Living

Focus on what you can achieve

The secret of success is not to fixate on difficult goals but to work steadily to be better

We all dream, or have dreamt, of one day achieving something spectacular.

It might be writing a bestseller, excelling at some sport, mastering a musical instrument, getting a PhD, climbing Mount Everest, building a business empire or something else entirely.

Sometimes, not content with dreaming, we decide to take action.

We set goals and start working towards them. I once set myself the goal of getting a Grade 8 in piano.

But after practising hard for a few years, I realised I would never make it. I had plenty of desire and a strong work ethic, but very little ability. So that was that.

GOALS

Goal-setting is all very well in its place. I wouldn't disparage it.

But there is a problem with getting fixated on goals. We can easily become discouraged by the thought that we haven't yet achieved them. Even worse, we may one day come to realise that we will never achieve them.

The world is complex and unpredictable, and all kinds of things (including, alas, our own limitations) can prevent us from reaching our goals.

So if we define success in terms of those goals, we can end up living with a small but nagging sense of failure.

GUARANTEED SUCCESS

The secret of success then is to focus our attention less on long-term outcomes that we cannot control and more on day-to-day habits and disciplines that we can control.

Instead of fixating on the difficult goal of writing a bestseller, we can work systematically at becoming a better writer.

Instead of fixating on excelling at some sport, we can commit to steadily improving our game.

It is nice to have dreams. But each day, our primary focus should be on what we can achieve that day.

The American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, famous for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, once wrote a book about the art of writing. In it, he said: "We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout.

"The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory."

I agree. Every hour we spend working at something that is important to us is, in itself, a sort of victory. It may not be a glorious victory. It may not bring fortune or acclaim. But it is a victory.

When I was younger, I played squash. I dreamt of becoming an excellent player.

I noticed that when I played three or four times a week, I got better.

When I played only twice a week, I stayed at the same level. And when I played just once a week, I got worse. It was as simple as that.

I never became an excellent player. But when I put in the hours, I improved. And that counts as a victory in my book.

Similarly, all those hours I spent practising the piano never made a pianist out of me, but they made me a better musician than I would otherwise have been.

GRIT AND DETERMINATION

Patient application, then, is the key to success. Not just for ordinary folk like me, but also for people with immense talent.

When the great American novelist John Steinbeck was working on his Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, The Grapes Of Wrath, he kept a diary in which he recorded his progress.

It makes fascinating reading and shows just how much grit and determination it took to produce that towering work of genius.

One of my favourite entries says: "Just set one day's work in front of the last day's work. That's the way it comes out. And that's the only way it does."

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer. His new book, Walking With Plato, will be out later this month at all major bookshops here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'Focus on what you can achieve'. Print Edition | Subscribe