What Should You Aim at in Life?: An Investigation into Motivation, Aims and Action

What Should One Aim at in Life?: An Investigation into Motivation, Aims and Action

10 Minute Read

In this first edition of the Heroic Minds Blog, I thought it would be most useful to start at the top. By that, I mean the top of a person’s moral psychology, which is the decision to choose what you are going to aim at in your life.

This brief essay will describe the following:

1) A very brief evolutionary history of our brain’s development from simple sea creatures to human beings.

2) How the anatomic structure of our brains influence the way that we conceive of what we should do in our lives.

3) Why this leads to great variation in human ability, development, happiness and fulfilment.

4) How you must structure your goals and thinking in order to make full use of your intellectual and motivational abilities to accomplish what you set out to do.


Human beings have minds that began their evolution billions of years ago. It began with our nervous systems being developed through millions of years of evolution until we developed vertebrae. At this point, we were about as sophisticated as a common fish. Next, our limbic brain began to develop. This is the part of our brain that is associated with all of our emotions as well as our perceptual systems (which work in tandem). Millions of years of getting killed by predators due to poor instincts resulted in our brain’s slowly increasing sophistication. Finally and more recently our “thinking brain” had been developed. This is the part of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex and it is one of the great mysteries of evolution since we are the only species to develop this level of cognitive sophistication. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for executive function, abstract reasoning, working memory and many more intellectual abilities.

Please excuse the overly simplistic diagram below. For the purposes and scope of this essay, we need not dive deeper into neuro-anatomy



Because the anatomy of our brain is quite literally stacked with the newest parts of our brains (evolutionarily speaking) on top of the castle, it begs the question as to what significance this has in the way we see the world. In the New York Times Best Selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Khaneman, he precisely lays out the way evolution affected our perceptions. In short, our limbic (emotional & instinctual) brains have had far more years of evolutionary development than our pre-frontal cortex (reasoning, rationality, planning etc). As such, our emotionally mediated drives and urges (like sex, hunger, thirst, fight and flight etc) often have far more of a control over our decision making than we tend to think. In other words, most of the time we are “thinking fast” because this is easier for our brains than “thinking slow” which involves slow, careful and logical consideration.

For example, if you’re a human being, then you have had a spirited disagreement before. If you are honest, you know that in the arguments that made you particularly irritated, your emotions may have gotten in the way of you thinking completely rationally. This is because in situations that enrage or scare us, our body’s switch on their survival mechanisms often referred to as fight or flight. This is a state in which the brain and body utilize future resources to ensure survival in the present. Neurologically speaking, your body diverts blood flow away from your prefrontal cortex and towards your amygdala which is responsible for aggression and emotional reactivity.

This is a perfect example of the hierarchy that exists in our minds. Because the fight or flight response was generally helpful in our history and our thinking brain is relatively new, your default reaction in a threatening situation is not to think carefully about a situation and remain calm. Our default reaction is to escape, fight or freeze.



You probably know where this is going. Most goals that people set out for themselves are very complicated in part because when you set a goal, you are trying to bring about a result at some future time. You have to remember that animals cannot conceive of time in the way that humans can. They have memory of the past and some ability to provision for the future but its not obvious that provisioning animals are setting out a unique plan or if they are hardwired to provision food when, say, the weather gets colder.

So, our emotions which come from our animalistic limbic brains are not good proxies of what action is necessary to accomplish our goals. Our goals demand careful analysis both of the aim (the what) and the skills and sub-routines necessary to accomplish the goal (the how). Despite this relatively obvious remark, many of us live our lives of increasing reactively and impulsively letting our drives and emotions dictate the degree to which we should engage in our work, as well as what decisions we should make. This issue is being compounded by the increasing interaction with “infinity pool” technologies that hijack your limbic reward system such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn just to name a few.

Over time, the differences in our habitual ability to think slow and deliberately versus thinking fast and impulsively lead to very different decision making which leads to very different life outcomes.

The Marshmallow Test

Maybe you have heard of the “Stanford Marshmallow Test” before. If you haven’t, it was a social psychology study that hypothesized that 4-year-old kids who demonstrate the ability to delay gratification would experience very different life outcomes 10 years down the road. The design of the test was simple. Take a marshmallow, put it in front of a child and propose a deal. The deal was that the kids were free to immediately eat the lone marshmallow that sat deliciously within their grasp but if they could resist for a few minutes while the adult left the room, then they would be offered a second one.

The study followed up with these individuals 10 years later and found that their hypothesis was confirmed. The kids that did not act upon the instinct for immediate gratification had higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better stress management, better verbal fluency, better planners and much more.

Needless to say, people with less general ability get worse results from their actions which creates a negative feedback loop which can lead to learned helplessness. Thus, it is imperative that this conversation be had with anyone interested in self actualization and realizing their dreams.


Ok, so we know that you are basically set up to instinctively avoid careful deliberation, so what explains those individuals who have developed the ability to act in deliberate intention in all that they do? Well, I haven’t yet brought up one of the most fascinating facts about the human mind that is out there (in my opinion). That is, despite our limbic brain bombarding us with a multitude of divergent irrational yet instinctual forces, our prefrontal cortex can intentionally influence those forces to align toward a common goal. This is the job of what psychologists call the executive function of the brain. It’s helpful to imagine an executive at the top of your mind able to command the rest of your psyche into alignment toward whatever the executive sees fit. However, this is not an easy process.

This is where a spiritual conception of who you are, where you are and where you want to go is important. Let’s say that your goal is to get an “A” on your next test in school. The next logical question you ask yourself (consciously or unconsciously) is why do I want an “A"? If your answer is simply that an “A” would be better than a “B” then you will likely not find this motivating enough to stop the limbic system from overriding your efforts to study. Instead, if you are particularly competitive, you might say “it would feel so good to beat my friends on this test” and that might provide ample motivation to extinguish the those pesky micro-personalities with divergent motivations.

You can see from this example that the way you can make better use of your executive function is by:

1) Consciously setting goals.

2) Consider why you want those goals and articulate it.

3) Pick a “why” that suits your personal idiosyncrasies. Accept that you are motivated by competition, recognition, exploration, creativity etc and use it as a fuel for your work.

4) Reflect constantly on your goals and your reason why because the goal will not be habituated in your mind without significant and consistent meditation on the topic.

With that, I will conclude this essay. I hope you found it interesting and engaging. Let me know your thoughts on Heroic Minds’ Social Media.

Iain Bigford

Iain Bigford BA. MBA.