A Dark Side of Goals vs Internal Change

So much of our surroundings focus on the accomplishment of goals, big and small. We, understandably, look at graduation, marriage, or landing an important job or promotion with great pride and accomplishment. At a smaller level, we can be pleased with paying a bill, doing a load of laundry, or exercising especially when such tasks haven’t been done for a while. We can even see this at the micro level when a video game says “Good job!” for pressing “A” or some such achievement.

However, it is important to recognize how easy it is to lose sight of the internal changes. I’m not talking about dopamine, long-term potentiation of neurons, different hot spots on fMRI, or other biological markers that are often pointed out in academic circles. I’m talking about our own internal sense of going through changes.

A change in ourselves is one that occurs over time. It is not always the threshold implied by achieving a goal.

One often missed component of learning is that of memory. When we do not remember something well, the most frequent culprit is the first of its four stages, namely attention. 1

As an example, when I’m studying a language with Duolingo, I can get through a lesson without much fuss. There is an excitement to the process as I only have 5 hearts to use. If I don’t make it to my daily lesson achievement, I lose my streak.

The issue, however, is that I can often guess at a correct answer. And while this is a valid part of the learning process, it is not enough.

It is far easier to prompt myself to wonder why something is wrong just to get through, than it is to question why something was correct. Wondering about turns of phrases, or just pay attention to something that seems slightly different like an odd conjugation of a verb does much for learning.

To do so, I have to picture the phrase, verb, or idea in my head. I have to measure my understanding internally.

It is not obvious how to pay attention. But doing so is the first step of memorization and learning. I am paying attention to the confusion or frustration that prompts the thought. I am witnessing my thoughts form. As I do, I see questions about it arise. I follow up those I wish to pursue and drop those I don’t.

All of these steps comprise the growth process in action. And all of these would be skipped by simply being happy with the “ding” and “good job”. We do best to take care in cultivating our internal worlds.

We are often lulled into not only accepting rewards, but as viewing them as the raison d’etre of a task. We are often told to create them, be that when designing our own habits or trying to get through some otherwise onerous task. But I think we get much further by seeing a goal as an artifact, less so than the actual soul of the matter.

  1. Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It

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