I think that when I undertake some project of self-improvement, it’s because I have looked at a thing and I think to myself: “That would be cool.”
It has to be something sufficiently audacious that it inspires me to make a big effort. Not just “I’m going to learn a second language,” but, “I’m going to be able to read ten languages.” Not just “I’m going to lose ten pounds” but “I’m going to have low body fat and big muscles by the time I’m done with this.”
Neither of those example goals have come true for me yet. Perhaps they never will. But I’ve made huge progress because of my attempt to achieve them. That’s part of what makes audacious goals so attractive to me, I think: “Even if I fail, as I probably will, even just getting halfway there would be pretty amazing.”
It seems likely that the form of this goal setting determines, to some extent, the content. There’s definitely a social aspect to my thinking, even if it’s largely implicit and not actually shared (initially) with others. I’m thinking, “if someday a new friend randomly learned that I could understand ten languages, that would make me look so smart and disciplined!” So there is a social aspect to the experience, even if it is an imaginary or forecasting social experience when I first conceive of it.
What that means is, the things I choose are chosen at least in part based on what the people around me care about, or at least what I believe they care about. Now, that’s not the entirety of it, by any means; I’m not an empty vessel that just passively absorbs all the preferences of all the people around. But it does play a part.
So probably if I’d been born ten or fifteen years later, I would have followed a somewhat different path. Maybe. I’m not sure how much one generation differs from another in the important respects, but it does seem possible that considering how quickly social and ethical intuitions are shifting, the journey would have been different in some ways.
I’m still thinking about what the other elements are, what other factors affect how and why I’m attracted to one thing over another. But I do suspect that, however juvenile it may initially sound, this is part of what motivates me when I undertake a big project. It’s a feeling, a sense. “That would be cool.”