The Case for Purposelessness
The new year represents an opportunity to discover an atelic activity – one with no aim other than the joy of the activity itself.
I love the beginning of a new year. It is a time to take stock, to reflect, to think ahead, to plan, and to make commitments (see my recent post on Personal OKRs). While obvious, it is worth saying that the beginning of the year only happens once each year. And thus, we must do our best not to waste the opportunity it has to offer.
Yet as we plan and resolve to do things better and differently, we often neglect to consider how we simply want to be. I was reminded of this over the holidays while reading the book Four Thousand Weeks. The author writes about the importance of “atelic activity,” a concept introduced by the philosopher Kieran Setiya. Atelic derives from the Greek word telos, meaning ultimate aim. Atelic activity thus refers to doing something for no reason other than for the love of the thing itself. Atelic activity is that which you get lost in. It is a state of being where time seems to stand still, where one is in flow.
In some ways, I believe the quality of one’s life is a function of the degree to which one is absorbed in and by such activity. For me, I've recently realized that it is the simple yet profound act of walking in nature. Walking is time for me where I experience wonder. Where I can let go of thinking, planning, and doing. Where I feel joy and peace amidst the chaos and frenetic pace of our world. Indeed, walking on a route leaving from a starting place only to return to that same place may be the most purposeless of any activity. If the point was to return to the same place, why walk?
The new year thus represents an opportunity for some of us to discover an atelic activity – one with no aim other than the joy of the activity itself. For others, who already know what theirs is, the new year may be an opportunity to let go of any notion that such activity is a guilty pleasure not worthy of prioritizing in a culture that values productivity above all else. And to commit to falling into such activity with full abandon. It may be the most important new year resolution we can all make.
P.S. Writing this post motivated me to start learning how to play the piano, something I've been hoping to enjoy for a long time.
To complement this weekly email, I highly recommend reading this wonderful article from Psyche, “Feel Free to Stop Striving: Learn to Relish Being an Amateur.”
If you haven’t had a chance to reflect on the incredible life and contributions of Desmund Tutu, who recently passed, here’s a New York Times obituary worth reading.
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