The Traveler Analogy

A simple, practical framework for understanding how goals are achieved, and why we succeed or fail in doing so.

In our result-driven world, we often like to identify goal fulfillment as one of the most valuable multiplier skills. That is, skills that can take our life to the next level.

However, when it comes to actually fulfilling our goals, something else seems to be amiss: either we get overly inundated with half-sensical jargon and notetaking, or that we simply don't understand the rationale or the efficiency of the system we're using.

Fortunately, what we do know is that at its core, the process of goal fulfillment is actually surprisingly simple: all we have to do is to look at it through a traveler's point of view, and let it inform us of why things are working or not working as they should.

In fact, once you've gone through this traveler's analogy, you will have a solid, practical framework for fulfilling your own goals. At the same time, you'll also be able to intuitively understand why you succeed in some goals — while failing at others.

Traveler's Destination

Consider this: you're a traveler who heads out to explore a city you happen to be in. As you travel to a shopping mall, you're amazed by the amount of crowd there, so you decide to stay there for a while — just to explore a bit of its stores and boutiques.

After that, you see from the windows that there's a public park nearby. Since you have no particular plan in mind, you decide for once that you'd head there for now — and possibly find a place closeby to relax and eat.

As you stroll through the park, you then see an advertisement from a museum which happens to be running an exhibition. Out of curiosity, you then decide that it'd be interesting to head there for now — and see what all the fuzz is about.

And just like that, you manage to visit many places in the city in one day, but somehow, for some reason, you still feel that something is missing. What's going on?

Of course, the answer here is simple: you haven't had much clue about the precise destination you want to go to — save the fact that you're exploring the city. As a result, you end up wandering around, reacting to circumstances as they come up.

Sure, it may be easy here to chuckle at the aimlessness in this example, but in real life, this is exactly what many of us do: we have a vague idea about we want to achieve, and yet still do little into identifying what that actual thing is. For example:

  • You might know that something in your life is missing, but yet still never set out to define what that actual something is.
  • You might feel groggy every day, but yet still do not feel the need to identity what you can do to lessen it.
  • You might be struggling financially, and yet still make no attempt in identifying a way to get you out of it.
  • Your relationship with your family might be worsening, yet you still make no effort in identifying a way to make up to them.

Whichever the problem is, the lesson here is simple:

Everything starts with an unambiguous goal. Without it, you could be walking blind for the rest of your day — without ever knowing whether you're far or close to it.

Traveler's Itinerary

Even if you have precise destinations in mind, not all of them are going to be equally reachable. For example, for a shop next to your hotel, you might be able to reach it without much thinking and effort, but for a faraway palace, things can get difficult.

For example, if the palace is located in the capital of another island country, getting there might entail going through several intermediate points:

  • Driving to an international airport closest to your hotel
  • Taking an airplane to another international airport closest to the island country 
  • Taking a ship which allows you to enter the island country
  • Taking a bus which brings you from the island's border to the palace 

In other words, if you want to reach this faraway palace, you need an itinerary. However, that's not to say that all itineraries are equally valid. For example:

  • If your itinerary is faulty, then you might end up on a totally different island country.
  • If your itinerary is incomplete, you might end up getting stuck at a location not knowing what to do to reach the next stop (let alone the palace). 
  • If your itinerary is too crude or simplistic, you might find yourself clueless at times and reacting to circumstances on a minute-to-minute basis.

In brief, your itinerary needs to be both sound and fairly complete. But the truth is, such an itinerary can be hard to come by before traveling. Fortunately, one thing you can always do is to bridge your itinerary progressively as follows:

  • Work forward from your hotel (or backward from the palace) to establish some key preliminary intermediate points. 
  • As you travel and obtain new information along the way, continue to bridge your itinerary by working forward and backward to identify additional key intermediate points.
  • Whether you get stuck about the next thing to do, keep filling in the intermediate points until the immediate itinerary becomes clear to you.
  • Keep working and refining your itinerary until you reach the palace.

For example, you might know how to get to your international airport from your hotel, but as you do, you realize that you don't actually know much about reaching the other international airport. To mitigate that, you might come up with this plan on the spot:

  • Ask the reception desk about the international airport closest to the island country
  • Identify the earliest plane which travels to that airport
  • Purchase a ticket of that plane 
  • Complete check-in and wait at the plane's gate for departure

So that even if in general, your itinerary plan is never exactly complete, by filling in the intermediate points as you go, your itinerary can still become more and more solid, which means more clarity and confidence for you in reaching the palace as well.

But then, just as the palace example makes a lot of sense, when it comes to our real life goals, we're also very quick to dismiss the idea of working on our itinerary. For example:

  • You might have set the goal to lose 30 pounds this year, but yet never bother to come up with a plan to actually get there. 
  • You might have promised yourself to save 1000 dollars every month, but then end up doing just the opposite because you've never identified how you'd get there.
  • You might have set your mind to mastering French, but never really get anywhere because you don't have a sound curriculum to follow.
  • You might have always dreamed of buying a house, but never really make any progress because you haven't thought hard about the procedures involved.

Either way, the lesson here is fairly simple:

Knowing the goal alone is not enough. You need to be constantly filling in your itinerary to actually have a chance of getting there.

Traveler's Steps

Of course, having an itinerary towards a destination just means that you have a blueprint, and a blueprint is still by no means a replacement for the actual traveling.

After all, if you have a map detailing a route from your hotel to a ski resort, but still never actually take the time to step out of your hotel, then it is as if you haven't really traveled at all.

Conversely, if after planning out the entire route to the ski resort, you still end up going to a zoo on the opposite end of the town out of impulse, then that is as if you're still sabotaging your own plan to go to the ski resort.

On the surface, all these examples might seem perfectly intuitive and logical, but just as you might understand them very well, you could still be prone to making similar mistakes in the real world. For example:

  • You might know that you need to exercise to maintain your bone and muscle strength, yet still end up doing nothing about it everyday. 
  • You might know that excessive alcohol consumption is ruining your relationship with your spouse, yet still continue to drink as usual.
  • You might have enrolled in a course to teach you HTML from A to Z, yet still haven't looked up the first lesson after one month of enrollment.
  • You might know that you need to write 200 words every day to finish your book on time, and yet still spend the bulk of your day binge-watching documentaries instead.

Whichever your goal or aspiration, the lesson here is simple:

No amount of specificity in planning can help you reach your goal, if you never bother to take steps in the right direction.

Traveler's Speed

Now, if you have a destination along with a sound itinerary, and you're actually taking steps to get there, does that mean that you'll automatically reach your destination on time?

Well, not necessarily. In fact, it'll still depend on the speed you move along the itinerary when you're traveling — and the amount of time you spend in relative idleness.

To see how, suppose that you want to travel 3000 miles from New York to San Francisco, and that you've decided to get there by hitchhiking one mile every other day, how long will it take you to finally get to San Francisco?

The answer: 6000 days, or approximately 16 years and 5 months. Assuming that you live to the average age of 80 years, that would correspond to around a fifth of your life.

However, let's say that instead of resorting to hitchhiking on-and-off, you choose to go to the airport and hop on a plane, how long then would it take you to go from New York to San Francisco?

The answer, 6 hours and 30 minutes, which is around a quarter of a day. In fact, it is also faster than the hitchhiking approach by a factor of 20000.

So can a difference in speed drastically affect the time you reach your destination? Absolutely. But when it comes to actually achieving our real-life goals (e.g., those from our Life Diagram), we also tend to act as if none of that ever existed. For example:

  • You might be following a curriculum to master classical fingerstyle guitar, but yet only work on it whether you feel like it.
  • You might be a real-estate agent who is good at facilitating house transactions, and yet are otherwise unknowledgeable about the technologies which can help you automate some of the processes.
  • You might be a cook who's in charge of preparing the food for a large event, and yet are generally reluctant about asking other savvy friends for help.
  • You might be assigned a cold-calling task from your boss, but your social media and phone notifications keep making you lose your train of thought.

Obviously, not all tasks are created equal. But whichever the size of your goal, the lesson here is simple:

Moving towards your goal is not enough to guarantee its on-time delivery. Instead, you also need to be moving towards it consistently at a fast-enough speed.

In particular, this mean that:

  • You need to be willing to dedicate more time and effort towards your goal.
  • You need to be willing to change to more efficient approaches if the current approach is too slow (e.g., by using the right tools and employing the right people).
  • You need to be willing to identify and eliminate the obstacles or bottlenecks that might be getting in the way (e.g., distractions, technical issues).

The Traveler Framework to Goal Fulfillment

From the traveling examples above, we can see that in order to reach a destination on time, a series of steps are often taken:

  • Set a destination that is fairly unambiguous.
  • Plan an itinerary that is sound and fairly complete.
  • Take steps in the right direction.
  • Move at a speed that is consistent and sufficiently fast.

In fact, this framework also informs us that in order to fulfill a goal, we can reuse the four elements mentioned above: destination, itinerary, steps and speed. When applied sequentially, this gives rise to the traveler framework to goal fulfillment.

💡 Traveler Framework vs. SMART Criteria

The traveler framework can also be thought of as a standalone, intuitive alternative to the SMART criteria, which are an acronym-based set of rules for formulating (but not implementing) short and medium-term goals.

However, since the details of these elements can change as we move through our goal, a "set-it-and-forget-it" approach won't work. Instead, the four elements need to be revised daily, so as to anticipate any change that might come along the way:

  • Destination can change: whereas you might be interested in playing violin yesterday, you might realize that your true passion lies in piano today. 
  • Itinerary can change: whereas you might have planned to use soccer as your way of doing exercise, the change of weather might mean that indoor running is now a better choice.
  • Steps can change: whereas you might have tried to save more money by eating less outside, you now realize that a better way is to simply negotiate a salary raise with your manager.
  • Speed can change: whereas you used to contact all of your clients personally, you now realize that it's more efficient to leave the task to your assistant.

The details aside, what the traveling analogy shows is that at its core, goal fulfillment is actually pretty simple: it doesn't require a series of rules that seem to come out of the blue, nor does it require a list of acronyms just to keep track of our goals.

If anything, what the traveling analogy also shows is that goal fulfillment is more about the journey rather than the destination, since the planning and actions taken towards our goals are a large part of what makes the process worthwhile.

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