How to discover when you have the wrong goal

[SPOILER: This is not self-help.]

The short answer to the question, “How can I discover when I have the wrong goal?” is by gaining enough self-awareness to see where your goal came from. Before explaining how to do that, however, we must address the objection that it would be impossible to have a wrong goal.

This objection is well-represented by the 1963 song, “You don’t own me” by Madara and White. Here’s an excerpt:

Don’t tell me what to do
and don’t tell me what to say

I’m young and I love to be young,
I’m free and I love to be free,
to live my life the way I want,
to say and do whatever I please.

By associating ownership (a.k.a. “slavery”) with attempts by one person to change the goals of another, the title of this song implies that immaturity and ignorance are moral rights, that we ought to let people who have wrong goals blissfully believe that their goals are freely chosen and correct.

Grace, the singer who rerecorded the song in 2015, said “I know who I am and what I want to do, and this song speaks to that. It’s so important to go after what you want, to be strong.” I doubt she meant that she could not possibly learn anything about her identity and desires from new scientific discovery. Rather, I think she meant that it would be wrong to just sit around waiting for scientists to gather objective evidence regarding who you are and what you want. When we say it is important for people to have self-esteem, we may mean that it is important not to get stuck in the paralysis of second-guessing one’s goals.

So many self-help books advise us about how to achieve our goals, but assume that we have the right goals. Many specify particular goals that could be good except perhaps that a different goal should take priority. Building wealth, getting fit, improving relationships, changing the world—only one can take priority for a given person at a given moment. For example, for certain persons, the goal of building wealth might be wrong because it stands in the way of the right goal of improving their marriages (or vice-versa).

It is possible to claim that our goals are right by virtue of being selected. If you regret the goals you had ten years ago (e.g. to get drunk and hook-up), you could tell yourself that those choices were right for the person you used to be. We could look at less-developed societies who invested more in killing each other than in developing technology, and we could tell ourselves that killing each other was the right goal for them at that point in their development.

On the other hand, we could believe it is possible to make mistakes, to be manipulated, to lack self-awareness, to be immature, ignorant, and unsophisticated. This entails a sacrifice of self-esteem because the minute we believe someone had the wrong goal, we must realize that someday someone may criticize our current goals in the same way. But, surprisingly, that loss of self-esteem is not paralyzing. On the contrary, it is inspiring—it motivates us to seek greater self-awareness, greater freedom.

Many people fight—and even give their lives—for the sake of freedom, and that makes sense only if we believe it is possible not to be free. For example, some people fight for security, hoping to prevent fear from manipulating their loved-ones into shifting from a goal of good relationships to an “every-man-for-himself” goal of personal survival. Likewise, some people fight for health, hoping to prevent stress from manipulating their loved-ones into shifting from a goal of addiction-avoidance to a goal of escape. Our behavior demonstrates our belief that people can be manipulated, and therefore can have wrong goals.

The Strategy

This brings us to our strategy for discovering when we have the wrong goal. Our strategy is to determine where our goal came from—did it result from manipulation?

Notice how important it is to determine the origins of our goals through self-awareness: If I tell you that you have the wrong goal, won’t that manipulate you into choosing a different goal? Technically, it is possible that I might manipulate you into choosing the goal you would have chosen if not manipulated, so self-awareness isn’t strictly necessary. However, how can you trust me to be so benevolent? Only through self-awareness can you be sure that your goal is right.

On the other hand, completely independent self-awareness never happens. Whenever we calculate, we trust those who invented and taught mathematics. Whenever we think in language, we trust those who invented and taught that language. Whenever we use the Internet to research facts, we trust those who authored the claims, those who provided quality control, and those who secure the Internet.

Do people who teach math and language own us? Of course not! Many people teach the same math and language, so we do not rely on any particular teacher, and any teacher who teaches it incorrectly is likely to be discovered. Likewise, if someone tells us that getting drunk is the wrong goal, rather than complain that someone is trying to own us, we should be able to compare against advice from other sources. The fact that getting drunk is the wrong goal is common-knowledge like math and language. Things don’t get dicey until understanding the origins of our goals requires uncommon cutting-edge knowledge.

How can cutting-edge knowledge enter the mainstream? Since we can’t validate it on the basis that it is well-known, it has to be able to be validated in some other way—and the means to validation also need to be able to be validated. That’s a two-way street: On the one hand, new discoveries need to be presented in terms of experiments that can be replicated. On the other hand, we need a broad community to replicate experiments. It is not enough that elite scientists hold each other accountable; organizations which confront cutting-edge science (e.g. churches) also must develop and implement a capacity to test new discoveries.

This is a lot of work. Even elite scientists tend not to test each other’s discoveries in a timely fashion—they are more interested in making discoveries of their own. With so little replication being attempted, it’s no wonder discoveries are rarely published in ways that make replication easy. In fact, scientists seem inclined to make discoveries that would be difficult to replicate (e.g. by using special equipment). So we have a tax to pay. If we want to be able to discover when we have the wrong goals—if we want freedom—then we need to go to the trouble of building a social infrastructure that can move cutting-edge knowledge to the mainstream.

Progress so far

What happens when we apply this strategy? What happens when we build self-awareness by learning what is well-known and bringing cutting-edge knowledge into the mainstream? What do we discover about the origins of our goals?

We find that some goals are right because they are practical. For example, the goal to stay alive is practical, and that requires us to eat and sleep, so a certain amount of eating and sleeping are practical goals as well. If we aim to eat or sleep more than necessary, then our goal is no longer practical, and probably wrong.

The goal to adapt is also practical. Because adaptation occurs gradually as new configurations spread across a community, the goal to speed adaptation relies on the goals of increasing four other quantities:

  1. Rate at which novel configurations are produced (G)
  2. Bias for better configurations (N)
  3. Fidelity with which proven configurations are reproduced (I)
  4. Localization of reproductive networks (R)

The equation for rate of adaptation goes like this (where W represents how close the community is to perfection)

dW/dt = (G)(b-W) + (R)(I)(N)var(W)/W

The two terms in this equation may be thought of as “rate of adaptation through mutation” and “rate of adaptation through reproduction.” In order for adaptation through reproduction to occur, R, I and N must all be non-zero, so all three are practical goals. G is also a practical goal if the community is not so close to perfection that W>b. However, because adaptation takes place at the level of the community, it is practical for these goals to be assigned to different members of the community. Thus, it is good for us to have different goals, but it is not good for us to take our personal goals to such an extreme that we prevent the other goals from being pursued by other members of our community.

The four goals correspond to GRIN-types. You can apply the GRIN-SQ to confirm that these goals are distributed across our communities. Comparing the GRIN-SQ to other surveys which have biological correlates reveals that these goals are hardwired. The hardwiring could be tested more directly by including the GRIN-SQ in twin studies and studies with fMRI and EEG (etc).

The singer of “You don’t own me” pleads “…just let me be myself.” In order to allow people to discover which goals they are hardwired to pursue, we should calibrate biological instruments to measure our hardwiring just like we can measure blood type. Assuming enough people are hardwired for each goal, it will be most practical for each person to follow the goal corresponding to their current hardwiring. Thus, we need only to measure our own hardwiring and confirm that other members of our community have the other goals covered.

That allows us to confirm that certain practical goals are right, but whether or not we can have right goals that are not merely practical (i.e. goals which we choose freely) will be difficult to tell. For example, some people appear to chose goals corresponding to a GRIN type other than his/her natural type. Only recently have we uncovered evidence that such behavior is actually manipulated through neurochemistry triggered by certain engineered social situations.

When we see the practical origins of a goal, we can know it is right—it is what we have to do—but goals which have no practical origins might be found to be wrong. The way to test is to monitor the circumstances under which goals shift. If we find a circumstance (be it a chemical, a ritual, or interaction with a particular person) that shifts many people’s goals in the same way, then we have found a form of manipulation. Our ability to escape ignorance depends upon building a social infrastructure for such testing.


The process of achieving greater self-awareness, discovering our roles in our community and discovering sources of manipulation is a process in we should all share. Since we rely on each other to play different roles in our community, we are interdependent and it is in our best interest that we all avoid getting distracted by wrong goals. Some of us should design the research, others should critique the designs, others should collect the data, and yet others should test the replicability of the results. The process is expensive, but it is not a process any of us need implement alone.

At this point, the development of self-help guidance must include development of community leadership. The popularity of songs like “You don’t own me” implies that the general public is not yet prepared for that shift, but some of us are already discovering that many people have the wrong goals.