Why do people want what they can’t have?

David, the author of Raptitude, wrote an interesting blog post recently. He offers his thoughts about achieving one’s goals, specifically those related to fitness. His point is that people often approach long-term goals like fitness or debt reduction with the mindset of sacrifice or conflict, which puts the goal at odds with one’s current activities, offering little short-term gain from the goal and lots of frustration though struggling to achieve it. His solution to this problem is to find something about the goal that one can appreciate immediately, in addition to anticipating the larger, long-term reward of achieving the goal.

There’s an interesting corollary to David’s post that he briefly mentions: people often choose ambitious or vague goals that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. To put it pessimistically, people want what they can’t have — this formulation is unfair, of course, but without a plan to achieve the goal  it is the likely result of most of our desires.

A personal maxim which relates to this problem is: we don’t study what we are good at. In other words, “we want what we don’t have.” (But if you’re a good student, you ought to improve through incremental exercises.) We want to be experts in subjects that challenge us, not what we can already do well enough.

What’s more, there is a similar vein to most religions that teach some sort of salvation or liberation. In these religions, people often want what they can’t have in this life — the after-life, moksha, nirvana, etc. — and they spend years working towards that unattainable goal or desire. What’s more, the path to fulfill this goal is often clouded by mystical practices that can’t be clearly defined in terms of incrementally attaining a goal, like you can with incrementally saving $100,000. Of course, there is a promise of fulfilling this wish, but it is often founded on something that is out of the wisher’s control, which is where faith enters the picture. My point isn’t to attack religious salvation or New Year’s resolutions. Rather, I want to explore idea that people regularly choose goals that are far out of reach, if not impossibly so. And I’d like to urge folks to reconsider how they choose their goals, whether they involve religion, health, finance, etc.

In his post, David draws on a trope that people often apply to peculiar practices that humans do. I call it the “Visiting Alien Fallacy”. It goes like this, in David’s words, “Visiting aliens would be confounded that we appear to worship this particular quality yet don’t usually embody it.” There are some hidden assumptions about these aliens that David, and others don’t spell out for us. The most important one is: these aliens are supposed to be perfectly rational, like Dr. Spock. The folks who commit this fallacy clearly didn’t watch enough sci-fi before writing about aliens because most aliens aren’t like Dr. Spock. In Star Trek, Star Wars, and countless other tales, aliens often make the same logical mistakes that people do. They also probably have the intergalactic equivalents of body image problems and credit card debt, just like we do.

A more interesting possibility is, perhaps our persistent fascination with unobtainable goals is only paradoxical to us, the ones who do it? When we observe others struggling with unrealistic goals, it is often clear to the observers why they fail to achieve their goals.

It’s useful to note that what we do defines our lives more than what we want. I can want to be a millionaire until I die, but unless I figure out how to make more money than I spend and save the surplus, I’ll die first. Consequently, it’s more important to define what you do in a day than what you want to achieve over a longer length of time: by defining your actions during a day, you can make small achievable steps towards a goal, like going to the gym every other day or saving $10 every day, and the large goal takes care of itself through the habit. Making small activities part of one’s daily routine is much easier than staring at a seemingly unattainable goal of losing 25 lbs. or saving $100,000. And this is why I think people want what they can’t actually have: we’re famously bad at translating our large goals into daily routines — find a small step you can take towards your goal every day, the rest takes care of itself.

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