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Telic vs Atelic: Are You All Work and No Play?
Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship | newsletter.scottdclary.com
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Telic vs Atelic: Are You All Work and No Play?
Striving for greatness is an admirable mission. I look up to the people around me who plan their careers, stick to a schedule, and undertake gratifying personal projects or work their way through rigorous fitness regimens.
In many ways, this is the point of life – to continue creating, improving, excelling, learning, and discovering. If we aren't progressing, what are we doing? If we aren't challenging ourselves, it's all too easy to grow stagnant.
But there's a temptation to view growing and learning as a series of milestones. Maybe you view progression as finishing a big project at work. Perhaps you only feel satisfied when you've mastered the next weight on your deadlift.
I'm starting to realize – as many people do throughout their journey of self-discovery – that growth isn't always about completing something. It's not exclusive to meeting a goal, hitting a milestone, or mastering a skill.
You can grow through everyday activities that speak to your soul, too. Picking up a sketchbook for a couple of hours; taking a stroll along the shoreline; listening to a new album; spending Sunday afternoons in the local community garden; these activities don't have an end goal, but they can be as enriching as any professional or personal accomplishment.
Today we're going to look at this contrast through the lens of Telic vs Atelic activities. You'll soon know exactly what I mean by "all work and no play"!
Let's talk about it.
What are Telic and Atelic Activities?
We've learned a lot from the great philosophers of the past, one of these great thinkers being Aristotle.
In 'Metaphysics,' he made a distinction between kinesis and energeia. Kinetic or 'telic' activities always have a destination in sight; the Greek word 'telos' refers to an end goal, implying that the activity is terminal.
For example – if you decide you're going to learn an instrument, the end goal is to be able to play that instrument well. If you're writing an autobiography, the end goal is to finish and publish it. If you have a large client project to complete, the end goal is to deliver it and move on to the next task.
An energetic or 'atelic' action is something you can't really exhaust. Spending time in nature doesn't have an end date. Writing daily journal entries can be done every morning, and you'll never run out of things to say because it's an open-ended mindfulness practice.
There are a few confusing cases; for instance, if you can play a guitar every day and never run out of tabs to learn, isn't that atelic?
Here I would say it depends on your intention. If you're trying to gain guitar-playing skills and get better at it, it's probably telic. If you've already learned how to play and you're enjoying a daily habit of strumming for five minutes each morning before work, that's atelic. It's all about the tangible end goal (or lack thereof).
Why Make the Distinction?
Like most of my newsletter topics, I came across these terms – telic and atelic – while reading. Philosopher Kieran Setiya published Midlife: A Philosophical Guide in 2018; it's a deep-thinking book about finding purpose and satisfaction in the second half of life, and it particularly focuses on midlife crises.
Setiya talks about his own midlife crisis, which he experienced at age 35. It was as though life suddenly lost all meaning. It felt like a series of pointless accomplishments and filled him with intense dread.
What Setiya encountered (though he wrote about it in much more detail than I will here) is something called ennui: the feeling of boredom and dissatisfaction that comes from a lack of meaning, purpose, or occupation. He was faced with the futility of life.
We’ll come back to Setiya.
Schopenhauer's Pessimistic Views
In the 19th century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer shook things up with his theories of an irrational universe. You might've heard of Schopenhauer – he has a reputation for being quite pessimistic.
He believed that life is an endless cycle of suffering and striving, where even joyful activities bring pain. We can never really gain satisfaction, because it's fleeting; after a certain point, our accomplishments and achievements start to become meaningless.
To be honest, I think we all play with these ideas throughout our lives. Everything ends, so what's the point? We're just going through the motions until we reach the inevitable conclusion.
But I found it interesting to read Setiya's book and hear his solution to Schopenhauer's problem. He suggests that if you view life as a series of goals and accomplishments, you're naturally going to feel dissatisfied by the temporary nature of those accomplishments.
This is where telic and atelic activities become relevant to the conversation.
Investing in Timeless Tasks
"In pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye."
This is how Setiya introduces the idea of telic vs. atelic activities; he points out that goals with a destination in sight are often short-lived.
Particularly in the first 20 or 30 years of life, it's easier to reach destination after destination without feeling a sense of meaninglessness. At a certain point, though, we tend to feel the weight of the endless striving – which is what Setiya felt at age 35.
So, where do we turn? Setiya suggests recognizing and embracing a different means of fulfillment in atelic activities. He recommends “a switch in focus from the value of getting there to the value of being on the way.”
The Merit of Atelic Living
Unless we're mad scientist workaholics, most of us have a decent mix of telic and atelic activities in our lives. It's just natural.
Do you keep a journal? Do you spend time with family? Do you take weekend trips? Do you watch documentaries or read books? Is there a particular walking track you take each day after work?
Do you lay on a blanket to watch the stars when there's a meteor shower incoming? Is there a particular topic you're fascinated by and like to research? Are there any hobbies that you dip into every once in a while, just for the sake of it?
These are all atelic activities. They don't have an end goal, and they don't necessarily require us to 'do' anything; we can simply be present. We can enjoy them without feeling like we need to get something out of them or move on quickly so that we can reach the next destination.
...But I'm Already Doing It!
Like I said, you're probably already engaging in a bunch of atelic activities. A lot of us do – it's just that we haven't recognized them as such, because they don't necessarily contribute to our resume or help us reach a milestone.
What you're trying to do instead is shift which activities – telic or atelic – you see as most important. Societal norms and the way we're raised typically demand that we focus on telic activities and view them as the most meaningful.
Atelic activities can bring us just as much (if not more) value in terms of learning, growth, and satisfaction. If we can't learn to find fulfillment in the menial activities with no end, no destination, and no goal, then we'll struggle to wrestle with those Schopenhauerian feelings of futility.
You are not defined by your measurable accomplishments. Life shouldn't just be a series of "I finished that – what's next?"
It's great to have goals and ambitions. It's not so great to view these as the only means of growth and satisfaction.
Embracing Atelic Life
Are you experiencing anything close to a midlife crisis? Maybe you're consumed by thoughts about life and existence or concerned that you should've done more, been more, or achieved more.
My first response would be to recommend Setiya's book, but in terms of actionable steps, I can't emphasize this idea of atelic living enough. Look at your life and really identify those everyday, menial activities that you find joy in. Acknowledge the way they make you feel.
Accept that if your entire life went by without another measurable accomplishment, you could still find deep meaning and satisfaction in goal-free activities.
Inspiration List: Atelic Activities
If you're having trouble identifying the atelic activities in your life, I thought it might help to draw up a list of ideas. Here's what I came up with:
Finding a nourishing recipe you've never tried before and cooking it/eating it mindfully
Taking a walk without listening to music or podcasts
Spending an hour in the garden watering plants, pulling weeds, picking flowers
Drawing, painting, or coloring
Taking a yoga class and focusing on the breath rather than the poses
Writing a stream of consciousness in your journal without censoring your thoughts
Sitting quietly for 10 minutes with no distractions to observe your thoughts and feelings
Reading a book that has nothing to do with work, school, or career goals (i.e., something just for fun)
Watching sunsets or sunrises
Listening to an entire album from start to finish
Can you think of any more? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments!
Atelic activities don't have a destination. They don't typically lead to accomplishments, and they're not necessarily measurable. But that doesn't mean they can't be just as meaningful and enriching as telic activities – if not more so.
Striking a balance between work-like goals and soulful goal-free activities is one of my top priorities these days; I know what it feels like to be consumed by the cycle of achievement and ambition.
I think it's crucial to recognize that there are other ways to grow. There can be joy in everyday activities, too – even if it doesn't look like productivity or progress on a resume.
Thanks for reading!
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