A question that I’ve recently grown fond of is “what’s your goal?”. Usually, this question arises when someone is describing course of action and wondering if it’s good or bad. Sometimes, during this process, people get trapped in this mindset where they think the course of action is either good or bad in a way that’s independent from external reality.
For example, suppose that you’re playing chess and you have Magnus Carlsen sitting next to you. Should you ask Magnus Carlsen what move to play next?
Well, it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to get better at chess, asking Magnus Carlsen what move he would make is an okay thing to do, but it’s likely not the best thing. You could instead think of what move you would make, then ask Magnus Carlsen to explain why his move was better than yours. If, however, your goal was to win the chess game, the best move would be to ask Magnus Carlsen to play for you.
In a more relevant example, sometimes people talk about deference, which is roughly trying to answer the question of “how should I trade off forming my own views on things versus deferring to people I think are more knowledgeable than me?” When answering this question, I think people often founder because they have lost sight of their goal.1 Since they’re not sure if their goal is to become better at thinking by themselves or have accurate beliefs, their uncertainty over their goal translates to uncertainty over action. However, since they have not traced their thinking back to their goal, they try to resolve their uncertainty over actions by looking at properties over the actions themselves.
A simpler example of this phenomenon would be playing a card game where you don’t know the victory condition. Since you don’t know the victory condition, you don’t know whether to play two or three. However, you don’t realize that you don’t know the victory condition, so you try to decide which action is better by comparing the intrinsic properties of two and three. In this situation, resolving your uncertainty about the victory condition is the proper thing to do. Similarly, when people are confused about what action to take, the proper move is often to resolve uncertainty about their goal. One way to systematically connect actions to goals is goal factoring.
Thus is it written in The Book of Five Rings:
The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.
Note that I do not expect Buck, author of the linked post, to make this mistake. He is one of the people that first introduced me to usefulness of asking “what’s your goal?” ↩