Optimizations vs. goals

"Everyone is sharpening their sword for the battle that's never going to come.”

Optimizations vs. goals
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

I heard this parable on a podcast: A 12-year-old goes to Mozart and asks, “How do I start writing symphonies?” And Mozart says, “Well, go to music college and work through it and study the greats and then you can write a symphony.” And the 12-year-old says, "Yes, but you were writing symphonies when you were 12." And Mozart says, "Well I didn’t go around asking people how to write symphonies."

The guest on the podcast, Jeremy Giffon, shared this parable to emphasize how unserious some people are about actually getting into the arena and doing whatever they’re preemptively optimizing their lives to do. Whether it’s seeking advice or reading industry articles or consuming hours and hours of podcast content, Giffon notices this tendency in his peer group (and in himself) where “everyone is sharpening their sword for the battle that's never going to come.”

It’s in vogue (at least in some corners of Twitter/X) to obsess about advice, habits, 1% optimizations, and daily routines that supposedly add up to transformational outcomes. But what happens when we don’t know what our goals are?

It’s easier to ask for advice or optimize daily systems than it is to define truly original goals for our lives. We’d rather become extraordinary at sharpening our swords and call it progress than do the meandering, possibly devastating, and certainly soul-searching work to choose which worthy cause is worth fighting for.