The finish line

2 July 2015
2 Jul 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

I am a goal-motivated person, and I don’t do much to hide it. Regardless of what time it is, where I am, what I’ve just been through, or what’s about to happen, I want each and every moment of my life to have a direction and a clear purpose, to have a clearly defined goal so that each moment is a part of a larger path towards reaching tangible goals I’ve set out for myself. In other words, it’s a meticulously calculated way to live. And to make sure each and every action I take is intentional and purposeful (each and every action, that is, without being completely insane – I don’t, for example, think too much about the way I click and tap through social media feeds or the way I inhale my way through bags of chips while working), I spent hours coming up with office and room layouts, with routines, desktop and workspace setups, and to-do list management schemes, all in the name of efficiency and convenience.

The point, of course, is that by pushing the envelope towards efficiency and living intentionally, I can make the most of the time that I have and waste as little time as possible. That does’t necessary mean I work myself to death; there are times that I set out for myself to relax or just listen to music and rest. But even during those times, I make sure not to just “waste time” – instead to make the most of each moment. In other words, Each moment in time, in my life, (hopefully) has a purpose and a direction. And I want that direction to be towards the goals I set out for myself, both work-related and personal. And I enjoy this goal-directed approach to planning and living because that means I always know what I want to do, and why I’m doing the things I want to do.

Even though I take the idea of a goal-motivated mindset and take it towards a more meticulous and persistent direction, the general idea isn’t new or all that uncommon, especially today, in our culture. In fact, it’s arguably what drives economies and societies to become their best. The simplest example to think of is probably a corporation. Every single corporation ultimately has a singular goal, to produce as much return as possible on a set amount of financial investment. And everything a corporation does – from the large-scale campaigns and product designs to the small-scale social media ads and product slogans – are meticulously crafted to push a little further towards that ultimate goal of generating more return on investment. Put simply, every corporation has the same bottom line, the same finish line, and each small action by a corporation is ultimately a small step towards finishing that race, and getting to the finish line as soon as possible.

That simple idea – that everything should be directed towards a single end-goal, came from the way corporations and governments operate, but it’s also quickly becoming the way we think about individual lives, especially in terms of paths of education and career opportunities. i.e., Our culture drives us to think of each of our individual lives as a collection of actions and moments that should be aimed towards reaching a single end-goal at the finish line. Let’s take the simplest case – education. The race to the finish line starts early on, at the moment students enter elementary schools, and often even before that. From that point on, the average “student life” has a singular goal, the same way corporations do of making money. The goal of a student’s life is to receive the highest marks attainable and get into a good college, or in some cases, enter the workforce in the most privileged possible position. Each homework assignment, each class, each grade is aimed towards getting into a good college, and that’s not an overstatement. Why get into a good college? Of course, because there’s a new goal, a new finish line at the end of that tunnel – to get a good job and have a good career for the rest of his or her life, and a prestigious alma mater is often the best way to ensure the chance of survival in the job market. Why shoot for a prestigious career? Of course, because there’s yet another finish line after that race – to have and be able to sustain families, and to have a fulfilling life.

It sounds like a never-ending marathon towards a constantly moving finish line, and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. But if we take a breath and step back a bit, we can also keep asking the universal question, “Why?” Why do we work ourselves to get into a good college, to get a good job, to sustain a family, to have a good life? Of course, in some ways, there are obvious answers – we do them because they appear at first glance to be pretty universally accepted ways to be happy. But the way we approach them – as finish lines and end goals – is where the seemingly innocuous goals may turn an enjoyable run into a strenuous marathon.

Our culture, country, and corporations are managed as machines, working towards tangible, effective goals. And that might work well for organizations that try to push the boundaries and keep the productivity high, but extrapolating the same mindset to productivity and happiness in life is a stretch. There are situations that call for running towards the finish line, and the next, and the next. But many times, we can’t run only for the finish line, for the end goal – many times, it’s best just to run, not because there’s a finish line at the end and not because it guarantees better chances for the future, but just because it feels good.

A little over a year ago, I visited New York City with a few of my friends, and one of the most memorable places, oddly enough, was a small chess store. It wasn’t much to look at at first glance, but something about that place just made me feel good. Maybe it was the discolored paints dotting the walls, or the way the old chairs and tables rolled and squeaked across the floor, or the way the store resonated with that unique ambience of antiques. But while the rest of the world sprinted past out the window, the store felt like a break from that sprint for the finish line to just take a breath and enjoy ourselves. And I want to live in much the same way – not running for the end, but smiling at the strangers rushing past, taking breaks as I need them, and finding meaning in the process, rather than chasing the finish line that never seems to come.

Double reality

An open letter to you, a human

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