Forget Goals — This Is What You Really Need To Be Successful

You might miss the big opportunities if you over-focus on what you think you know

Ethan Tan
Ethan Tan
Feb 20 · 11 min read
All illustrations by the author

If you had been born in 17th-century London, you could only have expected to live for 35 years.

Doctors didn’t know what caused diseases, but there were lots of theories. And the main suspect? Bad smells.

So when the Great Plague of 1665 swept in, the authorities advised people to fumigate their homes and keep the windows closed.

They ordered fires in the streets to purify the air.

Doctors tried to protect themselves with full bodysuits and flowers and herbs stuffed into beak-like masks.

Still, these tactics didn’t stop the disease from spreading. Over 100,000 people died — almost a quarter of the city’s population.

What were they missing?

The Rush to Action

When we’re faced with our own need for change, it’s tempting to just dive in and start taking action. But more action doesn’t equate to more results. Efficiency isn’t the same as effectiveness.

Now if you’re reading this, you already know this. You know to step back and ask, “What’s the most effective thing to do?

Fantastic. You’re thinking about the strategy and tactics underlying your actions.

If you’re anything like me (and my coaching clients), you love this part.

But it’s the wrong place to start.

In my teens, I’d obsessively analyze strategies for whatever video game I was immersed in at the time. At university, I attended most classes in my first year — but then fewer and fewer as time went on. I was too busy ramping up my gaming skills.

One afternoon, I was bleary-eyed and in my pajamas immersed in a game when there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find the head of the undergraduate department there, stern-faced, timetable in her hand.

She proceeded to read out each of my lessons, one by one, and ask if I had attended it— knowing full well I had been absent for weeks.

I felt like a towel being wrung dry.

But I survived, and despite myself, I managed to scrape by and graduate.

After graduating, I armed myself with online marketing strategies and ended up building a network of over 2,000 websites, designed to create revenue via Google ads.

And it worked.

Those sites started generating $1 a day … then $5 … then $100 a day.

On one memorable day, they generated over $1,000. I had an automated money-making machine. My strategy and tactics were working.

I could almost touch the Ferraris and beach houses.

The problem was, they were spam sites: nonsensical content scraped from other websites, created solely to rank in the search results and get ad clicks.

I remember waking up on my birthday and discovering my income had dropped to zero. Google had shut down my advertising account.

My business had vanished overnight, and I could feel the walls caving in. And I wasn’t proud of the work itself; without the revenue, it had no value.

Where did I go wrong?

Start With Why

I had jumped in and started swimming vigorously before deciding where I wanted to go. Focused on the short-term money, I lost my sense of purpose and my values.

After I lost my ad income, I took some time to clarify what I wanted and why I wanted it.

I reflected on my values, and I decided:

  • I wanted to grow as a person
  • I didn’t want money for its own sake — I wanted the freedom it promised
  • I wanted to contribute to others, not take advantage of them

This led me on a path that, many years later, resulted in my training and coaching business. It led to me doing what I valued, despite my extreme introversion.

Starting with why made it far more likely I’d be successful — on my own terms.

It seems like we’ve gotten to the true leverage point. Haven’t we?

Not quite.

There’s something more fundamental than purpose …

Back to The Great Plague

So why were the doctors helpless to stop the plague? They had loads of strategies and tactics, but they failed.

They were clear on their purpose to save lives using the tactic of controlling smells. But it didn’t work because what they lacked was an understanding of what actually caused disease. They had no understanding of the actual reality of what caused the disease.

Great intentions …

Similarly, I had set my sights on growth, freedom, and contribution.

But I had based everything on my map of reality.

And that map turned out to have lots of problems.

I thought freedom came from money, but it doesn’t. There are millionaires who feel trapped by their responsibilities, their wealth, or their celebrity.

Freedom is in the mind, so it can only come from within.

I thought growth was crucial and meant reading hundreds of books. But that was driven by a sense of lack. In truth, what I really wanted was to feel I was enough — a sense of worthiness. And that comes from a deep understanding of myself.

I wanted to contribute, but I had so many invisible fears holding me back. I didn’t know how to make a meaningful contribution (or didn’t trust myself to do so).

And finally …

I believed I needed growth, freedom, and to make a contribution to be happy. That was also wrong. Happiness is available to me now. In fact, my constant striving was just taking me away from it.

Now, consider this:

  • How do you decide on your goals in the first place?
  • How do you know what’s worth pursuing or creating or achieving?
  • How do you decide what strategies to apply?

Your Ultimate Leverage Point Is an Understanding of Reality

We do what makes sense to us, given our understanding of reality.

If you believe you’re in a swimming pool or a lake, you’re going to make decisions differently than if you know you’re in the ocean.

You don’t have to take my word for it — just look at your past. Look back at your teenage years: your hair, your clothes, the things you did you now cringe at. Did they make sense given your understanding of reality at the time?

Yes — or you wouldn’t have done them.

You may say, “I knew it was a dumb thing to do — I only did it because of x,” but that still means that at a core level, it made sense for you to do it.

We navigate reality as we see it; therefore, understanding reality is your ultimate leverage point. In order to achieve the goals that align with your sense of purpose, you also need to account for the reality of your situation.

Examples From Business Leaders

Understanding the reality of the situation means trying to see beyond your own biases. Successful business leaders apply this to innovate beyond the biases of prevailing thought as well.

Example 1: Tesla

Back in the dark ages, electric cars were slow, had limited range, and were expensive to produce. And it seemed they’d continue that way for quite some time.

But then Tesla came along and upended the industry. Here’s what Elon Musk said:

“… they would say, ‘historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. So the first principles would be, what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour.’”

What Elon Musk highlighted was having a better understanding of reality: the opportunity was in finding economies in producing batteries. The other car companies couldn’t see the opportunity. They thought that electric cars were too expensive to produce, based on the assumption that batteries were too costly.

Meanwhile, Musk recognized what batteries were actually made of and realized it was possible to create them at a much lower cost.

Example 2: ClassPass

When Payal Kadakia created ClassPass (initially Classtivity), she modeled it on OpenTable. She figured people wanted to be able to search for and book fitness classes. That was the reality she imagined.

Others liked her view of reality, and she was able to raise capital and attract lots of press.

But among the people who mattered — her target customers — the silence was deafening. ClassPass had a cool website and no customers. In actual reality, people didn’t want to commit to classes they didn’t know.

For more than a year, the company struggled, but they finally worked out what customers really wanted: the freedom to sample and try a variety of classes.

When ClassPass switched to package deals that allowed customers to try different classes, things took off.

Now, the business is valued at $1 billion.

Example 3: Google Maps and Waze

Let’s say you’re in a new city, and you want to drive across town for an appointment.

Which is going to be more effective at getting you there on time? A paper map or Google Maps?

Google Maps, of course. Because it has up-to-date road and traffic information the paper map doesn’t. And how about Google Maps versus Waze?

In my experience and in third-party tests posted online, Waze wins. Because it has more accurate real-time information on traffic, road closures, hazards, etc. and considers more small roads in its routing.

Waze wins because it has more accurate information on traffic, road closures, and hazards, and includes more side roads in its routing.

In other words, the product that has a better understanding of reality is more effective.

And the same applies to all facets of life.

How This Applies to Personal Performance

How do you apply this type of thinking to your own life? Here, too, some examples can illustrate how powerful it can be to ask what the reality of a situation really is.

Example 1: Leadership

Inexperienced leaders often mistake control for power and may be tempted to micromanage other employees.

If you believe you need to control everyone to ensure nothing goes wrong, then it makes sense to have rigid rules and structures. You may be firm and aggressive. You’ll be tempted to rule by fear, so people will work hard.

This approach can work with repetitive tasks, but it fails with complex, ambiguous challenges that demand more from people.

When Google carried out an extensive study of their top managers, they discovered that a great manager:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and doesn’t micromanage
  3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being

In reality, people are at their creative, engaged, and energized best when they feel empowered, inspired, and free. They don’t do their best work when they are looking over their shoulders, worried about their own survival.

Without understanding the reality of how people work, you’re not going to be an effective leader.

Example 2: Personal productivity

I used to think some people were just productive and others weren’t. I used to think you either had focus and discipline, or you were born lazy (I was one of the lazy ones).

I’d try to apply willpower to work on my to-do list, fail, and then beat myself up. But I had no understanding of the real factors behind productivity. These are some of them:

  • Your sense of purpose affects your drive—ideally, your goal needs to align with your sense of purpose
  • Environmental factors affect your behavior, and you can stack the odds in your favor
  • Diet, exercise, and rest greatly impact your willpower and energy
  • Habitual thought patterns (self-talk) and emotional blockages get in your way
  • Flow states enable heightened productivity
  • Some actions generate nothing or negative results, and some have a massive impact

The more you understand how things really work, the more you unlock exponential productivity. In thinking about the reality of the environment surrounding your work, you can unearth previously hidden opportunities to gain ground on your goals.

Mapping Reality

If you want increased effectiveness, you need to understand what makes people like you more and less effective.

If you want to overcome your struggles, you need to understand what they are and what’s behind them.

If you want to navigate life better and experience more fulfillment, you need to improve your understanding of life and the human mind.

In any domain, if you increase your understanding of reality, you’ll be more effective.

Now, of course, reality is pretty much infinite, and our minds are not. So we can never achieve a complete understanding.

But that’s good news! It’s an endless voyage of discovery.

How to Map Reality More Effectively

Choose wisely

Since you have limited time and attention, map the areas of work toward your goal that’ll make the biggest difference for you — whether it’s your market, competition, customer, etc.

In my experience, intuition gives me the direction in which to look, and then analysis can help me refine that.

Look for core truths. Instead of looking for techniques or processes to implement, look deeper and seek to understand the principles underlying them. Do this by questioning: What is always true? How do I know this is true? Why do I think this?

Get a guide

Rather than spending years in the wilderness of your own thoughts, accelerate your journey by seeking guidance from those who are ahead of you.

Potential guides are everywhere — you just need to reach out to them. I continuously invest in coaches, mentors, and teachers, and, in return, I rapidly get perspective that more accurately maps to reality.

These guides can help you spot important facts that may be hidden by your own biases or limited perspective.

At the same time, I continue to question and test things for myself.

Impediments to understanding reality

One final thing to keep in mind: I’ve found that these are two big obstacles to understanding reality:

  1. Thinking I already know something
  2. Being afraid of what I’ll find

Most likely, you’ll also face both, but don’t let them stop you. They’re merely illusions of the mind. Understanding reality has made the biggest difference for me and for my clients. It’s your ultimate leverage point.

So go on …

Step off the shores of your current understanding — and set sail.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Ethan Tan

Written by

Ethan Tan Helping you lead and live with presence, clarity, and confidence | Transformational Coach

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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