How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 2: Tackling the Rogue Aversion

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If you’ve ever felt bored, you might know how it feels to want things to be different than they are, but not in what way, exactly. It’s an unpleasant feeling, and boredom is just a temporary state. When it comes to whole dimensions of your life—like social or career concerns, for instance—just knowing what you don’t want, but not what you do want, can cause you big problems.

In the first installment of our series on setting and achieving goals, I discussed two fundamental processes that affect your success: attractive feedback loops, which exist to get you closer to a desired new situation, and aversive feedback loops, which operate to move you away from states you don’t like.

I mentioned that aversive feedback loops all by themselves aren't very conducive to positive change because they provide a motivational force away from something, but not toward anything else in particular. You want them to be paired with an attractive feedback loop, which provides additional momentum and focus to your change efforts.

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This pairing usually just happens naturally, because people are wired to like being stable and oriented toward something. Last time, I provided one researcher’s example of a teen wishing to be unlike his parents while gravitating toward a different type of crowd.

But sometimes it doesn’t happen so smoothly, and you have to get more actively involved in the process.

The rogue aversion

In the last article, I asked you to identify the aversive and attractive feedback loops in the areas of your life that you would like to work on, and gave you an example of a chart of feedback loops. Did you find any aversive loops not connected with an attractive one, like "Don't break the rules," circled in red below? (We'll get to "Don't end up like Uncle Fred" in a minute.)

I call these "rogues" because they remind me of rogue black holes in space. Black holes are normally found in the center of galaxies, where they sit around and grow by sucking in matter around them.

But sometimes when galaxies collide the black holes are ejected from their home and begin to roam the galaxy, invisibly disrupting the fabric of space-time around them and devouring whatever they touch.

Now, black holes and aversive feedback loops are metaphorically different in that the loops work to push you away from things, not pull you in like a black hole. But either of them, floating around randomly, can disrupt the order of the rest of your galaxy.

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Rogue aversions tend to be more general than specific, and that’s what makes them so confounding: you don’t know how to address them. If you just had the aversive goal of not wanting to be overweight, then the corresponding attractive goal—to get in shape—may be obvious. But rogue aversions are often hazy or multifaceted, so there isn’t an obvious attractive counterpart.

The large scale of rogue aversions also means that they tend to relate to your sense of self more than smaller, more finite goals, which means that their impact is often felt across more than one dimension of your life.

In fact, the more general the aversion, the harder it will be to figure out a corresponding attractive goal to move toward, and the heavier it will weigh on you in your day-to-day life.

If you were to go to the airport and say "take me anywhere but here," you'd end up in a different place, but not necessarily one you'd like more. However, by considering what "here" is like, you can plan some destinations to explore that are different in specific ways, and see how you like them.

In the same way, turning a discerning eye toward your rogue aversions can reveal qualities that are more easily paired with an attractive goal. Let’s look at some examples.

Deconstructing the rogue

On the example chart, we have the rogue aversive loop of “Don’t break the rules.” This kind of vague goal could float around and inform your behavior in every area of your life because there are infinite ways not to break the rules. There's no sense in trying to list them all.

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Instead, start brainstorming: if you don’t want to be a rule-breaker, then what are the qualities of a rule-breaker? Perhaps someone who is not respected by others, or too risk-taking, or some of the other possibilities I've shown?

I've circled another aversive loop that is worthy of discussion: “Don’t end up like Uncle Fred.” (It isn't entirely rogue because Uncle Fred’s poverty is salient to the person's aversion to being poor, which plays a role in this person’s career considerations.)

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The question to ask yourself here would be: “What is Uncle Fred like?” Let’s say the qualities that first come to mind when considering Uncle Fred are that he has been divorced four times, and is broke. You don’t want to end up like that, you say. Ok, but what else can be said about him? Perhaps Fred is also overweight, in poor health, sad all the time, and has a criminal record.

There's a reason why I’m asking you to be creative in your brainstorming and go beyond the first thing or two that come to mind. If you’re a regular reader of my articles, you know how much I emphasize the interdependence of each facet of your life.

In Uncle Fred’s case, it’s likely that his physical health and sad mood are related, perhaps bidirectionally. These, in turn, may very well affect his interpersonal relationships, as well as his sense of self-esteem and motivation to pursue and maintain work. His low self-esteem also effects his mood, and so on.

The point is that aversive goals can seem monolithic and impermeable, but they are really a collection of diverse qualities that can be addressed individually.

Experimenting with smaller attractive goals

So, the next task is to explore how you can honor your desire to distance yourself from the quality you don’t want in your life in some way. You do this by creating a smaller attractive goal that addresses a similar-sized component of your aversive goal, taking steps toward it, and seeing what happens.

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These are experiments, which means that they don’t need to be permanent new parts of your life. So again, be creative. What you’re doing is making a change and then paying attention to whether you feel better or worse for it. If you feel better, then you’ve just started to harness the energy of your aversion in a productive way.

If not, then move on to a different experiment.

In the "Don't break the rules" example, what action could you take that would oppose a characteristic of being a rule-breaker? For instance, what would be responsible, ethical, or cause you to be viewed favorably by others? Perhaps participating in a clean-up day at a neighborhood park?

What would be a selfless, altruistic activity? Maybe giving to a charity or mentoring someone? Any other acts you can think of, that would be good for others? Likewise, if you don't want to end up like Uncle Fred, you could try any number of activities to improve your physical health, social support system, or financial stability.

Importantly, it also happens that Uncle Fred is a convicted felon, so any efforts you make to be less of a rule-breaker will yield additional satisfaction in knowing that you are also moving away from ending up like the nefarious Uncle Fred. It's a win-win.

Synergies like these can result from even the smallest efforts in one area of your life. Just as the interdependence of the various dimensions of your life means that rogue aversions can sap energy and your feelings of well-being in multiple ways, so addressing them can yield widespread benefits.

The ripple effect

I have personal experience in this area. I used to have a real estate finance career, and was successful at it, but also very unhappy. Not just at work, but much of the time, for a long time. I had a gnawing sense that I should be doing something else with my life, and there were signs everywhere pointing to the same conclusion.

The kinds of people who were and weren’t in my life, feelings of anger, rash behavior—you name it—were all symptoms of a fundamental misalignment. Life was unsatisfying in most every way, and I wanted things to be different, but I wasn't sure how.

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It turns out, all of the dimensions of my life were suffering from rogue aversions, so I started looking more closely at them over the course of many years and addressing them. The last one was my aversion to my career. It wasn't meaningful to me, and I wanted something that was.

I wasn't positive what a meaningful career for me might be, but I'd been studying psychology and neurobiology in my spare time to achieve my own personal growth, and had studied psychology and sociology in college as well. So I took the hint that those things were meaningful to me.

So, I decided to try an experiment: volunteer on a suicide hotline for older adults. If that's not a meaningful pursuit, what is, right? 

Well, it was, thankfully. The work felt good—really good, and natural. But it also turned out to provide more than that. It was an environment where the people I worked with had priorities in life that were similar to mine. So I developed new, meaningful relationships with people that felt great and refreshing for me socially.

Fast-forwarding many years, I now not only have the social connection that I craved—both in my professional and personal lives—but I also have work that I love doing, helping people . . . it's like wearing a glove on my hand instead of a shoe.

By identifying one aspect of an aversion to my vocational life and doing an experiment, I ended up elevating my baseline level of overall well-being and happiness. Nowadays, my rogue aversions have been paired up with complementary attractive goals, which means that I feel a lot more stable and less plagued by vague feelings of unsatisfactoriness.

Now, I’m sparing you the complete version of my story. Over the years I explored different hobbies, volunteer activities, and social environments, and considered about every career known to modern man, from bush pilot to dog kennel operator.

All of these experiments were worthwhile in some way. Like Thomas Edison said of his perseverance before finally getting the light bulb right: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So, it may take time and effort to tend to your rogue aversions, but once you start making that investment in yourself you might be surprised by how your innate ability to thrive starts to take care of the rest. 

Next: How to Achieve Your Goals, Step 3: Taking Your Rate of Progress Into Account