Fundamental and Subordinate Goals

My friend Nicolás and I were talking about a girl. I was interested in her for a while, there was a story between us, but because she lived in the US, we didn’t have a chance to see where it could lead. We met up again recently but by now she had a boyfriend, and even though there was a spark and some tension, it wasn’t enough to make it work.

My friends thought (and some still do) that I was gonna take it very hard. So many years waiting for a second chance, one would think that was going to be a tough pill to swallow. I thought so too. However, it was surprisingly easy to move on. And I think during that conversation with my friend I understood why:

She was a Subordinate goal, and I only care about Fundamental goals. Subordinate goals are problematic, because of their multiple applicability. Many experiences have led me to behave this way, but I think I’ve been on this path for a while, I just didn’t notice it until now. Let me explain…

I define Fundamental goals as the ultimate purpose, the underlying objective behind every step and decision one makes. On the other hand, Subordinate goals are objectives that can serve multiple Fundamental goals. They are steps that we make on our way to our Fundamental goals, and should NEVER be seen as Fundamental goals.

Some examples:

  • Wanting a job, or a higher paycheck, are subordinate goals. Create meaningful work, change the world, help others, support your family, express your creativity, these are all fundamental goals.
  • Wanting to get a girlfriend, or get laid, are subordinate goals. Have a family, create a dynasty, are fundamental goals.
  • Vacations are subordinate goals. Have a life that balances hard work with relaxation is a fundamental goal.
  • Clothes, make-up, credentials and resumés are subordinate goals. Wanting to impress someone, and communicate them your value in order to connect in a certain way is a fundamental goal.
  • Looking buffed is a subordinate goal. Being healthy is a fundamental goal.

Subordinate goals can be pursued for many different reasons. If you think that looking buffed means being healthy, then how do you explain the people that want to look buffed to be more attractive to the opposite sex? Being healthy means being healthy. Looking buffed can mean many things.

The key problem of not seeing the difference between fundamental and subordinate goals are:

  1. We may be on a path that leads nowhere.
  2. We may be unaware of other paths that could help us get to our fundamental goal (a decision-opportunity-cost, if you will).

In the case of the girl I mentioned, there were many elements that made it easy to move on: she lives in the US and I have no desire to move there soon, she doesn’t want kids ever, and it’s ridiculously hard to make a long-term relationship work, (not to mention a boyfriend at the moment). Trying to be with her was clearly a subordinate goal, but one that didn’t lead to my fundamental goal of having a family, or creating meaningful work, because I would have had to redirect a lot of energy and focus into relocating to the US.

For me, my shot at doing something interesting in life far surpasses the value of a fling.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with dating people that may not be your future wife, but when you know for sure that she is not the one, get out! Otherwise, you’re following a dead-end path, unless your goal is actually to get laid a lot or whatever, in which case there are more serious things to re-evaluate…

Subordinate goals are good. Making more money, getting laid, looking pretty, all fine things. But we need to be careful about how much energy and focus we put into them. Just because we consider them ultimate goals won’t make them so. The only thing achieving them will do for us, is confuse us, because we’ll be on the middle of a path with an unknown destination. A destination we may hate once we arrive.

Bottom line: Focus your efforts in discovering your Fundamental goals first, and make sure that your following objectives are aligned with them.

Some related concepts that are worth learning from The Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman, my mentor and friend: