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Society of Mind

4.7 long-range plans

We often become involved in projects that we can't complete. It is easy to solve small problems because we can treat them as though they were detached from all our other goals. But it is different for projects that span larger portions of our lives, like learning a trade, raising a child, or writing a book. We cannot simply decide or choose to accomplish an enterprise that makes a large demand for time, because it will inevitably conflict with other interests and ambitions. Then we'll be forced to ask questions like these:

What must I give up for this? What will I learn from it? Will it bring power and influence? Will I remain interested in it? Will other people help me with it? Will they still like me?

Perhaps the most difficult question of all is, How will adopting this goal change me? Just wanting to own a large, expensive house, for instance, can lead to elaborate thoughts like these:

That means I'd have to save for years and not get other things I'd like. I doubt that I could bear it. True, I could reform myself, and try to be more thrifty and deliberate. But that's just not the sort of person I am.

Until such doubts are set aside, all the plans we make will be subject to the danger that we may change our mind. So how can any long-range plan succeed? The easiest path to self-control is doing only what one is already disposed to do.

Many of the schemes we use for self-control are the same as those we learn to use for influencing other people. We make ourselves behave by exploiting our own fears and desires, offering ourselves rewards, or threatening the loss of what we love. But when short-range tricks won't keep us to our projects for long enough, we may need some way to make changes that won't let us change ourselves back again. I suspect that, in order to commit ourselves to our largest, most ambitious plans, we learn to exploit agencies that operate on larger spans of time.

Which are our slowest-changing agencies of all? Later we'll see that these must include the silent, hidden agencies that shape what we call character. These are the systems that are concerned not merely with the things we want, but with what we want ourselves to be — that is, the ideals we set for ourselves.