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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.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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