Progress toward Long Term Goals

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Subtitle: Or the Roar of the Crowd versus the Eagle Court of Honor.

I offered my thoughts on the differences between sports’ lessons on team work and personal development versus scouting in those same domains.

I was watching Professor Jordan Peterson, whom I have introduced before. In his fifth lecture on Maps and Meaning, he has an interesting side discussion on the dopamine effects on the brain for positive reinforcement. Yes, he is lecturing on Pinochio, and very funny in the process.

In the segment I am highlighting, the professor suggests that striving toward a vision or major goal in life is crucial for finding meaning in life (23:30). In one part of his analysis, he analyzes why athletes can have an injured thumb or sprained ankle and continue to play. Yet, the athlete is in excruciating pain once the competition is over. He attributes this mind over matter to the focus of a goal-oriented mind. In this case, the goal is winning the game, whether regular season, post-season, or championship game is not discussed. Implicit in the point, based on his later analysis, is the notion that the athlete is probably seeking a longer-term goal, as he defines it. (Championship trophy, college recruitment, all-time record, etc.)

The professor suggests that long-term goals are crucial for finding meaning in life (as opposed to the grander “meaning of life”) and personal satisfaction.*  The professor hypothesizes that a person feels a dopamine (i.e., good feeling) response from the brain when a significant step toward a self-identifed, valued, larger goal is accomplished. Each step that moves the progress toward the long-term goal foward compounds the dopamine response. Then brain starts to associate accomplishing the long-term goal as a source of good feelings. Absent the longer-range goal, the person has a random spike in dopamine that does little to incentivize future behavior. It is important that the person have dopamine spikes often enough and systematically enough to engage this personal satisfaction.

As the professor’s earlier example has already illustrated, seeking a larger goal in sports can serve this purpose.

However, I would point out that sports has a harder time doing this systematically.

First, sports for the unathletic is rarely a source of good feelings. For me as a child, sports was a never ending source of conflict with my parents. I was more athletic than many but far less athletic than any of the neighborhood kids. The only thing I had going for me was an additional 20-30 pounds and three inches of height. They didn’t pick me for teams for scoring or agility. But I was picked when the “enforcer role” was important. (Which was frustrating for me as a good sportsmanship personality, since I could never constitutionally be the enforcer, like in Paul Newman’s Slapshot. The clip purports to be “Fun for the Whole Family,” but I would not watch it at work for its non-Scout-Law compliant language.) As a result, I dreaded most athletic events. It took college “camraderie” oriented sports to change my viewpoint.

Second, competitive sports (meaning “with a championship component”) by definition end up with all but one competitor or team being losers. Even in the most sportsmanlike definition, the loser of the gold-medal hockey game lost their last game. Some people thrive on the championship loss as motivation for the next season’s pursuit of the trophy. I would suggest it is less than a majority of the population. For those who do derive motivation from losses, I would suggest that they have a personal history of winning that the recent loss is the abberation not the norm. Many of us don’t compete in most sports at a high enough calibre to develop this history of winning to be driven for that source of dopamine associated with winning a trophy.

Third, as a statistical analysis of the previous two points suggests, most of the population lack either the personal skill or history of winning to obtain benefit from athletics as a reliable source of dopamine toward a larger goal. Instead they learn the opposite from their own efforts or go on to seek dopamine from athletics vicariously through local, college, or kids’ sports teams. This can have profoundly good and negative effects. The consequences of this focus can vary dramatically and unpredictably.

So we end up with a limited population that can learn long-term goal setting and accomplishment as a source of long-term dopamine-reinforced personal satisfaction. Sports can work to teach the lesson, but are not a reliable means to the desired end.

Now compare scouting. For most of us, this is an easy comparison.

Whether we are looking at the nature of progressive (forget the god-awful Hegelian definition of “progressive,” corrupted by modern politics) rank advancement. Scout ranks are designed for the scout to start at a basic level. The scout attempts, sometimes repeatedly. The scout is encouraged. The scout learns and adapts. The scout finds a way to succeed. The scout is tested. The scout is recognized. The system is designed to trigger a dopamine effect for small steps, sometimes hard earned. Then we repeat for the next task.

Eventually a series of requirements is fulfilled of varying complexity and the scout is reviewed and recognized for the larger progress. So we move from skill, to requirement, to rank, toward program pinnacle recognition (such as the Cub Scout Arrow of Light, Eagle Scout, Venturing Summit Award, or Sea Scouting Quartermaster’s Award). We give a huge ceremony when the scout reaches the pinnacle of each program. That is the larger goal the scout has pursued over a series of years! Years. Not a game. Not a season. Not a tournament. It is often a longer time than the scout has spent in any one school building (especially with new intermediate schools breaking up elementary schools).

Once a Cub Scout reach an Arrow of Light, is the Cub done? Not on your life. The Cub is enticed to be a Scout. The progress continues. For most Eagle Scouts, the scouting trek to Eagle consumes most of their short lives. For the Senior Class of 2031 (entering Lion Cubs this fall), pursuing an Eagle Scout could be as much as a thirteen-year pursuit when their 18th birthday rolls around. That is thirteen (13) years of small steps toward a large goal. The Eagle Scout Award for many could take longer than becoming a surgeon for a new high school graduate.

Small flashes of dopamine consistently earned on the scout’s own merit feed this beast of life-long pursuit of meaningful goals.

Tufts University has the famous study showing that scouting creates trustworthy, helpful, courteous, kind, obedient and cheerful young adults. The study further suggests that sports cannot keep up. Professor Peterson’s hypothesis of small, consistent doses of self-congratulatory dopamine achieved through systematic pursuit of a desired long-term goal suggests why Tufts’ findings ring true.


*He does not discuss the famous B.F. Skinner’s notion of positive reinforcement here, but it is an implied point of contrast to his point. In another lecture he has classified Skinner’s notion of positive reinforcement as “consumatory reward.” In this lecture, the professor emphasizes that Skinner’s consumatory reward does not drive long-term satisfaction. The body gets a dopamine response for satisfying the consumatory drive, like hunger. Once hunger is satiated (i.e., physiologically satisfied), the body is no longer driven by hunger. A full stomach can be a source of pain if excessive food is consumed.