How many times in a job-related situation have you been asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What are your long-term goals?”
If you’re in a white-collar job I’m willing to bet that questions along those lines have been thrown at you for almost every (if not every) performance review and job interview you’ve ever had. They’re bandied about so often they’ve practically become clichéd.
I get a mild panic whenever I’m asked where I want to be, or what I want to be when
I grow up (ahem) I’m five years older than now, and it’s for a pretty simple reason: I’ve pretty much stopped caring. It was only recently that I came to the conclusion that this is actually a pretty good thing. It’s not from apathy – it’s from a change in how I think.
There’s a good reason for that, too.
To explain, I need to mention that I’ve recently been rediscovering the joy of philosophy. I studied quite a bit of philosophy at University. As a computer science graduate you’d think I’d have concentrated on maths and classic sciences while I was at Uni, but they didn’t appeal to me. I entered University with a more history and literature based background, mathematics has always been an anathema to me, and most traditional sciences rely way too much on maths skills to gain expertise.
So philosophy was something I did pretty much for all my free electives outside of the computer science department, and that covered quite a lot of topics – history of philosophy, existentialism, ethics, just to name a few. Once I graduated I (mostly) put philosophy behind me, but there’s always been a bit of a nagging internal suspicion it might be nice to go back to University and do a formal degree, but for one reason or another I always resisted it.
Pretty much the first thing the first philosophy professor I had said:
University is the last place you learn for the sake of learning.
At the time I took it as a prediction, and treated it as such. Looking back now, I’m inclined to think he might have meant it as a warning: it’s very easy to get wrapped up in learning just for your job and not worry about learning other things.
So that inner homunculus – that inner saboteur – spent decades whispering to me that I could only study philosophy again if I went back to University. Recently though I thought of the next book I want to write, which gave me the long-overdue kick in the pants to start studying for the sake of studying again, and of late I’ve been diving headlong into self-directed philosophy studies.
That’s when I stumbled across Philosophy Bites, a regular podcast featuring short (usually 15-20 minutes) discussions between the hosts and guest philosophers and thinkers, and that’s when I realised there’s nothing wrong with me not really caring where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in five years time. In particular, it was listening to the team talking to MIT Philosopher Kieran Setiya regarding the notion of the Midlife Crisis that it clicked why.
I really recommend you listen to the podcast and hear it from Kieran Setiya himself, but the really short summary of it is that when the term mid-life crisis was coined, the psychologist who came up with the term noticed that his patients who suffered from that particular mental malaise were those who had by and large been reasonably driven and successful individuals. The ones who had set goals, maybe achieving many of them, but had worked on one goal after the other throughout their careers.
Setiya proposes we can understand mid-life crises more if we think of goals and how we go about our lives via telic vs atelic goals, from telic vs atelic verbs. A telic goal might be considered to be like a project– it has a definite, defined end-point. An atelic goal might be considered to be one that has an arbitrary terminus – it ends when or because it ends, not because a specific activity or process has occurred. A telic goal therefore might be “I want to become CIO by age 35”; an atelic goal could be “I’m going to go for a walk”. The first has a definite end-point for success or failure – either one will be a CIO by age 35 or one will not be a CIO at age 35, terminating the project for good or ill. Going for a walk is an entirely different beast – you might walk for ten minutes or thirty minutes or two hours; you might see interesting things, interact with people along the way or do it in solitude, but it’s still been a walk no matter what.
I think I had my mid-life crisis early – I was so invested in a job I had in Sydney in the early-mid 00’s that when the company I was working for collapsed I spent a couple of years pretty depressed from it all. I largely came out of that depression when I realised I’d invested too much of my personality – who I was – in that role. Senior consultant, then engineering manager, with an intent to move on to more senior management roles over time. Reclaiming myself for me let me get over that early mid-life crisis and become happier again.
And without knowing the terms, it taught me the value of having a higher ratio of atelic to telic goals. (Indeed, a much higher ratio.) My goals became more ephemeral – being diligent at what I do, being the best person I could be, helping others. My day-to-day life has been an exercise in atelic goals. My telic goals on the other hand have been minimal: move to Melbourne, get out of a toxic job and become happier at work.
It’s easy to become goal oriented; it’s almost frowned upon for some to have a lack of defined goals, yet looking at it from a fresh perspective it’s almost like the extrovert vs introvert argument – there’s balances to be had in both outlooks. Having some telic goals are fine, but if we become ruled by them we start counting our lives by them rather than measuring ourselves against the things that really matter.
I’m not bothered any more that I don’t have a finely detailed five year plan for where I want to be – a telic goal – because it’s the atelic goals that make me who I am: being dedicated to producing the best work I can and helping people means I’ll always keep going, because these are not measurable things. There’s not a point where you say “OK, that’s my best dedication, I never have to try to go beyond that”, or “I’ve helped X people this month, I don’t need to help anyone else”. The telic goals can come when they come, and finally realise I don’t need to worry that they’re not always there.