The Vast Expanse of No Progress — how to attain your goals. by Will Ringland

I’m going to do two things in this article.

  1. I’m going to get angry about ill-defined goals we set as a new year’s resolution.
  2. Then I’m going to tell you to do it anyway.

I never liked resolutions which is funny when you consider how much I talk about resolve around here. It is the baggage around resolutions. We make grand plans to change All The Things that we do not like about ourselves all at the same time and run head long into the great new year and you will be better and you will succeed and and and...

We deprive ourselves of things or exhaust ourselves in exercise or drop money into the swear jar or what ever. It results in so much mental anguish that we drop everything by January 10th. And what do we do? Double back on the thing we were trying to stop doing or fall further from the thing we wanted to keep doing.

So here’s the first thing: New Year’s Resolutions suck because we don’t know how to achieve them Obvious example: I will lose weight this year. Great. How much weight? When will you get there? What are you going to do?


Exactly! Now, do you even know what success is for a goal like that? Is 1 pound weight loss success? Technically, yes. Would you count it as a success? Hardly.

It isn’t the goals that are the problem

It also isn’t you. You can’t get anywhere you don’t know you’re going. It’s the lack of either specificity or a system to get you to that goal. If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will do. That’s true. But no path will actually get you there.

Here’s the second thing: I don’t have a problem with large, lofty goals. In fact, I think we should all have goals that will take time, even a lifetime, to achieve. What matters is what we do to approach these goals, even a little bit, every single day.

Here’s Franklin’s original process for building Virtue:

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

In my own Virtues, each precept is a short, specific note of acting that embodies the Virtue. Executing on these actions means my behavior is aligned with the Virtue I wish to build.

What the hell does this have to do with New Year’s resolutions?

Let’s take our favorite example of a resolution - Lose Weight. Let us assume we’re using the Virtues as Franklin originally chose, as I am, and see how they can be tailored in a year to get us to “Lose Weight.”

For many of us, weight loss is the essence of Moderation and Temperance. Consume less with a more sober demeanor and we’ll lose weight. How do we get from Virtue to New Year’s resolution?


The first step to bridging The Vast Expanse of No Progress is something we have all already been doing - choosing Virtues that reflect our end goals. Here are my Virtues which generally serve the goal of losing and keeping my weight down.


Franklin, my man, again:

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr'd to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express'd the extent I gave to its meaning.

And with each one, we define precepts, rules, that reflect the meaning of our Virtues. So, if Temperance for me is reducing my alcohol consumption to just weekends and/or well before bed (because, man does whisky wreck my sleep) I would choose precepts that reflect those. It becomes our intent, then, to follow these rules which bring us closer to our Virtuous ideal.


But! This still does not address The Vast Expanse. It is excellent to have rules to live by and it is great to want to build these Virtues. We still need to pay attention to our successes and understand our failures. That is why we review every day and every week.


Each daily review is designed to provide perspective on what actions we took that did that did or did not drive us towards our chosen Virtue. Spoke out of anger at a colleague? Mark “Tranquility” for the day. Had an extra drink after dinner? Mark “Temperance” for the day. And on and on and, each day, we build an understanding of our patterns.

From Vast Nothing to Daily Progress

This is the scaffolding that our Virtues provide. They are a system of success, something that can be applied to any of the goals we have, no matter how lofty. At the start I said I was going to say resolutions are terrible but you should make them anyway. And I did. But what I really mean, what the actual problem with resolutions is tat we don’t break them down to concrete, actionable things we can do every day.

Once we have something to actually do then we can, you know, do the thing. Do all the things.

Challenge note by Will Ringland

I did not realize but when you share a link to a Dropbox folder, it is time specific. That link only grants access to fies in the folder that where there when the link was generated.

So, for anyone participating in the Newsletter challenge tis week, I apologize for not actually getting you access to my letter templates. I'll update the link in tis Sunday's newsletter so you can access all the letters rather than send a daily update!

Who do you want to grow into? by Will Ringland

We all have some sort of plan, even a vague one, that gets us moving in one direction or another. Mine was college > chemistry degree > graduate school > engineering > fancy job. And that was pretty much it. That’s not really much of a growth path and it didn’t really go according to plan. I didn’t finish the chemistry degree after some bad stuff happened with the department in college. I didn’t really like the graduate programs I could find for the degree I ended with. And I got rejected from graduate schools and every job but one by graduation.

The plan very quickly became work that job, which is all I had, then graduate school. Graduate schools love returning students with jobs.


None of this ever materialized. I kept working that job, one I didn’t really understand but seemed to be pretty good at and sort of settled into a pattern of work and the occasional social gathering and a lot of time writing online (some things don’t change).

And that was about it?

Yeah, that was it. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I mean, I had a well paying job, a long term girlfriend where neither of us wanted kids, an apartment in a city we both liked, and... that was about it.

Plan fulfilled?

I was a full-fledged human?

When you look at the expected narrative - college, job, marriage, house, retire, die - it is pretty dreadful. And if you don’t want children, ends pretty rapidly. So I just had to work until I died. Wooo...

And that was about it

I coasted for years until things just sort of drifted away. My girlfriend and I, having started dating in college when we were just Porto-humans, drifted apart from sort of a benign neglect and slow descent into in-shared interests. When she and I finally broke up, after a house, three cats, and nearly 9 years of amalgamated life cruft, I was left with a bedroom I painted black and two surly cats.

Well shit. That was a piece of the life puzzle no longer in place. How do meet people again? IN college you have very little trouble finding people when have some common thread. Classes, dorm rooms, lunch halls, parties all provide an immediate, albeit shallow, connection upon which futures can build.

What do you do when you no longer have that?

No really, what do you do?

I didn’t have anything substantial then. I didn’t even have much interest in my previous hobbies at the time. I had zero confidence in anything I was or did, and I certainly didn’t know where the crap I was supposed to be going now. In the short term, this is not how we find a life partner. In the long term, this is not how to find our humanity.

IT was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined...

The thing that a project of this nature gives us, and why I think it beneficial for everyone to try, is that it gives us a thing to build that has some meaning to us. It isn’t just “be a better person” its “I’m going to be more sincere. The former is a non-specific state where the latter is something we can measure.

But how does that lead us anywhere?

To get anywhere, we have to pick a path. Any path. Where I was 5 years ago was what looked like the end of the path and a major support structure had blown up. I had no ideas how to go about fixing it, or even that anything needed fixing. Directionless. Path less.

After encountering Franklin’s project through some serendipitous reading, stole his path for myself. I mean, he seemed pretty successful - newspapers,libraries, the post office, negotiating treaties. Yeah, I could totally negotiate a treaty...

We are frequently asked, as children, what do we what to be when we grow up. A Virtue Project flips that over and asks

Who do you want to grow into?

The point of all this - the virtues, the tracking failures, the reflecting, the constant wonder about how necessary it is to skip that extra glass of whiskey - the point of all the work is to find our way to growth. What that growth is depends so much on what matters to the individual person but we all have some idea of what that means for us.

Taking traits from the person we wish to be, defining, and refining them is how we get there. The ones we choose matter less than us just choosing one or some of them. Franklin’s were packaged neatly and dropped into my lap just when I needed them.

So [which ones do you need] ( to start growing into the person you want to be?

I think I’d call writing a book a good test of Resolve by Will Ringland

It took about 54 weeks, but I’ve finished writing my book and have completed the first revision. I’ve started looking for editors and maybe a publisher. The trouble is really that I have a particular goal for when I publish that I am uncertain I can achieve right now. I want the publication of this book to lead to more. My long term goal is to be able to live solely off writing. To do that, I need a consistent audience willing to buy this things I produce or a sufficient enough popularity to gain decent sized writing contracts.

I see two paths to this goal

Traditional publisher.

I think what I have is interesting enough to entice a traditional publisher. It will require editing, sure, but the right publisher would already have the audience available to buy the book. It would likely be faster too.

Self publishing

This could certainly work and there are ways to do it that don’t require great up front cost. But, to self publish and be successful, I still need an audience. I do, certainly, have some folks reading here regularly but I’m not sure the book would really lead to anything.

I do have a consistent readership and I appreciate you, it’s not going to be possible to parley this into a full writing gig. And I do it have anything compelling enough that I could get a decent publishing contract.

I have a secret weapon though

I do, however have gumption. I’ve been building the focus for exactly this kind if project through out this entire Virtue project so I’m ready to play a very long game.

So! I’m going to restart writing here and will continue the newsletter, which I especially enjoy, and work on total world domination.

Oh, and now? Newsletter subscribers receive the first two chapters of my book. So, if you want a peek at that, click here to sign up!

A quick note by Will Ringland

Just a quick update for folks.

I've not been writing much here because I have been struggling with focus. I've been dividing my attention between too many things resulting in no progress on any of it. So, I'm taking my own advice and reducing distractions.

I'll not be posting here for a a while with any sort of regularity. Instead, I'll be focusing my attention on the following things:

  1. Editing my book
  2. Writing the newsletter
  3. Maintaining my health, home, and marriage.

The book is, in fact, a book about this web site, this project. Because of that, I'll be sharing excerpts as I edit with folks on the newsletter. So if you'd like to see how the editing process goes or keep up your own Virtue Project, you can sign up here!