We live in a world obsessed with outcomes. At school, we’re encouraged to climb an artificial leaderboard that reflects our test scores. At work, performance is based on reaching specific targets, sometimes known as OKRs for “Objectives and Key Results.”
In this goal-based society, success is defined by how our peers evaluate our track record. But what if you’re not excited about this definition of success? What if you’re feeling lost and want to find your way — not the default path, but your own path?
Kyūdō, the Japanese martial art of archery, offers an alternative philosophy where aims matter more than goals, and where success is the process itself.
The difference between goals and aims
People tend to use the words “goal” and “aim” interchangeably, but those words have very different definitions. Archery is the perfect metaphor to understand the difference between a goal and an aim, and there’s no better way to illustrate it than the story of a German professor who fell in love with the art of the bow.
Eugen Herrigel (1884 – 1955) moved to Japan in the 1920’s to teach philosophy. There, he decided to train in Kyūdō as a way to better understand Japanese culture. He was fortunate to be taught by legendary archer Kenzō Awa, who was known as the man of “one hundred shots, one hundred bullseyes.”
The training was too slow to Herrigel’s taste, who kept on missing his target after months of training, and he complained about his lack of progress. The archery master replied: “The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed.”
Instead, the master encouraged him to forget about the goal, and to focus on the way he was aiming — how he held the bow, the way he positioned his feet, the way he was breathing while releasing the arrow.
In life like in archery, the goal is the target we want to achieve, while the aim is the course we set to reach that target. A goal fixates on the finish line, while an aim considers the trajectory. When we focus on our aims, the process becomes the goal. And we’re more likely to reach our goal when we become fully aware of our aim.
This is the essence of the way of the bow. As James Clear puts it: “It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming.”
How to define your aims
Thomas Fuller (1608 – 1661), one of the first English writers to have enough patrons to be able to live by his pen, wrote: “A good archer is not known by their arrows but by their aim.”
Letting go of outcomes doesn’t mean abandoning your ambitions. Instead, focusing on your aims is a mindset shift that allows you to break free of the arrival fallacy so you can zero in on your output.
When we focus on our aims rather than our end goals, we learn how to design a daily life where the process itself is so fulfilling that it doesn’t matter whether we ever reach an hypothetical finish line. Success is enjoying the process.
However, we have all been so well-trained to obsess over outcomes, it can be difficult to change the way we direct our energy and attention. Metacognition (“thinking about thinking”) can help us untangle those deeply ingrained patterns.
The AIMS Self-Reflection Questionnaire is a simple thinking exercise to break free from a goal-based approach to life and help you focus on your aims instead. AIMS stands for Aspiration, Implementation, Metacognition, and Success.
You just need a pen and paper, a timer (for example on your phone), and about half an hour to complete it.
Are you a member of the Ness Labs learning community? You can access a detailed version with additional details on each question and a downloadable workbook to write down your answers.
1. Aspiration (10 minutes)
To refocus on intrinsic motivation, the first section of the questionnaire encourages you to reconnect with your dreams.
- When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- What experiences filled you with awe and wonder?
- What do you want to learn?
- What are some past projects you enjoyed working on, including abandoned projects?
- What excites you the most about the future?
2. Implementation (10 minutes)
The second part of the questionnaire is about the process of aiming towards your aspirations, when you forget about the outcome and enjoy the journey instead.
- What does an ideal day look like to you?
- What things would you like to say no to if you could?
- When do you feel most energized?
- Who are the people you trust and you can count on to support you?
- What things would you do if you supported yourself unconditionally?
3. Metacognition (5 minutes)
In the third part of the questionnaire, you will reflect on the ways you can avoid living your life on autopilot, how you can monitor your progress, and where to get the help you need when you feel stuck.
- What are your favorite modes of thinking?
- What are your self-reflection tools of choice?
- Where do you seek advice when you feel stuck?
4. Success (5 minutes)
The last part draws on your answers to the questions in the previous sections. Looking at what you wrote in each corresponding section, complete the following sentences:
- In the future, I would like to…
- I will direct my time, energy and attention towards these aspirations by…
- I will reflect on my progress by…
- To me, success means…
That’s it. You have now completed the AIMS Self-Reflection Questionnaire. It’s a simple way to rethink your relationship with ambition by focusing on the trajectory rather than the finish line. And it’s hopefully also a nice way to remember some of your past experiences and to get excited about the future.