Setting goals and changing yourself: An interview with David Heinemeier Hansson

Here’s a little something to inspire your New Year’s resolutions.

A little while ago I asked David Heinemeier Hansson, a few questions about how he manages to contribute as much as he does. If you don’t already know David, he’s the author of Ruby on Rails, Basecamp, Backpack, and #34 on Business 2.0’s list of people who matter.

I knew from past conversations that he’s an avid believer in goal-setting, a belief that I share. Though important, goal-setting can be tricky to master. Both the importance and the trickiness can be witnessed by the enormous number of titles on the topic. That’s why I wanted to know more about how David handles it.

It turns out we also share a belief that it’s both possible and desirable to change yourself. This is something that means a lot to me, as I’ve always believed this to be the case, yet it’s also something I’ve been ridiculed for. So it’s good to see that it’s working for someone like David, that’s it’s not just me being silly.

What specifically do I mean by changing yourself? What I mean is that you can rid yourself of patterns in your behavior or emotions that get in your way, you can replace beliefs that hold you back with beliefs that move you forward, and you can acquire new skills in the areas you choose, to give just a few examples. Overall,I mean that not changing, not growing is just a premature form of death.

Following the lead of what makes you happy is where the brilliance lies. That’s how goals and changes get anchored to your emotions, your psyche, your unconscious, your self. That’s how you ensure that your goals are ones that you both can and want to achieve, that they’re right for you, that you’re not “living someone else’s life” in the words of Steve Jobs. If it really makes you happy, you’re onto something.

Overall, I’m fascinated by what makes people do what they do. Especially when they do great things, like David.

Anyway, enough introduction. Enjoy the interview below!

Explain the role that goal setting plays in your life.

Goals are one of my primary tools for self-improvement, for changing who I am. I’m a strong believer in the adaptable self. Not only that it’s possible, but that it’s strongly desirable too. I can not stand the term “that’s just who I am” as a defensive argument to recognized deficiencies.

So if there’s something I don’t like about myself or my situation, I try to set a goal to help me change that.

Tell me about how you got started with your approach to managing life. Was there a specific event, person, or circumstance that got you hooked?

It usually starts by admiration. I find a product or a person that I admire and then start thinking about how I could do or be something something like that. I got into gaming journalism by reading and admiring the work of Edge, the English magazine on games. I got involved with 37signals because I admired their design work and initially wanted to become a designer myself.

So manage is perhaps a big word to use for this as it implies a little too much conscious effort. Goals is indeed a more precise term. I set myself a goal, like “I want to be a gaming journalist with as high standards as Edge”, and then that directs my actions in a subtle, almost unconscious way.

I wish there was a more scientific explanation. But I think it comes down to desire. How bad do you really want it? How much are you willing to change who you are to get it? Despite what most people say, they are usually not willing to give up what’s known and stable for something unknown and unstable. It’s hard to prosper if you’re not willing to be in the game.

What do you do to find out what your goals are?

I recognize both admiration and deficiencies and try to live up to the former and eliminate the latter. It’s all happening under the umbrella of What Makes Me Happy?, though.

What do you do to strengthen your belief and resolve? Do you visualize? Do you have sentences you read aloud? What else?

Actually, I often use a sense of entitlement to drive me. As in, “if that guy can do it, why the hell shouldn’t I be able to?”. It’s inspiring to look at other people and see how they’ve made it to success. Especially if you recognize that most of them are indeed just normal people who had some trigger that gave them the drive to excel.

That certainly requires some level of self-confidence. If you start out thinking “there’s no way I could do that”, of course there will be no way you can. That’s where goals help, it’s an intent on your part that says “yeah, I could do that”.

Who are your heros, and what role do they play in your life? What have you done to learn from them?

Heroes are the human part of admiration. Jerry Weinberg is probably one of my biggest heroes. His writing is fantastic and his abilities as a human being capable of recognizing and dealing with his and others emotions and desires is astonishing. I highly recommend looking into his vast authorship.

Professionally, I work with a few people I consider personal heroes, which is fortunate. But I’ve also looked up to and enjoyed the work of Martin Fowler, Kent Beck, and Kathy Sierra among others. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all.

So what will your goals for the new year be?

Post follow-up questions in the comments and I’ll take the to David if he doesn’t pop his head in here to respond.



Cool stuff. Very inspirational, indeed. My preferred follow-up would be: Could you give us a couple of examples of things you've changed and how you went about it. (The personal story and all that)
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I'd like to hear more techniques on time management and multi-tasking, e-mail me when the new article comes out..
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