Do Not Seek Your Goal

You do not seek your goal, you encounter it.

In today’s post I want to get back to connecting principals from the martial arts to everyday life and research. The above quote is from a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) seminar by Ryron Gracie which I attended a while ago. Ryron attributed it to someone attending his seminar in Spain.

The point Ryron was trying to make is that at high levels of BJJ you should not look for a submission, trying to “get it”. Instead, you just observe and seize the opportunity when it arises. I thought it was a great point, something to strive for in my training. I also thought it was a manifestation of a much older and general principal in Martial Arts by which “technique will occur in the absence of conscious thought”. This quote (Te wa ku ni to sunawachi hairu) is from the  Kempo Hakku, a passage in the Bubishi [1]. I relate this principal to ultimately achieving the mental state of Mushin. Mushin, or mushin no shin, is a Zen term translated to English as “no mind”, or “the mind without mind “. The term refers to a state of “no-mindness” where in combat, but in everyday life as well, your mind is free from thoughts. You do not think what should be the next move – it naturally occurs, without hesitation and without disturbance from any thoughts/anger/fear/ego. In modern studies of combat you can find descriptions of high level of performance on “autopilot”, where different parts of the brain “take control”, with high levels of awareness and heart rates of 175 pbm [2]. But what does all that have to do with our work as researchers? Ah, I’m glad you asked.

In research, and life in general, we also need to keep our mind, eyes, and ears open in all directions. Then serendipity will come knocking. Instead of being married to an idea, trying to “get it”, You “listen to what the data tells you” (see a previous post on that here). Moreover, you are likely to start working towards idea A encounter B and end up doing C [3]. But that’s OK – because you were never married to the A idea, and you knew to let it go noticing C when you “encounter it”. You will not “encounter it” though if you are too busy seeking your goal, being married to A or bummed down by B.  A good example from our work is how we ended up developing MAJIQ, described here.

Seemingly, this “mindless” approach is almost contradictory to the rational way we are brought up to approach problems, especially in the Life Sciences – format a hypothesis, test it, etc. There is no real contradiction though: I would say that the “classical” formulation of the scientific methodology is the local tool that moves you forward in your research, allowing you to test/verify things, while the “no mind” approach is the more general rule by which you strive to live, fight, or direct your Science.

Possibly related to that, Francis Crick said [4]:

“…It is amateurs who have one big bright beautiful idea that they can never abandon. Professionals know that they have to produce theory after theory before they are likely to hit the jackpot. The very process of abandoning one theory for another gives them a degree of critical detachment that is almost essential if they are to succeed”

To be fair though, I don’t think Crick was thinking about Mushin, and the above quote has to do more with a specific confounding factor in Scientific research – our egos. But that’s maybe something for another post.

[2] On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, lieutenant colonel David Grossman, 2004
[3] Related to that: see Uri Alon’s excellent talk about getting lost in the research “cloud”
[4] Crick F., What mad pursuit: A personal view of scientific discovery 1988, P. 142, Basic Books, NY


8 thoughts on “Do Not Seek Your Goal

    • Thanks Arjun!

      Yes, Uri Alon’s talk about the “cloud” is great (so I added a link to it now in the post). Notice though that besides discussing points A,B,C that you go through in research there are some distinct differences: Uri focus on that (a) you *will* get lost (b) it’s OK to get lost and you should not *fear* it. Here, I emphasize a state of awareness where you let go of your fears, thoughts (biases?), and ego. It may help you find your way through the “cloud”, but you do not necessarily have to get lost and sometimes what’s stopping you is your own biases/egos (see the following paragraph with Crick’s quote). Consequently, the fear of the cloud is addressed to young scientists running into the “cloud” for the first time, but the ego/biases stay with us long after mists of the cloud are gone…


  1. This is slightly confusing. While I do not believe in doing science via serendipitous incidents, I still think having a larger goal helps one to remain focused.
    Aren’t you fixated on splicing and want to learn everything about it? From splicing code, to prioritizing splice site variants and then finally the mechanism.
    However, I do agree with having an open mind and following a socratic approach, where one questions everything (even his/her own goals).


    • Yes, I work on RNA processing and splicing regulation. That’s a bit like choosing your opponent. But in everything you do you try to keep an open mind. Maybe it’s about how you model the data, maybe it’s about the underlying regulatory mechanism and maybe someday I’ll realize that I should no longer work on splicing but do something else. Observing and questioning are not the same thing but I agree that the attitude of questioning things helps us observe them in the first place.


    • Another thing that occurred to me is that the shortened title is indeed misleading to some extent: It implies (just like you interpreted it to be) that you do not take an active role, relaying on serendipity. But notice that the complete sentence does not state that. It states that your goal “will be revealed to you” – possibly through a very active process in which you went for something completely different (see relation to Uri Alon’s talk about going for say A and eventually finding C). Same thing in BJJ btw: you go for something (say a choke), your opponent responds by extending his/her arms and suddenly you realize you have an arm bar opportunity in front of you. At high levels, this does not even go through your analytic brain (which is notoriously slow and linear) – it just flows. I’m still working on that…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. Indian philosophy (Gita and other books) also talk about reaching a state of Zen, where one’s action should be detached from fear (or how the society will perceive it to be, both good and bad). However, as you will realize that this goal is not practical and only “true holy and wise men” can attain this state of Nirvana (in this case specifically scientific Nirvana).

        Personally, I strive for this state, but I think I am too young and immature to achieve it right now. Gita also mentions that one should not suspend their life, trying to achieve tranquility and Nirvana. Sometimes, you have to live through the whole process and then only in the end you achieve the supreme state of calm. Therefore, I think as a young scientist, I cannot do science like a monk. Maybe one day I will, but not now.

        Also you also echo these sentiments at the end of your post:
        “this does not even go through your analytic brain (which is notoriously slow and linear) – it just flows. I’m still working on that…”

        Amen ! I am sure you will achieve this state sooner than later 🙂


  2. Lovely post. Reminds me of E.O.Wilson’s take on innovation:
    “Ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper.”
    -from Letters to a Young Scientist (pg.74)


  3. Pingback: Should I do a PhD? | The BioCiphers Lab Blog

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