
While this might seem discouraging, I often suggest that folks increase the scope of their ambition if it’s not close to 1% likely.
For example, I was recently chatting with a participant who has the goal of writing a book. She estimated the probability of finishing it in 3 months at about 40%.
We settled on a new goal of selling 10,000 copies of her book in the next 6 months.
This is important because in the next step of improving goal setting I suggest breaking down the critical path of achieving the ambitious goal into far more likely steps and going after them with energy and determination.
Here’s an example of what I mean from the SpaceX thought experiment:
1. Appear as a guest writer on Wait But Why (a blog Elon Musk is known to read)
2. Develop a network of 30 well-known futurists and innovators in the next 3 months
3. Inspire 5 new deep thinkers to work on space exploration by communicating and popularizing some of the nagging problems and challenges.
We put these events as between 5% and 30% likelihood of occurring in the next year.
Afterwards, we were able to do a little better exploring even higher likelihood events:

  • Get the editor of wait but why to open an email
  • Attend 10 futurism meetups
  • publish a blog every day for 30 days

While these probabilities are arbitrary, this type of thinking has two huge benefits.
First, if they achieve any of them it increases the likelihood of the macro goal landing the SpaceX gig.
Secondly, the process of achieving them or even failing to achieve them has huge potential pay off for improving the potential applicant’s life in ways they can’t even imagine right now.
In short, a much better or more interesting opportunity may present itself through one of these micro goals. Even though they’re being pursued in service to a larger goal, they are in no way tied to that outcome itself.
I think this has immense benefits over the credential model where one most dedicate a huge amount of time, energy, and money into a course of study that is limited in its optionality.
For example, would you rather have 24 liberal arts and 6 electrical engineering credits before deciding to pivot into marketing for a disruptive tech firm or a large network of readers interested in your writing on future technology?

More Convexity

One of my favorite ideas to apply to career planning comes from the thought of Nassim Taleb.
This is Taleb in a really fascinating essay called Understanding is a Poor Substitute for Convexity:

“Under some level of uncertainty, we benefit more from improving the payoff function than from knowledge about what exactly we are looking for. Convexity can be increased by lowering costs per unit of trial… reduce the costs per attempt, compensate by multiplying the number of trials and allocating 1/N of the potential investment across N investments, and make N as large as possible.”

To summarize, I like to call this the don’t put your eggs in one basket strategy.
Applying the above to our case study, we can call the numeral 1 Taleb mentions the cumulative money, time, and energy the potential applicant is willing to put into the project while N is the number of subgoals we identified.
According to Taleb’s research and some of the musings we explored on how likely we are to not know what we want it seems clear that increasing the number of subgoals and smaller benchmarks they complete is a better approach than going all in on a linear plan.

The Praxis PDP

A core idea in the Praxis education experience is the personal development project. We’ve written on this idea extensively here, here, and here.
Here’s how Isaac Morehouse describes them:

“Project-based learning – tackling a challenge that the learner has individual, intrinsic motivation to tackle – is the most valuable method for transforming your mind and habits and building your personal capital. It bypasses dichotomies between theory and practice by focusing instead on desired outcomes. It’s about who you want to become, and what in your unique situation is most likely to help you get there. This is the way most people approach physical health and fitness, but it’s surprisingly rare when it comes to mental and emotional intelligence, character, and skills”

This concept is a natural starting point for the potential applicant in our case study.
Any results they generate have the potential to be valuable in a wide variety of contexts and the time commitment isn’t extensive.
I think this idea touches on one of the most exciting and paradoxically least attractive elements of the Praxis education model.
Similar to an athletic competition, a PDP either achieves the desired outcome or it doesn’t.
We don’t offer any kind of grading system and I can’t think of a way you can cheat on a PDP like you would a test.
This framework necessarily limits the stories and rationalizations one can make when analyzing their progress.
Honesty can be stark and a bit scary sometimes.
Those willing to stare down that fear make awesome participants who continue to impress us with how much they accomplish.