To What End?
Beyond Personal Productivity and Life Hacks of the Rich and Famous
In our quest for self-improvement, it’s all too easy to miss the real target
¡Pura vida! is the national motto of Costa Rica, where I first drafted this.
Its literal translation is “pure life”, but you hear it in use as part of the social language; a greeting — “life is good!” or even (if I understood my taxi driver correctly), “eh, shit happens. We move on.” ¡Pura vida!
It was easy to spot the other tourists on my first morning in the city, even as silhouettes amid the backlit bustle of people going to work and school. We walk differently: arms pumping, moving quickly and determinedly from point A to point B. I was almost hit by a cyclist… not one of the upright men in hats, relaxed as they pedal unhurriedly and dignified through the streets, but by a tourist in a helmet speeding through an intersection against the light.
Who, do you think, is making the best use of their time?
It’s a trick question, of course. It’s easy to be judgmental about rushing tourists; it’s easy to project our own romantic notions onto dignified bicyclists. Either way, we operate from a perspective of what life should be like, and deciding whether or not it measures up.
When it comes to the use of our own time — how we live our own lives — some discernment is required. How do we decide what to do, and how to do it?
Self-improvement, productivity, and happiness are big business. Many of us — myself included — are keen to read about the habits of wealthy successful people, or to learn more about how they work, as a way of replicating their success.
What about the more humble people around us, those who will never be famous? Who is the person who makes you feel special? The person who makes you laugh? The person who taught you to cook or grow something? As Coach Tony has pointed out, you don’t see much talk or evidence of strong romantic relationships in the canon of self-improvement. But why don’t we look at the real people in our lives to shape our idea of who we’d like to be?
Why do we need a system that we read about in a book or web site to tell us how to do our work? I’m not saying that you don’t need that system… I’m pretty sure I need these kinds of systems to do my own work. But I’m considering this question.
Michael Pollan centered his groundbreaking book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, around the question of “what should we have for dinner?” In the same way, we find ourselves asking the question, “how should we do our work?” We could call it the “dilemma of the privileged” — because this question can, in fact, only be considered from a place of substantial privilege. To ask it implies that we have a choice. Most people in the world will never have the privilege of asking if they should use GTD or a bullet journal.
If you’re reading this — indeed, if you can read at all — you at least have enough privilege to be considering this question. Some have more than others. My point is, your starting line does matter. Productivity and self-help gurus all too often claim that it does not—sometimes even giving their own biographies a false patina of hardship. So when I call this the dilemma of the privileged, it is to remind us that asking the question, “how should we do our work?” implies that we are people who have at least some opportunity and choice. And your “work” — the work of your life — may have very little to do with your actual job(s). Along with this privilege comes the notion of “living your dreams” and being well-off enough to think past the grind of making a living.
I think that needs to be stated upfront as we consider these questions. We tend to lose sight of our incredible fortune in being born into this situation while we are busy navel-gazing and yak-shaving.
And then we also lose sight of why we’re doing all this self-improvement.
Chances are, you would like to better yourself in some way. That’s why you’re reading a Better Humans article. Perhaps you’d like to be a better parent or partner; perhaps you’d like to reach a particular level of wealth (however you define it) or leadership. Maybe you want to hone a particular skill into your own unique jewel of pleasured accomplishment: run a 5k, write a book, start your own company. You might well define success and happiness, as so many productivity gurus do, by the success of your life’s work brought to the marketplace.
All of these, and myriad other goals, are fine.
But, stepping back from those questions, we soon come to the gist of the exploration I’d like you to share with me in months to come…another question that was originally stated in its most concise form by Tony:
To what end?
This is the first installment of an article series I’m writing that considers this question in depth.
Why are we trying to better ourselves? As we implement the latest productivity technique or #lifehack, have we stopped to consider exactly what it is we are chasing — and what we are passing by along the way? How do we reconcile our tendency towards perfectionism that seems inherent in these systems of self-improvement—and our very messy and imperfect selves?
How did productivity and self-improvement become such a big business? Where did it start — and where might it be going? Are the monsters off the edges of the mapped territory real or imagined — or a little of both? And, if we’d considered all of this a bit more, would we have uncovered better advice altogether?
Costa Rica was a good place to start this journey. “To what end?” is the right question. ¡Pura vida! is part of the perfect response.
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