The muckraking journalist Jacob Riis asked Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt if he had ambitions to someday be the President of The United States. Roosevelt’s reaction startled him.
“Don’t you dare ask me that,” TR yelled at Riis. “Don’t you put such ideas into my head. No friend of mine would ever say a thing like that”…He backed away, came up again to Riis, and put his arm over his shoulder…”Never, never, you must never either of you remind a man at work on a political job that he may be President. It almost always kills him politically. He loses his nerve; he can’t do his work; he gives up the very traits that are making him a possibility. I, for instance, I am going to do great things here, hard things that require all the courage, ability, work that I cam capable of…But if I get to thinking what it might lead to—“
This passage reminded me of Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s Growth Without Goals, which is one of the few blog posts that have stuck with me over the years. Patrick crystallized the way I approach learning, which is something I had never really spent much time thinking about. Not realizing that growth without goals was how I lived my life is precisely why it had never occurred to me.
The primary driver of my own growth has come through books. And again, it wasn’t the type of thing where I sat down one day and said, “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. My goal is to read a book a week. And if I can do this for a few years, then I will get smarter and have more opportunities”. This wasn’t the goal, even if, not to be self-aggrandizing, it was the outcome.
I’ve found that the more you read, the hungrier you become, because books open your eyes to a world you know so little about. Reading for me is like setting up your finger print on a new iPhone. You press your finger and as you lift, you see your print start to take shape. At this point it’s mostly a silhouette. You lift your finger and press it down, and more lines start to fill in. Then you lift it again and start to roll it on the pad. You do this until your finger print is perfectly formed. Reading is like this in the sense that the more times you press, the clearer your understanding becomes. The difference is that you’re never finished. You never develop a fully formed finger print. Like Patrick said, “Exploration is continuous, there is no end point.”
If you’re just trying to get better, you never have to ask “what’s next?”, because when you’re just trying to get better, next is always now. Achieving your goals is a one-time occurrence while growth is a continuous process.