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December 2006

Living Without a Goal: Mattering Without Being Useful

LivingWithoutAGoal-200x300 God and Marx are both dead. Relativism has dethroned absolutism. In our postmodern world, how do we create meaning in our lives now in the absence of externally defined Grand Goals? In Living Without a Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life, author James Ogilvy encourages us to adopt a more playful attitude toward life and work, letting go of our attachments to outcomes, and giving ourselves permission to explore the frontiers of our bliss. Drawing upon a wide-ranging set of disciplines, including religion, politics, philosophy, psychology, science, art, architecture, economics, linguistics and semiotics (among others), Ogilvy questions our compulsion to fill the void created by the disappearance of religiously and/or ideologically inspired Goals with “personal pretensions to destinies”.

I’ve owned this book since it was first published, in 1995, and although I bought it with the goal of reading it, never quite got around to it. I resurrected that goal after attending (and blogging about) a presentation on Goal-Free Living” by Stephen Shapiro last year, but to no avail (and I admit I have not read Shapiro's book, either). Two weeks ago, in a series of discussions about what our research team mission statement ought to look like, the question arose whether it ought to represent a unifying Goal or a more pragmatic assemblage of individual goals. I was championing the former, but aspects of the discussions were bringing to mind a vague memory of Ogilvy's book, and his stipulation that "Living without a Grand Goal while orchestrating many goals offers opportunities for free choice, design, intelligence, play" ... the kinds of opportunities we want to cultivate in our project.

I initially intended to blog more about "working without a Goal", but as this time of year is often a rather dark and deeply reflective one for me, I've decided to focus on the ways I'm interpreting and applying Ogilvy's precepts outside of the work context. One of the most jarring passages in the book was the claim that

when you try to identify the use of your entire life, you are asking to be used.

When I read this passage, I was immediately reminded of the very different (and personally more inspiring) sentiment expressed by George Bernard Shaw:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

Ogilvy distinguishes between Goals and goals, the former having "the nobility and mysteriousness of God" and the latter helping to organize activities and getting things done. He rejects the single-minded life-long pursuit of an overarching Goal, through which we sacrifice our freedom, while embracing the opportunistic adoption of smaller-scale goals that we may adopt as we artfully create ourselves in real-time.

Many aspects of the book resonate with my deeply held beliefs, e.g., his preference for appreciation over manipulation, and affective sensitivity over instrumental rationality, focusing more on "sublime", "spontaneity", "creativity" and "marginal intensity" and less on "material", "efficiency", "productivity" and "marginal utility". Ogilvy's emphasis on an artistic and entrepreneurial approach to life (and work) are closely aligned with ideas championed in some of my other favorite books, e.g., The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide by Rick Jarow and The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki. His invitation for "goofing on the precious self" reminded me of Bill Buxton's warning at CSCW 2006 about the danger of precious ideas ... and I can see that one of my precious ideas is the idea of my "self" ... and that I often take my self [too] seriously.

Getting back to me (and it's all about me), and my difficulty with the rejection of Goals, I acknowledge my attachment to my own personal sense of mission (“helping people relate”), which feels more like a Goal than a goal. I believe my awareness of this mission arose more as a process of self-discovery – simply noticing where my natural passions and joys are most keenly felt – rather than a top-down imposition of what I ought to be doing. Ogilvy praises Jean-Paul Sartre's observation that "Man is a useless passion", and I recognize that part of my joy in being an irrepressible connector is that my passion is useful (to others).

So perhaps the core of my resistance here is this desire to be useful to others. Recently, in a post [explicitly] devoted to self-disclosure, I noted that I am an irrepressible people-pleaser, and I have known for a long time that many of my challenges stem from an inner conviction of worthlessness, that I am only valuable insofar as I am valued by others. Lately, I have not been feeling very useful (or valued), which is why I am willing to plunge a bit further into the depths of this issue. While focusing on "helping people relate" has enabled me to transcend the darkness of my own self-image, it has, up until now, not enabled me to transcend the pitfalls of [my perception of] others' perception of me. In articulating his concept of narcissism degree zero, Ogilvy himself notes that "self-love must finally spread itself across the social pattern of reflections that constitute the self".

I can't honestly say I'm entirely willing to release my attachment to others' [expressions of] appreciation at this moment -- despite the opportunities for practicing such detachment currently being offered me -- but I'm at least willing to re-open the question of whether and how I matter ... and if it is possible to matter without being [acknowledged as] useful to others.

ABSolutely Obsessed: Men's and Women's "Health"?

In the checkout line at Whole Foods last week, I looked over and noticed a couple of magazine covers:



I was struck by a couple of thoughts: obsession over ab[domen]s does not appear to be gender specific ... and neither does sex.

Browsing around a bit for online images of the magazine covers, I was surprised to learn that [subscriptions to] Men's Health is considerably more expensive than Women's Health ($24.94 vs. $14.97, at I don't know whether that says more about the relative value of men's health vs. women's health, the circulation or ad rates of the magazines, or the appeal of the target demographic for each publication (all these are, of course, related).

In perusing a number of magazine covers for each, and the topics suggested by the headlines, I am a bit surprised that either of these magazines is popular at Whole Foods (whose racks also include Yoga Journal and What Is Enlightenment?) ... but this is probably due to my naivete with respect to the Whole Foods clientele. Eating and being healthy need not preclude looking healthy, and I may well have friends who subscribe to Men's Health or Women's Health (just as I may have friends who subscribe to Playboy or Cosmopolitan), but I'm feeling disillusioned about what seems to constitute "health" in these publications, and that Whole Foods would include these in their media mix.

[Update, 2006-01-05: An AdAge article today, "'Cosmo' Girl Seeks 'Men's Health' Guy" (subscription req'd), reports that

Cosmopolitan and Men's Health are plotting to swap editors for their May issues, giving Dave Zinczenko his way with a special section of Cosmo and Kate White a section of her own in Men's Health.

The article goes on to ask

But is the happy couple forgetting their friends? Cosmo has an automatic guy buddy in Esquire, as they're both published by Hearst Magazines. And Rodale's Women's Health and Men's Health obviously keep seeing each other at the gym.

So I now realize that Esquire would have been a more appropriate foil than Playboy in my original comment. Oh well, rant and learn...]

Self-Disclosure to the Fifth Degree

Dan Oestreich, one of my favorite bloggers and best friends, has offered the mixed blessing of an invitation to reveal 5 things about myself that you may not know about me. This is challenging, not only because self-disclosure is risky, but I don't know exactly who "you" are (but one of "you" may be my teenage daughter, who commented on my last post, adding another dimension of risk). In any event, I will focus on 5 things I haven't blogged about before (and that I don't believe are widely known).

  1. I was (am?) a picky eater: When I was young (actually, up until the time I went to college), I was extremely particular and regimented about the food I would eat. For the first 18 years of my life, I think the sum total of foods I ate consisted of Cheerios (with sugar, but not milk -- too soggy), bread and butter (not margarine), pancakes, bacon, tunafish sandwiches, hamburgers (catchup only), teriyaki steak (only with Mrs. Laporte's recipe), barbecue chicken (only with my Aunt Kay's recipe), spaghetti with meatballs (only Grandma D's recipe). I suppose there were a few other meats and some vegetables I would occasionally eat -- but no fruit (or nuts). My diet was rather narrow, and my mother (and extended family and friends) were very indulgent. The cafeteria at college was not so indulgent, which helped open me up to new foods ... and there was another development in my junior year that opened me up even more (a topic I'll return to shortly). While I continue to be somewhat predictable in my cooking and eating habits at home (especially breakfast), I have, in my adult years, enjoyed more variety, at least when dining out.
  2. I am a confirmed non-Catholic: I was an altar boy in the Catholic Church for many years, played guitar in the folk mass each week, and my favorite role in make-believe as a young child was a priest (I remember distributing sliced cucumbers during play church ceremonies). My parents were very active in the church (my mother was a lector and extraordinary minister, my father was a lector and an usher, and one or both were on the parish council), and I attended 12 years of Catholic schools. Despite the rather narrow and regimented perspective I had in the domain of food, I was rather inquisitive in other domains, especially with respect to religion and spirituality. As I approached the rite of passage into adulthood in the Catholic Church known as confirmation in 8th grade, I was having more and more questions about Catholicism, and told my mom I wasn't sure I wanted to be confirmed. One of the most memorable moments of my life occurred when she responded "Well, you don't have to get confirmed, but you don't have to live in this house, either." Mom does not remember saying this, and I may have read more into this than she intended. I decided to proceed through all the motions of the confirmation process, but [ironically] from that moment on, no longer considered myself a Catholic ... in fact, I was anti-Catholic for a long time afterward, but am softening a bit over time.
  3. My only "A" in high school was in Personal Typing: 8th grade marked a tipping point for me in a number of respects. Not only did I reject Catholicism, I rejected a number of other elements of my upbringing, including good study habits and a nearly overwhelming desire to please my parents and other authority figures (though, this people-pleasing tendency never really went away, I simply shifted the focus to other people I wanted to please). The solid educational foundation I'd built up during my early years enabled me to still get "B"s  with almost no effort ... except in Religion classes, where my increasingly questioning attitude was not welcomed by most of my teachers, and I even received a "D-" in Religion from Mr. Herzog my sophomore year. The only class I received an "A" in was Personal Typing, a 1-credit course my senior year in which I recorded the highest words-per-minute (WPM) typing speed in the class (and, I think, in any class that year).
  4. My only non-"A" in graduate school was Theory of Computation: I had become a student again by the time I started graduate school (more on that transition in the next item -- it's all related). In college I'd majored in Philosophy, which prepared me for everything and nothing. I took a couple of computer classes my senior year, and found that programming was a straightforward application of the logic and analytical problem solving approach I'd learned in Philosophy. So, I decided to go to graduate school and learn everything I could about computers (and get a credential that might be more instrumental in getting a [better] job). While getting my master's degree at the Hartford campus of RPI, I met and enjoyed a friendly competition with my good friend, Len, where we both ended up with straight "A"s. After spending four years as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Hartford, I returned to school to get a Ph.D., getting "A"s in every class at the University of Massachusetts except one, a Theory of Computation class that I spent close to 40 hours a week working on -- using auxiliary texts, doing all the exercises (not just those assigned), trying to bend my thinking into a trajectory that seemed very foreign to me. In the end, I got an "A-" -- and more importantly, learned enough to get through the comprehensive exam in theory on my first try. I think I'm just not wired for theory -- in any field -- tending to favor practice and experimentation over abstractions.
  5. I met my wife over a [keg of] beer: Something happened in between the rebelliousness of my high school years and my renewed enthusiasm for scholarly pursuits during my graduate studies. The pattern of minimal effort and respectable grades continued through my first two years at Ripon College. Another pattern I haven't mentioned (in this post) is instigation and organization, which, at the beginning of my junior year, was applied to keg parties: I collected enough money and interest in the dorm to hold 5 quarter-barrel (keg) parties in 4 days. In between the 4th and 5th, I was walking across the quads with an empty quarter barrel, when Amy and her friend Sue walked by with Sue's dog Mocha. Amy called out "Every time I see you, you're carrying a quarter barrel!" [Aside: Amy doesn't remember me before this point, but I had admired her from various distances for two years, as our circles of friends had some intersections.]  I shouted back "This one's empty, but I'm going to get another one; why don't you come back and join us?". To my surprise (and delight), she did come back down that night, but soon grew bored with drinking beer and playing stupid bar dice games in a friend's dorm room, and wandered up the hall to look for something more interesting. She found an open room with a guitar, walked in and started playing "Wish You Were Here". I'd noticed she had left, and when she didn't come back for a while, went out to look for her ... and found her in my room, playing a Pink Floyd song on my guitar. She taught me that song and "Needle and the Damage Done" (by Neil Young), and then I played a few songs. She said she had a guitar, too, but the strings were broken. I told her I'd stop by the next day and go with her to get some new ones (she thought "yeah, right"), and she left soon afterward. True to my word, I showed up at her off-campus apartment the next day, and we went down to the local music store, bought some strings, and whipped (or strung) her guitar into shape again. For reasons I don't quite understand (but am forever grateful for), this follow-through somehow set me apart from other guys she'd known and dated, and formed the basis of a relationship that grew, in various ways, shapes and forms over the years. Amy was my first real girlfriend, and introduced me to many "firsts" ... including, for example, my first taste of Chinese food (there were many other dimensions of novelty, but I'll leave it at that for now). My whole perspective changed, and I found myself generally more willing and eager to engage (in activities other than keg parties). I was on the Dean's List for the remaining three semesters of my college career, but of course that's a minor result in the larger scope of things. We've been together now for 25 years, and she still regularly helps me adopt new perspectives (though, at times, I do so rather grudgingly).

All the foregoing seems rather self-indulgent, but, well, Dan's invitation offers a convenient excuse. When I compare my stories to those shared by Dan's other invitees, feelings of inadequacy arise. However, I am willing to let those go, and simply enjoy the opportunity to reflect back on some events in my life that are sometimes in shadow ... and to take the opportunity to invite others to enjoy similar reflections and revelations on their blogs. I'm going to pass the baton to five blogger friends who have been very influential in my own blogging practice, modeling the kind of openness in sharing insights and experiences that I want to adopt in my own blog (and life):

All of these bloggers are far more prolific than me, and so may have to reach a bit further to reveal things they haven't already mentioned on their blogs ... and, of course, they all have plenty to write about without any prompting from me, but I'll extend the invitation anyway.

[Addendum, Christmas Eve morning]

I posted the original entry at SFO while waiting for my weekly flight back home. As soon as I shut the lid on my laptop, I was struck with an immediate and deep pang of remorse and guilt: how could I have possibly omitted Anne Galloway from the list of blogging friends who I most admire (and thus, invited to participate in the spreading of this revelation meme)?  Anne was one of the key people who (largely unbeknownst to her) helped give me the gumption to start Gumption, and is a prominent member of my personal blogging pantheon. There are, of course, other bloggers who inspire me, and one has to draw the line somewhere for a viral meme like this to spread without getting too bogged down at any host site, but I just couldn't let this post sit in its current state.

The original meme guidelines specify revealing 5 new things and inviting 5 new bloggers to participate. I'm going to stretch these a bit, inviting a sixth blogger (Anne), and adding a sixth thing that people may not know about me ... one that is particularly poignant at this moment.

  1. I hate Christmas. Given my aforementioned rejection of Catholicism (and with it, Christianity), the birth of Jesus has no more meaning to me than the birth of other great figures throughout history. The teachings attributed to Jesus -- especially his messages of love, acceptance and non-violence -- are inspiring, and I believe the world would be a better place if more of the people who profess devotion to Christ exercised these attributes more regularly, but I don't see Jesus as somehow standing out so much from a number of other great prophets, to warrant all the hoopla the celebration of his birth brings about in the Christian world every year. Of course, Christmas is about much more than this founding event, but many of its associated non-religious practices -- or perhaps I should say the practices of the religion of capitalism and consumption -- often leave me even colder. Why should we focus so much gift-giving energy during this one time of year? Why not simply get gifts for people if / when we are so moved? Gift-giving seems to be very much a game, and people seem compelled to give gifts (especially if / when they have received them, or expect to receive them). Add to all this the stress of decking the halls and preparing the feasts, and it just leaves me with a feeling of much ado about nothing. I try not to express my grinchly attitude at home (or at others' homes), lest it spoil the fun for those (like my wife and kids) who enjoy this season, but it leaves me feeling more alienated than usual. So, I'll express it here on the blog, in a post devoted to openness, honesty and revelation ... and hope it doesn't spoil the fun for anyone else. Merry Christmas (if you're so inclined)!