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Living a Life of Ends

Living a Life of Ends

Solitary figure in the rain: Outside Luna Park, Sydney

    Why do you do what you do? Do you ever feel like you’re spinning your wheels? Is your life filled with activities and obligations that have no intrinsic meaning for you, things you do because you have to for one reason or another? Are you bored?

    I’ve been thinking about engagement since I interviewed Michael Lee Stallard last year and reviewed his book Fired Up or Burned Out, and lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. The issue really came home for me when someone posted a comment on my recent post, “Finding Purpose “, expressing an attitude that I fear is all too common among my students as well: that every class is just a means to an end, that end being the BA and, I suppose, the miserable grind of a desk job for the next 40 years after that. Whee!

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    Something came together for me then, something I’d had a hard time wrapping my head around before then, and that’s this: our lives should be lives of ends, not lives of means. That is to say, if everything you do is simply a way to get somewhere else, you’re missing out on life altogether — ideally, everything we do should be an end in and of itself, even if it’s intended to lead us ever-closer to some other goal.

    Means people suck

    The moral philosopher Immanuel Kant discussed means and ends in his famed Humanity formulation, saying “we should never act in such a way that we treat Humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself”(from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ).

    Normally, this is taken as saying that you shouldn’t use others to advance your own goals, but should appreciate them for themselves, that each relationship is its own end. Relationships that exist solely to forward our own causes without regard for the humanity of those we are in relationship with become purely functional, and lessen both us and others as people. Means relationships objectify our others — that is, cause us to see and treat other people as objects, not people — and are fundamentally narcissistic.

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    A life of means

    But there’s another part of Kant’s principle that bears mentioning — he doesn’t just say don’t treat others as means, he says don’t treat ourselves as means to an end, either. But that’s exactly what we do when we approach everything in our lives as a means to an end. Instead of engaging with the world before us, we become fundamentally disengaged and future-oriented — our attention split between the world we dwell in and the world as we want it to be, between the task at hand and the “real” reason we’re doing it.

    When we treat the things we do as simply functional steps towards some future ends, function replaces meaning, and we transform our very selves into objects for the satisfaction of some future self.

    Consider, for example, the growing body of research that calls into question the role of incentives. An incentive is an end separate from whatever it is we’re doing at any given moment. I might offer you a hundred-dollar bill for getting an “A”, outselling your colleagues, or serving my table well — it really doesn’t matter. The incentive is completely divorced from the reality at hand.

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    And research shows that this messes with our heads. In one classic psychological study, for instance, two groups of children were brought in over a period of several weeks to draw and color. In the first group, children were given awards and certificates for doing well; in the other, no rewards were offered. After several weeks, the first group — the kids with the outside incentive — were less interested in drawing and had not advanced as far technically as the second group. The kids in the second group were able to enjoy drawing for the sake of the act itself; adding incentives had shifted the first group’s focus from the fun of drawing to the ephemeral and rapidly uninteresting act of getting rewards.

    It’s not just children who fail to respond to incentives, either. Another study found people were half as likely to do charity work (like delivering meals to homebound invalids) if they were offered money for the job. The ones who were asked to volunteer found intrinsic value to appreciate in the job itself; by offering money, the other subjects shifted their attention from the task to the compensation, and usually found it lacking. They researchers weren’t paying enough to get them to do a job that many of them would have been willing to do for free!

    Incentives shift our relationship with what we’re doing, causing us to view our tasks as simply means to the end of gaining the incentive, rather than as activities that are valuable and worth doing in their own right. And too much of our daily lives follow the same pattern, whether they are done for incentives of various kinds or simply for the attainment of some far-off goal.

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    A life of ends

    The trick, then, is treating every activity — or as many as possible, anyway — as an endin its own right. This means approaching the world with a higher level of reflective awareness than most of us are used to. It means taking the time to find a purpose that is internal to the things we do — that is, an incentive that isn’t imposed from outside but is part and parcel of the activity itself.

    We talk about this, maybe dream about this, all the time. We speak of work that is its own reward, we lose ourselves in the flow of activity, we long for jobs that have us bounding out of bed every morning. When the things we have to do have their own intrinsic value, and when we engage with them as fully present beings, work stops being a chore and becomes something else, something better.

    This isn’t to say that  we should turn away from every distasteful task, every job we simply do not want to do. Sometimes we literally do have to do something because the alternative is losing a job we’re otherwise happy with, destroying a relationship, or becoming simply incapable of reaching our goals.

    Truth be told, there probably are a lot of times when we’d rather be doing anything else other than the work in front of us, and it truly is the promise of future satisfaction that motivates us. As much as you can, though, try to find the gratification that everything you do over the course of the day might bring you. And if you realize that there’s little in your life that provides its own internal worth, maybe it’s time to start rethinking some things.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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