Where do goals come from?

A philosopher and a psychologist compare notes on the mysteries of personal growth

Jan 09, 2020

Self-improvement is pervasive in human culture: it has inspired a vast trove of books, numerous industries, and countless resolutions. But how are our aspirations formed, and what are the best ways to pursue them? How do nature and nurture help us define and achieve our goals? Is the value of advice in the giving of it, or the receiving? The second event in the A Meeting of the Minds: Business and the Human series, sponsored by Chicago Booth and the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, brought Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, a psychologist, and University of Chicago’s Agnes Callard, a philosopher, together to consider these and other questions of personal development. Moderated by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, the discussion took advantage of each scholar’s academic perspective and expertise to examine how and why humans strive to improve themselves.

David BrooksWe’ve got people with two different disciplines coming at the same sorts of issues, so I thought we’d start with one discrete topic, to see how you approach the topic differently. That topic is advice.

Now I’m a columnist: that’s what I do. I give advice. And at my classes, I give a lot of advice. My students call my course “Therapy with Brooks” because I pass along advice I’ve heard. And I think it’s really useful to give advice, because it feels so good for me to give it.

One bit of advice I always pass to my students on marriage or how to deal with a relationship—and I got this off the internet, so it must be good—is: They say you should never go to bed mad at your spouse. And the person who wrote this advice said, “Sometimes, just go to bed. You’ll wake up in the morning. You’ll feel better. Just go to bed.” So that seemed to be very wise advice.

The other bit of advice, from the same source, is: “If you’re a wife and you’re really mad at your husband, and you feel inclined to bitch about him to somebody’s mom, bitch to his mom and not yours. His mom will forgive him. Yours never will.” 

These seem to be good advice. So how do you think about advice? What’s good advice, and what’s bad advice?

Agnes CallardIf you have my mom, you should not bitch to her, definitely.

I don’t believe in advice. So we disagree. I’m a philosopher, and the first thing I do is make a bunch of distinctions. So let me distinguish advice from two other advice-like things.

One of them we’ll call instruction. What I mean by instruction is: Suppose that there’s something I want to do, like get my copier to work, or get across town, and I ask, “how do I do that?” And you say, “Take this bus,” or “Just press that button.” I’ll call that instruction. In the case of instruction, I have this pretty concrete goal. And someone just might have the relevant information about how I get to that goal. I would say that’s not advice.

The other thing I want to distinguish from advice is something like mentoring or training, where you have a close personal relationship with the person that you’re interacting with, and so you can key them in to what will work for them, because you understand their psychology. You understand what they want. You understand that, in their case, the thing to say is, “It’s OK to go to bed angry,” because of the way they work and the way their marriage works. So I also would say that’s not advice. It’s mentoring.

The dream about advice is that we can be totally hands off with someone and yet still help them in a substantive way. You can’t do that. You can say things that make you feel good, as they make you feel like you’re wise. I think people love to give advice because they feel like they know so much. In particular, people who have succeeded in life are often asked to give advice, as though you know how to succeed. But of course you only did it one time, right? You don’t have empirical evidence of trying it a bunch of different ways, so that you know how to succeed. You just know one particular path that you took, right? That’s not a good basis for knowledge. Mostly it makes us feel as though the process by which we got to where we are now was one where we knew all along. But that’s an illusion, a retrospective story that we tell.

Ayelet Fishbach: Agnes, as a philosopher, starts with distinctions. I start with data.

I give people advice. I also ask them to give me advice, and then I see what’s more motivating for them. What gets them to act?

We did this with quite a few folks. We started with kids in middle school  who were struggling with doing their homework, and we offered advice to half of them. We asked the other half,  “How about you give advice to another kid that’s struggling with doing her homework?” And then we just observed it: Who’s doing their homework more? It turned out that those that were giving advice were doing their homework for more hours than those that were getting advice.

We also did this with adults. We asked unemployed people how to get a job. “What do you do to get a job?” And when you ask people who are unemployed to give you advice on how to get a job, the first thing that they say is, “What do I know?” And then you say, “OK, but just tell me: What do you know?” Turns out that they know quite a lot, and also, once they give advice, they are more motivated to seek a job than after they get the advice that we were able to give them—which, we were trying to give good advice.

We asked overweight individuals hoping to lose weight, either to give advice or we gave them advice. They were more motivated by giving advice than by getting advice. We did this in a few other populations. One that was interesting was people who were admitting to having struggles with anger management. If they give you advice on how to relax, they’re more relaxed than if you give them advice about how to do that.

Agnes, I think that I might be closer to you than I figured when you started. I think that giving advice is very useful. Getting advice? Less so.

Brooks: Why is that? Is it because the advice is stupid, or because people can’t follow through on the advice because the problem is one of motivation and not information?

Fishbach: Because people already know what to do. Because most of the time, most of the advice that we give people, they already know what to do.

If you are giving people who are struggling with their weight advice what to do, they know. They know exactly what they’re supposed to eat. They know that they should exercise. The problem is motivational; it’s not with the knowledge. If the problem is not knowledge, it’s motivating yourself, you can get your inner strength by thinking about what you know, by thinking about what you can do to help yourself, more than by listening to me telling you the things that you already know.

Callard: I didn’t know about any of Ayelet’s research when I came to my conclusions, and I’m very proud that I got to them without any consideration of the data. So it’s a confirmation.

I actually do think that sometimes other people know things that you don’t know, and they can help you. It’s just that I think that usually you need some personal connection in order for that to work, in order for them to see what they have to supply you, what you need from them. In the context in which we usually give advice, the kind of connection that would allow for the flow of useful information isn’t there. That’s my hypothesis, based on no empirical evidence.

Brooks: We’re going to see this distinction through the night, the data distinction. And I’m a journalist, so I just do random stuff that seems interesting.

Let’s talk about motivation. Because we’ve spent the last 30 years with this cognitive revolution, [Princeton’s Daniel] Kahneman and [Chicago Booth’s Richard H. Thaler] and all these people, really understanding decision-making processes and bias in heuristics. But it seems to me we’ve barely passed beyond St. Augustine in understanding our desires, and where our desires come from.

So I can choose to order broccoli or not, but I can’t choose to like broccoli. There are these distinct motivational states that drive us, and they well up somewhere deep inside. And so how do we think about that? Maybe I’ll start with Ayelet. How do we think about motivations, and how they’re lit, destroyed, buried, or inflamed?

Fishbach: First, we’ve been thinking about motivation for a while. Empirically, we started seriously thinking about motivation with that [1972] Walter Mischel study on delayed gratification. Thaler, who definitely made his mark studying decision-making, was writing about the planner and the doer, and that’s a self-control conflict. The doer is the person in you who does stuff, and the planner is someone who tells the doer: “Don’t do it.” So there is a self-control conflict.

There are many things that we are discovering now: how to think about motivation, how to think about motivating yourself. You were raising, for example, the healthy-eating problem: How do we get ourselves to eat more healthily?

My research suggests that using intrinsic motivation is the way to go. So don’t just eat broccoli, but find a healthy food that you enjoy eating, because we find that what predicts a healthy diet is one’s ability to find food that they like eating. What predicts adhering to New Year’s resolutions is your ability to find resolutions that you like pursuing. So intrinsic motivation matters quite a bit for motivation.

We find that being in a certain social environment, certain people support your motivation, so designing environments such that you are with people who support your goals matters. We look at how people manage multiple goals. We look at how people sustain their motivation by thinking about what they’ve completed thus far versus what there is yet to do. 

Brooks: But St. Augustine said 1,600 years ago to replace a lower love with a higher love, and don’t try to crush a love. I want to know where my dislike of broccoli comes from. Or why are some students just tremendously driven in philosophy, and some are not? You used the phrase intrinsic motivation. I want to know what that means—what’s intrinsic? Where is the intrinsic field?

Fishbach: What it means to be intrinsically motivated is to feel that you are doing something for the sake of doing it. And in the extreme sense, that rarely happens. It’s hard to think about a job, or studying philosophy, as extremely intrinsically motivated in the sense that all the benefits are from doing it. There are usually also benefits from completing it. You will get a degree from the University of Chicago, for example.

But people vary in how intrinsically motivated they are—that is, how much they get benefits from doing it, as opposed to only from completing it. And this variation matters. The person who gets benefits from doing the thing while he’s doing it is going to stick with it longer. Immediate rewards really help sustain the motivation. If it feels good at the moment, someone will be able to do it.

I have to use data, so I will mention one piece of data. We went to the University of Chicago library and basically asked students as they were entering the library, how much did they enjoy whatever they were going to study, and how important was it. And we also asked them to text us when they were done studying that. It turns out that what predicted how much time the students spent in the library was how much they enjoyed the material that they were studying. How important the materials were did not predict the time that they spent in the library at all; that was not significant. For me that’s pretty strong evidence that the good student is the student who is able to get the immediate benefit from that, who is able to find interest and enjoyment in what she is studying.

Brooks: OK, Agnes, there’s a famous allegory, I think by Plato, who observed that passions are like horses, and reason is the charioteer. Now what Ayelet is saying suggests that that’s probably not the right model, to trust the charioteer. Maybe it’s better to try to educate the horses a little better. What do you think about that? Just that charioteer model of how life works, where you have this very smart brain up here, and it’s controlling our desires, and letting out the sluice gates when it wants to, and tamping them back down.

Callard: Well, in Plato’s story, the control thing doesn’t work out so well. The horses can easily go nuts. So Plato was aware of that problem.

It matters a lot when you’re talking about someone’s desire in something. It matters a lot whether you’re talking about the beginning, the middle, or the end of a certain story. If we talk about how you don’t like broccoli, I guess that’s probably the way it’s going to be for you. But if my kids are two or three years old, and they only want to eat beige things, that’s not OK. I have to get them to like some of the things that they don’t like. They might not immediately take any intrinsic pleasure in eating vegetables. So I just say, “OK, no dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables.” Whatever works that night.

There’s a longer process that we go through. I get intrinsic pleasure out of, for example, talking in front of an audience like this. This is fun for me. I like it. But I didn’t always like it. I used to be scared of it. And I get intrinsic pleasure out of reading Plato. And even out of conversations with certain people, like my best friend. I did not like her when we first met. We hated each other. We thought we would never be friends. 

Those are cases where my intrinsic motivations change over time. Part of what I want to do is understand: How do intrinsic motivations come into being? Because they don’t just well up. We’re not just saddled with them. It’s not that I accidentally happen to end up with a desire to speak in front of people. The things that I did in my life leading up to this moment are relevant to the story of how I ended up with this desire. What I look at in my book is, how can we tell that story in a way that is sensitive to the importance of environmental facts—I happen to have ended up in a high-school debate class, and I enjoyed doing debate, and I failed at it. I lost mostly. I wasn’t a good debater, but I liked it. 

The fact that my school had a high-school debate team is relevant to my enjoying speaking in front of people. But it’s not like you just throw someone in a high-school debate thing and then out pops me. There was something I was doing over the many years, say, between high school and now, where there was a value that I was trying to get into view. At first, that value took a funny form. It took the form of, “I want to win this competition with this person. I want the judge to think I’m smarter than her.” And that’s not a great motivation for wanting to speak in front of people. It’s not perfect. But it’s also not that bad. It’s a start, and we don’t start in the same place where we finish. So my kid might start with eating broccoli because he wants dessert, right? That is why my six-year-old eats broccoli. But that’s not why my 15-year-old eats broccoli. He actually likes broccoli.

We can have this sense that there is more out there to value than what we currently value. And we can work toward it, with environmental assistance. I’ve never met a student who was totally blasé. Some of them might be more excited than others, but I think of that as them being further or less far along in this process. They haven’t gotten the value as squarely into view as the others. So the question is, How do you help people? How do you move them along so that they can get it better into view, so that they can be more intrinsically motivated?

Fishbach: So, the data: it’s a really bad idea to tell your kid that they will get dessert if they eat the broccoli.

It might work for studying philosophy, and public speaking. But we’ve done some studies many years ago that found if you add an instrumental benefit for eating veggies, for eating healthy food, that makes kids hate it. Just this month, a much-larger-scale study came out showing that that’s the same for college students. If you’re trying to add instrumental benefits to health food, they don’t like it. We don’t like to eat for instrumental benefits; we like to eat because it tastes good.

Callard: I have some more data for you, which is that I did [attach instrumental benefits to vegetables] with my oldest kid, and it worked. With kids, there’s a question: Do you get them to put it in their mouth or not? It’s not about why they’re putting it in their mouth. It’s like, what will they put in their mouth? It can be hard to get them to even try something. You’re right that the fact that they’re eating it to get dessert is not going to make them enjoy it. It might make them enjoy it less, but it might make them put it in their mouth, and if you can get them to do that a bunch of times, they get used to it so at least it doesn’t seem gross to them.

Brooks: Let me ask you about a specific kind of desire you write about, Agnes—aspiration, which is a moral desire. Most of us want to lead a really good life. And some people go to extremes to lead good lives because their aspirational sense is so incredibly powerful. I have this little project called Weave, where I go look at community builders around the country. And so we go to Englewood [in Chicago] and other neighborhoods like that, and we find people who have lived lives of radical self-denial because they just want to feel right with the world. How do you think about that moral motivation, and how it arises and what its nature is?

Callard: I actually think of aspiration more broadly than just the moral. It covers all cases in which you’re trying to come to value something that you don’t yet value. So if I’m trying to come to value classical music, or trying to value reading Plato, that’s aspiration. But if I’m trying to come to value being more public spirited—or even self-denial—that’s also aspiration. 

You could be asking two different questions about this case of self-denial. One is, “How do people come to be that way? How do people come to have that as a value target?” Extreme self-denial can be quite mysterious to those of us who don’t have it as a target.

The other is, you might see them as especially aspirational people. I wouldn’t take this view. That is, suppose you think you really understand why self-denial is so important and so good. You fully get that, and you’ve just devoted yourself to self-denial. Well, then you’re not an aspirant in my view. You’re better than an aspirant—you’ve arrived at your destination.

The point isn’t to always be traveling. It’s to, at some point, arrive at the value destination. So those people have arrived at the value destination of a certain kind of public spiritedness, self-denial, etc. So in a way, they’re no longer paradigmatically aspirational.  

Now the question is, How do you get that as a target? How do you aspire to that? I do think environmental considerations are very relevant to what targets show up for you. Having certain kinds of music in the background when you’re a kid can be part of what sets those things up as possible targets for aspiration for you. But I actually think it would be an empirical question to ask: What sets that up as a possible target for someone’s aspiration? 

Brooks: Does psychology give us tools here?

Fishbach: As psychologists, we actually think about the level of aspiration, which could be similar to what you mean by target. You have a goal: you want to play music, and then you can have different levels of aspiration. You might want to just be able to play a few notes on the piano, or perform, or be great. You want to get a job, or you want to excel at it. What is your level of aspiration within a specific goal that you decided to pursue? 

As psychologists, we think about what determines people’s level of aspiration, and how we can influence that. We study interventions, such as what kind of feedback makes someone develop a higher level of aspirations.

To give you an example, we did a study where we gave people feedback either on what they accomplished before, or on what they were yet to accomplish. And what we find is that if we highlighted what’s ahead of them, the remaining action, people developed a higher level of aspiration. Thinking about everything that you can still do is pushing you forward. That’s one intervention that can increase the level of aspiration.

Brooks: What about exemplars? There’s a Spartan educator who said, “I make honorable things excellent to children.” And so holding up a high standard of what a model life should be, does that work, or does that make people say, “I could never do that”?

Fishbach: My answer is not going to be very satisfying. It has to be something that’s high, but not so high so that you’re going to say, “Well, I can’t do that. That’s too extreme.”

We would like goals, or targets, to be just above what you can easily get to. So you’ll have to work hard to get there. The 10,000-step goal is a good example for that. If you just do your regular walking, you’re not going to get there. But it’s also not impossible. You need to work harder than you would do otherwise.

Brooks: Now let’s talk about how life courses develop and how they change and how people transform their lives. Do people successfully transform their lives, or are they pretty much stuck with who they are? And how do they make these decisions that are transformational?

Callard: Grown-ups are incredibly complex, and they have all these interests and passions. Kids don’t have any of those. So I would say that looks like success to me, in a lot of cases. They didn’t just end up where they started. They ended up a lot further than where they started, right?

You can explain that in a variety of ways. Maybe one difference between the psychologist’s approach and the philosopher’s approach is that I’m inclined to say, “Let me think about my own case. And let me think about what kind of story I could tell about my own case that I could, so to speak, live with.” 

I’m not asking, “Well, how are people motivated, or what do people desire?” Other people, right? Psychologists are always studying other people, because the data is other people. But I’m like, well, look: I didn’t used to love philosophy. And in fact, I used to think I couldn’t do it. Even when I loved it a little bit, I thought I couldn’t do it. 

I came to see things differently, but I don’t see that process as something that just happened to me, something that other people did to me. That’s not the story that I tell of myself. Other people are relevant, but I feel like I did stuff too: I put in a lot of effort. I put in a lot of work. My experience of myself is one in which I put in a lot of work.

As a philosopher, what I want to do is take that—in a way, it’s a kind of data. That my experience of getting to where I am, in terms of what I care about, what I value, what I desire, is that my own agency was relevant to that story.

Then I need a theory of what makes that possible. And in philosophy, there’s a problem there. There’s a problem about producing that theory. Because it looks like what it is to exercise control over yourself or make decisions for yourself is to be rational, and to think, “Well, look, here’s what I want to be like, so let me take the steps that will get me there.”

But in these cases where you’re thinking about radical life transformations, the end point is some intrinsic motivation that you don’t have yet; that’s why you want to aspire. So why should you try to acquire that in terms of motivation?

Suppose I want to become the kind of person who appreciates classical music, but  I don’t appreciate classical music. One weird kind of case might be that I want to appear sophisticated to other people, and that’s the ulterior motive. That’s not what we’re talking about in this case of aspiration. No, I want to actually appreciate classical music. I think there’s something out there that I’m not responding to. 

So it looks like there’s a problem. I can’t be rational in deciding to come to value something, because the reason to value it would be the value of that thing, but I don’t yet grasp that value. The theory that I’m trying to produce is to say: In what sense can it be a rational process, or a process for which you can consider yourself responsible, or a process that you can think of yourself as steering? In what sense can these large-scale transformative projects be that, be you choosing and doing and deciding, given that, in effect, you don’t have the relevant knowledge to make the decision rational? That’s the paradox that I’m struggling with.

Brooks: Ayelet, the steering and the agency, is that a model that seems compelling to you?

Fishbach: Yes. We do look at how people grow, and how you get from here to there, and I have developed a framework that enables me to study the factors that will predict how much people can grow: how well they set their goals, how they sustain the motivation, how they gather the social support, how they manage multiple goals. And we can see that there are certain factors that predict growth in this model.

We are also less concerned with what you described as the self-control problem, with the idea that I want things that I don’t fully realize what they are, or that are in conflict with other things that I want. That’s OK.

We have a planner and a doer, as I mentioned before. I would say that also, as psychologists, we care about creating the environment in which people can grow. Say that I grew, or you look like you can grow. You’re educated and self-aware people with access to resources that enable growth. But what about others? How can we help kids grow? How can we help people with less access to resources?

There is a lot of attention in our school at the moment to questions about poverty and how to help people with less access to resources to find ways to grow, to find ways to develop, and it’s getting much more complicated when you are studying people with less access.

Callard: Can I ask a question about the planner and the doer? Because it seems to me that there are two different kinds of planning that the planner does, and I wonder whether you draw this distinction.

One kind of planning is, for instance, this morning I had to think through: What are the things I have to do today? I’m going to have to prepare for this event, but also write a letter of recommendation, do this other thing, and my planner is telling me what order to do things, what I need to do in order to be able to do those things, where I need to be. That’s one kind of planning my planner does, and my doer does it, hopefully.

But here’s another kind of planning: I decide I might want to get into making, say, bead art. I’m stringing beads together, like bead tapestry. It doesn’t really exist, but I’m thinking of inventing it. Bead tapestry. Maybe I want to start making bead tapestries. My planner is contemplating, should we do this? Should we take up bead tapestry?

And that seems really different from the case where my planner is doing the other kind of planning. So it kind of seems like sometimes the planner goes off the rails. And she says things like, “Let’s do bead tapestries,” or, “Let’s have a kid.”

If I think about my preferences and what I want out of life before I have kids, my preferences are for things that are selfish, like having lots of free time to myself, getting to read whenever I want to, and not having someone attached to my body a lot of the time. Then if I have a kid, I have really different preferences all of a sudden. I’m really concerned about this one person, and allow them to tyrannize me in ways that I would never really have gone in for before. I’m attached to them.

Those are cases where it seems like my planner is going nuts, in terms of planning things for me that don’t answer to what I already want. From my point of view, those are really different kinds of planning. Do you recognize that there are these two really different kinds of planning? You said there’s a planner and a doer, but there’s a kind of planning that we do that’s much harder to understand.

Fishbach: When we use the metaphor with the planner and the doer, it’s really your long-term goals, and what you end up doing. It’s not planning your schedule.

Brooks: The planner is the one that wants to watch the serious Swedish movie, but maybe next week. Tonight we’ll watch Spider-Man.

Fishbach: Yes, exactly. The planner is really your long-term goals. You want to be a philosopher. You want to have a child but you haven’t met the person to do it with yet. That is, things that you can set as life goals.

Brooks: Your slightly different accounts of how life progresses resonate with me on one level. 

On my career level, it’s a little stressing, you know, just getting out a little ahead of myself, trying to write a little better, trying to aspire to be a better writer. “I should read this stuff so I could do this a little better.” And so that’s just, sort of, linear progression. And in my case, it has to be very boring linear progression: my career is a completely straight line. 

But in my internal life, it’s not like that at all. In my internal life, I had bad things happen to me. I experienced depths of myself I’d never experienced and was unaware of before. I listened to a lot of sad Irish music. Out of that experience came a response, and that completely changed who I was.

I had an interview with one extremely emotionally intelligent interviewer five years ago, and then I had one about six months ago. And afterward, she said, “I’ve never seen anybody change so much.” It wasn’t because of some plan or aspiration. It was: bad things happened. And there was a certain way of responding to those bad things.

Most people have gone through some valley in their lives, which they say is the transformational moment of their life. And it’s more response than action.

Fishbach: Definitely transformation doesn’t happen just as a result of setting a goal. Life happens. And things happen that we didn’t plan, and they change our goals, and we might start to like sad Irish music. Things happen, and we respond to them. That’s a different process than setting a goal and going there. 

We find that people learn surprisingly little from these setbacks. There is much more information in failures than people realize. There is often not so much learning. It could be that we emphasize that people should learn from failure so much exactly because they don’t do it. It’s like you guys emphasizing that you should eat broccoli because you don’t do it. So it’s nice when there is learning from setbacks. It’s not something that we ever assume will happen.

When I was reading your stuff, Agnes, I had the same thought that it sounds like people have a real clear way where they are going—and what about just stumbling upon something? I just took a class in philosophy and found it interesting. I never planned to be a philosopher. Your thinking was, or at least your writing to me sounded like, I already have a plan to become a philosopher at the point where I’m taking my first philosophy class. That’s not how we think people happen. At least the social psychologists, we believe people are responding to the situation, what happens in life.

Brooks: How did you become a psychologist?

Fishbach: By mistake! I tried a few other things. I didn’t want to be a political scientist. I didn’t want to be a sociologist. I was trying for one week to be an economist. That wasn’t fun. And here I am, a psychologist.

Callard: My picture’s a lot closer to the stumbling picture, maybe, than I sometimes make it sound. It depends on whether you’re looking at that initial stumbling moment from the point of view of being at that moment or retrospectively. Retrospectively, we can often see a lot more in that moment than we could see at the time.

We say, “Oh, that’s when I was first starting to get the inkling that . . .” but at the time, we couldn’t articulate the inkling very well. Later we can. So I agree with you that there are all kinds of accidents and external circumstances that figure in to how we end up where we end up. But the thing that you said that really struck me was the response. It wasn’t just that bad stuff happened to you. That’s not the explanation of the result, right? Bad stuff happened to you, and you responded. Presumably the response wasn’t purely dictated by the nature of the bad stuff, because if it had been, you wouldn’t have even had to mention the response. 

That case is actually not very different from the other kinds of cases that we’re thinking of. The way in which it’s different is that there are some experiences that are easy to discuss in front of people. You can telegraph the whole experience very quickly, very efficiently. For instance, having a child, or a career, or whatever. Because there’s a typology to it. But a lot of the really significant stuff that happens to us, or a lot of the really significant value changes in our lives, are really idiosyncratic, so it’s hard to tell the story of them. It would take a long time. 

But what happens in a situation like that, where a bunch of bad stuff happens to you, is that your value framework gets shaken up, and a lot of that value framework was internalized from your society and people around you. You’re forced to ask, “What do I want out of life? And what is it for my life to have meaning?” You have to now construct a new target that is more the product of your own agency and way of seeing things, because your old target that was, to some degree, inherited, doesn’t work anymore.

I think of that as paradigmatically aspirational. But it’s aspiration that, if we want to get a concrete grip on it, we’re often going to want to do something like read literature rather than philosophy, just because it would take so much time to spell out the case, if you see what I mean. 

Brooks: We’re at a business school. And it seemed to me for a while, when I was a student here, and one of my mentors was Milton Friedman, that economists took utility for granted. Like it’s a black box we call utility, and people are motivated by this thing called utility, this thing called self-interest. They didn’t say, “Well, what actually is that thing?” They just thought people were motivated by self-interest. How do you think about the classical motivation that people are interested by their desire for money, status, and power?

Fishbach: I’ve been at Booth for a while, and I never got a note about what I’m supposed to believe in. They don’t tell us that “you believe in power and money” when they hire us. We can totally reject that. 

You can explain a lot of humans’ behavior with simple motives such as resources and power. Saying that there are no exceptions would be wrong; incentives can backfire. Many people desire power, and some don’t. And sometimes looking for power may lead you to something that you did not intend to look for. We do look at the black box. We do look at how people respond to incentives. We look at when incentives backfire.

Back to the broccoli. That’s an example of incentives that backfire, and we study that. And we study when it’s good to give external incentives versus encouraging the person to find their internal incentive—do it because it’s interesting to you, because it’s fulfilling; don’t worry about what you can get out of it. We think a lot about the black box.

Brooks: I think that’s what’s exciting about this moment. People are now looking in the black box.

Fishbach: That has really changed. The tension between the approaches is that we are much more into looking at how people respond to their environment. The old notion of agency is often a decoration. It’s not really the thing.

It was interesting. When Agnes and I met for the first time, we talked about the book My Brilliant Friend [by Elena Ferrante], which Agnes teaches a class about. I read that book—I read all four [in the series]—loved it, and I thought that it was all about the situation, how people get stuck in the situation, and how their situation doesn’t allow them to do certain things that they would like to do, that prevent them from growing. For me as a social psychologist, that was a story about the situation. 

Callard: I read it as a story of these two girls who grow up in this impoverished, sexist environment with very few options before them, and one of them learns computer programming, and the other becomes a novelist. So from my point of view, it’s this amazing transformation. They both feared ending up like their mothers, and they didn’t, in fact.

But there are a whole bunch of ways in which they are still constrained, so I want to grant that. Maybe instead of saying, “Oh there’s something they should care about besides utility and money, status and power,” one thing you might think about as a philosopher is that it’s actually hard to see why people care about status. Status is a little mysterious. 

In fact, I’m just going to indulge myself for a second. I’m going to make a point about Greek. There’s this Greek word doxa, which means “opinion.” So, for instance, my opinion about you. When I think about you, that’s my doxa.

But if you look it up in the Greek dictionary, you’ll find that meaning and you’ll also find the meaning “reputation.” So that’s also what the word doxameans. And for a while, I thought: it has these two meanings. Opinion, reputation. Because those are two totally different words. In English, if you look those words up in the dictionary, they mean different things, right?

But I realized one day that actually it’s not two different meanings, because my reputation is your opinion about me. So, opinion and reputation, in a way, are two sides of a coin. My reputation is in you. It’s something in you, something external to me.

It’s really cool that Greek grasps that, and just uses one word for the two things. But the fact that you’ve used one word for the two things doesn’t mean you’ve actually explained how someone goes from caring about the thing that’s in their head to caring about the meaning that’s in someone else’s head.

The fact that I can care about status, that means things that are in other people’s heads matter to me. And the process of how we go from, in some sense, a really narrow sense of utility to a sense of utility that includes investment in the minds of others, blows open any super narrow theory of self-interest.

Audience Q&A

Question: David Brooks, what philosophies have changed for you in recent years?

Brooks: One of the things teachers know is when sometimes they pour into students more than the students are able to receive. Because life hasn’t happened yet. So my professors poured Nietzsche and Kant and Hegel and Thucydides into me, but you don’t really know what Thucydides is talking about until you experience some things.

And then I guess what has changed is I’ve gone—I don’t want to make this about me, but that is how I make a living—you know, when you go through a bad period. I read a [theologian] named Henri Nouwen, who said, “When you’re going through pain, you have to stay in the pain to see what it has to teach you.”

And I was like, “Screw that! Get out of the pain.” But when you do go in the pain, you discover an emotional language that maybe—maybe it’s just me. I think it’s a lot of guys who are not emotionally transparent. And back in the day, University of Chicago didn’t exactly help with that.

And so then suddenly, when you read St. Augustine and the depths of emotion that he feels, it suddenly becomes a real thing for you. And then you, you know in a very schematic way, the desires of your heart to be infused with one another, and the desires of the soul to serve some uplifting good become much more germane and salient.

I wrote a whole book about this, and I don’t want to go into it. But it wasn’t actually getting more agency; it was losing agency. I was in a self-sufficient life, where I had tons of agency over my life. And surrendering agency meant entering into much deeper relationships with people around me.

And the way I did it is I threw myself into all these emotional circumstances that were completely uncomfortable. Two weeks ago, I was at some touchy-feely conference, and we had to pick the guy next to us and sing a song into each other’s eyes. And 10 years ago, I would have shot myself. I could not have done that.

But you get to a point where you soften some of the thick soil, the crusty soil you’ve built on top of yourself through life. And so it feels more like going deeper into yourself rather than shifting from being one thing to being another.

Question: Are we made a certain way, or do we change through exposure?

Callard: There are going to be just facts about you—you’re born with those traits—that are relevant to what you can come to appreciate. I’ve really tried with classical music. For many, many years, my mother tried. It does not seem to be working. That doesn’t seem to be where I’m heading aspirationally.

Let’s just call that nature. So there are these natural facts, and there’s nurture, if we want to just restrict nurture for a moment to what other people do to you and what your environment does to you.

Both of those are relevant to aspiration. But that is not the whole story. It’s not the case that the whole story of how you become who you are is some kind of sum of who you were to start out with, and then what other people do to you. There’s something else, a kind of work that you put in to get things into view.  I call that agency, but  not the kind of agency you manifest in decisions about planning. Agency’s  a lot broader than we sometimes give it credit for. Allowing yourself to feel certain things and putting yourself in an environment where you feel certain things, and thinking you have to learn from that—that’s a kind of agency too,. taking the reins of your life,  not simply allowing your life to fill the pattern that it had been going in.

So yes, there is the inner stuff and the outer stuff. But then there’s just another variable, which is very important, and which we tend to overlook. We tend to want to tell a story in which either there was a secret philosopher buried in me from the beginning, or the worldmade me into a philosopher. And what I want to say is, that doesn’t resonate with my experience.

Fishbach: Can I add? You are making the distinction between nature and nurture. And as a social psychologist, I would like to encourage you to drop personality, drop nature, OK, use just nurture.

And this is not denying that there are differences between people. You probably have more musical talent than other people in this room, and that’s nice to have. However, there is very little we can do with this. We are who we are. We have our personality. We are more or less smart, more or less musical, whatever. It doesn’t matter. If we can just ignore that, and just look at the environment, and look at experiences, learning, there is much more that we can do with that.

We can go through experiences saying, “I’m the type of person that can grow.” That’s just not very useful.

I have many years of practice explaining people’s behavior without using their personality. I would like to encourage you to just try for a while. It really opens your mind to think about interventions for others and for yourself that help you grow.

Question: How do we utilize academic knowledge beyond business, and how do we improve this process?

Callard: I’ll tell you about some things that I’m working on right now.

I’m writing something for the New Yorker called “The Ethics of Breakup,” in which I’m trying to argue that there are, in fact, ethical rules to how you break up with someone. For instance, to just walk away is not OK, usually.

I take that to be an important philosophical question that we have not really asked ourselves. We have this idea that all’s fair in love and war, and nobody thinks that about war any more, but a lot of people still think that about love, actually.

I have embodied knowledge about this particular question. And, in fact, it’s my own experiences with breakups, and particularly a breakup with a close friend, that forced me to ask this question, where 17 years after this breakup, I’m still upset about it, and I’m like, “Wow, something really went wrong there.” Maybe that was really not OK, and that’s why I’m still upset about it, and I think that is why I’m still upset about it: it wasn’t OK.

I have this paper, “The Reason to Be Angry Forever,” and it came from the fact that I was really angry with someone for a really, really long time, and I wanted to understand, why am I so angry? And I realized it was really logical for me to be so angry, in fact. It’s what I argue in the paper.

So I actually agree that a lot of the time, philosophers don’t consult their own experience in guiding themselves toward questions. I just wrote something about miscarriage and abortion. And not abortion from the, “Is it right or wrong?” but what is it like to contemplate having an abortion, which I did.

These are important philosophical questions, but there are a lot of questions like that that just have not really gotten aired in philosophy. Because there’s a little bit too much of a tendency to inherit our questions. Part of that is we have such awesome people to inherit them from, like Augustine, and Plato, and Aristotle. But they’re all men, so they ask a particular set of questions. There’s a lot of questions they didn’t ask.

I think it is really important to consult our experience, because there might be a lot of other questions that we need to be asking, that we forgot to ask.

Question: How do you discover your intrinsic motivation?

Brooks: Nietzsche has an answer for us here. He said, find the most beautiful things in your childhood and see if you can draw a thematic line through them. And if you can do that, he said, you’ll find the law of your very nature.

But the emphasis is on aesthetics, that we are called to certain things we find extremely beautiful. And that beauty tends to last.

There’s a painter who was asked, why are you a painter? And she said, “I love the smell of paint.” It’s just the aesthetic enjoyment of that sense of paint.

And then sometimes it settles into a demon, a problem we’re all trying to solve. I ran across a pediatrician [W. Thomas Boyce], who wrote a book called The Orchid and the Dandelion. His basic theory is that some kids are orchids: if they’re put in the right soil, they bloom and they’re tremendous. If they’re put in bad soil, they really struggle. Some kids are dandelions, and you can put them in any soil, and they’ll be fine. 

I’m fascinated by this thesis, and I got to meet him. And I said, “How did you start on this?” He said, “Well, I had a sister. And my sister was more brilliant, more beautiful, had a greater personality [than me]. And I’ve had this great career. She suffered from major depression. She got a PhD at MIT, but suffered from major depression and killed herself at 42.” His whole research career has been based on this distinction between him and his sister, trying to figure that out. Some people are haunted by one thing that’s either very beautiful or very hurtful to them. Once they nab on that thing, they never quite let it go.

Fishbach: OK, so after that, I’ll just have to be much more practical.

You develop your intrinsic motivation by trying out things, by exposing yourself, by having new experiences. This is another place where we have similar views—just trying out many new things is a way to grow, and collect experiences.

Intrinsic motivation is that feeling that what you are doing is rewarding as you are doing it, and many things will only become rewarding once you are doing them for a while.

It’s hard to think about something that you are doing for the first time that requires any effort and that is immediately rewarding. It’s over the experience of doing something that you develop a passion for it,and then it takes you, and then it carries you on. So keep exploring.

Question: I expected to hear the words trust and fear, can you explain why you didn’t use them?

Callard: I’ll say one thing, which is that I didn’t use the word, but when I was distinguishing between advice and mentorship, the crucial relationship that allows for a person to help another is trust. That’s interpersonal trust.

You’re in a way referring to intrapersonal trust, like trusting yourself. And I would say there, the place where that would show up for me is that if you think of the difference between an aspirant, so someone who’s trying to come to value something new, versus someone who’s succeeded at the end of that process, for the person who’s trying, there will be lots of trust and fear. Because he wouldn’t already know that it was going to work out, right?

So some of the problem that I’m dealing with philosophically of how it can be rational to try to get yourself to value something new is that the compromised rationality of that process is a matter of these emotional reactions, of having trust and fear instead of something else, which is better than trust and fear. It’s better when you reach the end point.

So trust and fear are the compromised case, or the case that shows that you’re still on your way.

Fishbach: From a psychological point of view, we didn’t talk about resources. And the way you talk about trust is as a resource. 

Now let’s think about what resources we bring into our pursuit. It might be material resources. “OK, I can afford it.” It might be that I have the social network. I have other people that can support me. I have other people that will enable me to get out of these difficult situations.

And it might be what you call trust, and I would actually call confidence, because I reserve trust more to trusting other people, trusting that they will help me, that they will be there for me. And then there is the confidence in myself, which is the trust in myself that I will be OK. And that’s a major resource. It’s also the main predictor of how much people can learn from negative feedback, and what you are describing are extreme examples of getting negative feedback, of failing. And confident people, people who trust themselves, can better learn from that.