Suppose you have a goal, Z. You have a plan for getting Z: X -> Y -> Z. You do X. But, it turns out, X doesn’t lead to Y. The plan won’t work.

What do you do? Most people, at most times, simply give up. But what if you really care about Z?

Well, you could spend the next ten years working sixteen hours a day, trying desperately to get Y. But that won’t work either. X doesn’t lead to Y – it doesn’t matter how much effort is used. What now?

For starters, note that Z isn’t impossible. Almost nothing is. The universe is just atoms and photons – and the configurations of atoms which humans care about, but are prohibited by physics, is (relatively) very small. There’s nothing fundamentally impossible about sprouting wings and flying.

So we know there’s some path to Z, and that X won’t lead to Z. But how did we invent the X plan in the first place? Every plan rests on a chain of background assumptions – everything from “the law of gravity”, down to “I drive to work on highway 99″. These assumptions are the context in which we form plans.

So, to get Z, start removing background assumptions, from the ground up, until you have a workable plan. Suppose you want to buy groceries, but the store’s closed. Are there other grocery stores nearby? What about restaurants with takeout? Is there a farm you can buy food from? Might your friends have food? Your neighbors? Can you fly to the next town? Can you break into the store and steal stuff? Could you look up the manager, knock on his house’s door, and get him to open the store for you? Eventually, there will be some way you can achieve Z.

For this to work well, you must make sure Z is really the goal, and not just a particular way of achieving the goal. If Z is “get groceries”, the real goal might be Z’, “eat food”, with the original plan really being X -> Y -> Z -> Z’. There are now other ways of achieving Z’ that don’t go through Z.

Really caring about Z, then, is about recursively questioning assumptions, until some plan for Z is found. As the example suggests, it is often wise to not really care – really caring can have high costs. However, it’s almost always useful to spend five minutes junking assumptions and making new plans, instead of just giving up. Often, the cost is much lower than one might naively suppose, if one doesn’t think about the problem.

(Related: Make an Extraordinary Effort)