On Goal-Orientedness and Mediocrity

It seems that Jessica at TodayWasMeaningful has just posted another brilliantly insightful article, “what you lose when you’re busy“. This article deals with the need to slow down and enjoy individual moments in your life rather than continuously feeling pressured to do things.

I am very familiar with this theme. I have always been goal-oriented myself. After obtaining my first degree, I could not resign myself to live merely for the work routine, so I started a Master’s degree, continued to learn programming on my own time, pursued other software projects, etc. And as the years rolled on, I found that while I was still managing to keep up with my tasks, most of the time I rushed through them, precisely because my time was so limited. The end result was that quality suffered, and that I was unable to complete any spare-time projects I wanted to do, and because of all my commitments, I did not have time to learn technology that would be useful for my career development.

It is surprisingly easy to get addicted to goal-orientedness. You know, I can actually write this article here and now because I took the morning off from work, without having planned to do anything specific this morning. Until very recently, I would never have done that. Any vacation leave I took was booked with specific goals in mind: to travel, to study, to run errands, etc.

Why is idle time such a stigma nowadays? Is it really so terrible to spend the morning listening to the waves, or watching TV, or dusting off the furniture? That same idle time is that which allows you to relax, to recollect your thoughts, and to be creative. It is not hard to imagine why there is so much pressure to do, and to achieve, nowadays. Just think of how many years it will take you to pay off your mortgage, just look at how many requirements are listed on an average software developer vacancy nowadays, look at all the things that are expected of you from your friends, your colleagues, your family, and most of all, yourself. Because although it’s really easy to get addicted to goal-orientedness, it’s also quite easy to break out of it. It’s just a switch, and it’s in your mind.

I want to clarify something here: setting goals is not a bad thing. The bad thing is biting more you can chew, attempting to be too productive without leaving any quality time to yourself; being entirely absorbed in the routine. I think Jessica’s article points this out extremely well:

“i slow down when i’m eating so i can savor the flavor, i try and walk slower so i can see all of the beauty, and i try not to rush.  i do my best to not wish my days away- to trust in the process and appreciate the steps it takes to get there.  because what i know is that i’d hate to reach the destination to find that i’d missed out on the journey.

And this is something that I think is a big problem in today’s society. Have you ever noticed how the entertainment industry (think computer games, films and music) is mostly producing unoriginal stuff using the same formulas as before, and the quality is constantly getting worse? Have you ever watched a romantic comedy or a disaster movie that actually didn’t use the standard template for its story? And that’s not just limited to the entertainment industry, as Chris Colombo’s article on academic trends illustrates:

“Ironically, the increased pressure and competitiveness on academics, has only served to lower the quality of research – researchers might be busier than ever writing project proposals and reports, supervising students and churning out papers, but the quality, the innovation, and the pioneering elements are slowly being eaten away.”

The constant pressure by large institutions to satisfy the demand is resulting in mediocre, short-sighted work, which is far within the potential of the people who do that work. In a society where money and prestige are vital to survival, and where these may be obtained more easily with mediocre work, there is little reason to stand out. This is just another form of goal-orientedness: neglecting the means to focus on the end is a complete waste of potential.

Someone very close to me used to say:

“What is worth doing, is worth doing well.”

The way I see it, if you’re going to invest a significant amount of effort to do something, then you should take the time you need to do it properly, or do nothing at all. It is better to attempt nothing at all than to waste your time and effort on something meaningless. Failing fast leaves you free to pursue whatever ideas are most appealing at any given time.

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