Hunter S. Thompson, Oblique Goals, and Special Education

By MDCarchives; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 05:04, 31 August 2011 (UTC) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve discussed setting oblique goals here before, and the notion that it is more effective to focus immediately on tangible daily practice, and I just read an interesting parallel in some advice from Hunter S. Thompson to a friend, revealed in a Brain Pickings post (sign up for her newsletter; consistently interesting stuff):

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective. 

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis? 

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life – the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

When viewing this advice from the lens of obliquity in the face of chaos and complexity, Thompson’s advice presents an interesting addition: his suggestion that we would do better to focus on patterning our behavior based on our ability and our desires. He also stresses that this choice of patterning must be self-determined.

As a special education teacher and coordinator, this is especially interesting to me, because one of my duties is to develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities, of which a major component are annual goals, which are written with little parental input, let alone input from the student themselves.

One of the critiques Will and I have offered of current education paradigms is the dominance of deficit models. Unsurprisingly, this deficit focus is especially prevalent in special education. So that leaves me with some critical questions to consider for improvement of special education services:

  • How can I more effectively include student voice in the development of annual goals and the IEP process (beyond simply inviting them to the meeting or administering surveys)?
  • How can I focus on student strengths and ability, while acknowledging challenges and deficits?
  • How can I assist students in discovering their long-term interests and desires, and encourage self-selected patterning of daily practices and behavior to achieve them?

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