goals in learning.

I used to set goals for my learning.

Whenever I encounter an interesting online course, I decide to take it. I sign up. I check out the course content. I define as my goal to finish the course in 4 weeks.

Now, how often did that work out for me? Did I enjoy learning? Sadly, no; and it didn’t work out quite well. I started to lose hope and trust in goals.

Goals are bad. Don’t focus on goals. Focus on the journey instead. This is common advice.

But what are we left with if we only focus on the journey and the process? Sure, it might be more energizing and motivating. But it might also hold some pitfalls. Without a goal, we could easily get distracted by everything that seems interesting.

If you don’t like goals, and only focusing on the journey is too distracting for you because your attention is everywhere and nowhere, maybe we can combine both — goals and the journey — by redefining goals.

Let’s try reframing goals as approximate destinations — as north stars.

No goal, only journey. In this scenario, I start with something. I get distracted by something else which seems more interesting at the moment. I follow it. I don’t make real progress. I think I know a lot of things, but honestly, I only know the bare minimum. This doesn’t feel great.

Fixed goal. This I tried a lot — finish the course in X weeks. But fixed goals are too rigid and inflexible. You can’t adjust. You can’t take time to go deeper. You can’t take time to understand. You can’t take time to follow curiosity. It’s just frustrating and drains a lot of energy.

North star — like the actual north star, your personal north star can be a guide which you use as an orientation point. This is what I’m currently trying out. You accept that learning is a nonlinear process. You deal with surprising curiosities and unknowns — like gaps in your understanding, or the desire for deeper understanding.

For example, your north star could be to become a Design Engineer. Look for a course that might get you there. It doesn’t matter in how many weeks you finish the course, if you skip materials, or even start doing a new course — as long as it gets you closer to your north star. You can define small sufficient steps with a deadline in which you want to learn something specific to do. You don’t know what you will encounter along the way and in what direction it might guide you.

A north star goal is more like a direction. A direction that creates creative constraints in which you can follow your journey and curiosity. You might try different things. You might even end up slightly somewhere else but that’s ok. You don’t have any regrets because you followed your curiosity. The approximate direction is correct. You build special skills along the way.

A north star can create energy. It can generate motivation. It might even make learning joyful again.

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