It is easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends. — Joan Didion
Listen. I might have discovered a previously-unobserved source of human misery. If we can work out how to escape this thing, we can probably all be a lot happier.
We might even be happier at work and not want to escape it if only we could escape this problem. We could be happier at school, happier in our own heads and, yes, happier on the toilet.
I know it sounds grandiose to go claiming a new discovery and all, but describing sources of misery–revealing them for what they are–and working out how to escape them is sort of my job now. And I’m digging deep.
So what is this newly-discovered reservoir of despair? Pop-Tarts? Well, that’s a good guess, madam, but no; the misery inflicted by their kind is already a matter of record. What I want to talk about today is:
a mass failure to begin with the end in mind.
a tendency to confuse ends with means.
Wait! Wait! It know it sounds oblique and may not be as actionable an improvement as, say, escape from social media, but you’ve just got to hear me out. Trust me, I have a headful (it’s a word) of thoughts and some strong anecdotal evidence!
The idea of “starting with the end in mind” comes, I’m embarrassed to say, from a self-help book I’ve not read properly on grounds of not wanting to rot my mind any further than it’s already been rotted by such things. Self-help books are like the sun: sources of energy that that should never be looked at directly.
But it’s rather good. I know “begin with the end in mind” sounds platitudinous like “start as you mean to go on” or something, but it’s really not so vacuous and the further I travel in time from that book, the more and more its significance occurs to me.
It’s about having an actual end point–a finished product and/or situation–in mind before you start doing something. It’s also about not confusing means with ends: going to work, for example, is a means (i.e. the mechanism required to make money to live on and also to contribute to some sort of a product or service) that is too often seen as an ends (“I am, finally and inherently, a proctologist. My arrival in the world of proctology is a final result. Just as I’m a husband and a flyfisher and a worshipper of Cthulu, I’m a proctologist.”).
We fail to begin with the end in mind sometimes as individuals (one might join a gym with a general hunch that it’s healthy and that it sounds good when you say “so I’ve joined a gym”) but, more significantly, we fail to begin with the end in mind as societies too and the result is that individual people are plopped into situations and environments without knowing what’s really going on.
Life is confusing and frightening, right? Well, I think a big part of that is that we’re too often led into tight quarters where the end has not been explained to us. The end is too often poorly defined in the minds of those telling us what to do too: the “end,” often, might not even exist. When we go to work, we don’t know what The Company is really in service of and we don’t know what that thing it’s in service of might itself be in service of higher up the totem pole of society: all we can do it turn up, complete the tasks assigned to us, and take home the paycheque. All we’re left with is means.
Many of the hopeless jobs I’ve been pressed into over the years probably felt hopeless to me because I didn’t know what they were for. And on those rare occasions I did have a sense of what they might be for, they were usually so far into the suburbs of anything worthwhile, that the handing in of Mr. Notice wasn’t far behind.
Someone of my father’s generation might say that the ultimate purpose of a job is besides the point and that you should just be happy to be working and be getting paid for it. Just turn up, punch the clock, do the work, get out. Simple. But that’s because he worked in secondary industry with a clear and tangible purpose at all times; he didn’t know boredom–true, soul-rusting boredom–in the way that we do. It’s hard to sit on a chair, watching a clock tick down, or faffing with Excel without being told what this is all for. I mean, even if the Prime Minister just went on TV to say, “Look, almost all of your jobs are actually pointless. But we’re morally unprepared to pay you to stay at home, so we’ve had to invent busywork for you. Sorry about that. But, just to be clear, your sitting on that ergonomic swivel chair is the whole end as well a means.” At least that would be something.
It drove me nuts, this sense of alienation. I have a natural impulse to visualise the end result of things. I can’t help it. You’re probably the same. If I’m writing a chapter for a book, for example, I need to know in my gut how it relates to the other chapters, how it fits into the broader scheme of the book, and how that book slots into the world library. I can’t help but imagine what sort of cover the publisher will give to the book and how attractive or ugly it’s likely to look or on people’s nightstands. That’s normal, isn’t it? Does a parent-to-be not preemptively picture the face of their wee one? It’s a natural impulse surely, not just another case of me being a delicate petal.
If your job was to report to a factory and to drill equally-spaced holes into six-inch lengths of metal tubing and then to pass it down to the next person, you’d probably be told at some point that you’re making flutes. You might then reasonably suppose that said flutes go off to market where they make (a) money for your employer and (b) music for ears and that (b) music if not (a) money is an inherent good and therefore an end. I suppose this job, being repetitive, would get boring after a while but at least you’d know what the heck was going on, just what all of your hole-drilling was in aid of.
Some white-collar workplaces have “mission statements.” Maybe there was one tacked up on a notice board or laminated and Blu-Tacked to a load-bearing pillar in your last office. Those mission statements are supposed to dovetail elegantly with everyone’s job descriptions so that everyone knows just how they contribute to the organisation’s agenda and how their duties relate to everyone else’s duties and how everyone–despite our varying degrees of happiness, busyness, and reluctance to be there–is actually on the same page and serving the same Grand Vision. It seldom works like that though does it? In the private sector, missions mutate to keep up with market forces (and are bogus to begin with since the mission of any company is to “make money” for a boss or for shareholders, any talk of “a passion for jell-o” or “bringing twiglets to the world” being obvious nonsense). In the public sector, mission statements tend to be so willfully obfuscating and are rendered in such twisted perversions of language that nobody can relate to them much less understand the bloody things. The effect of all this is that people just have to turn up, perform the tasks they’ve been told to perform, and not to trouble themselves over what it’s all for, what Great Machine they’re helping to drive into the future.
This hunger for meaning–a need for basic orientation–was rarely met in any of my white-collar jobs and it was maddening. You’d be welcomed into the office on Day 1, given directions on your daily activities over the course of perhaps a week, but a wider sense of what all of this was in aid of was either assumed or explained exclusively through an HR-prepared induction pack of contractual waffle and out-of-date “organograms.” It was a bit like being stuck in the trunk of a moving car with a hood over your head and being asked, for reasons unknown to you, to solve a Rubik’s cube. It’s not impossible, it’s just tedious and pointlessly mysterious.
I was thinking about all this recently and it occurred to me that a sense of not really knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing–a feeling of being lost at sea when you’re dutifully standing right where the world has told you to be–is probably the source of untold unhappiness at work.
At school–another time in life when perfectly happy and intelligent people are gaslit into worrying we might be misanthropes or stupid–we are seldom told what the lessons are about: why we’re being told these things, what they have to do with us. A general understanding may have been instilled in us about the importance of “passing maths” so that we can graduate high school and move on to the next artificially-maintained stage of life and on and on and on, but it all seems so absurd and irrelevant when you’re sitting there at a desk, being told about Ox-Bow Lakes.
In Geography–a subject I generally liked–we had a teacher who was good at getting us through exams. His trick was to teach “facts” by rote. It worked. We all passed Geography with flying colours. By “facts” he really meant “details.” A geography exam could not be blagged, he said, on general views or ideas about the world. You had to be able to write “the Cotswolds” or “1978” or “the Maasai Mara.” Points were awarded for these details. He gave us all sorts of wacky mnemonic techniques and bashed these facts into our heads until we could recite them automatically without even switching on the conscious parts of our brains. Now I think about it, it must have looked quite eerie from his perspective and rather like something from Children of the Corn. “Ox-Bow Lake, sir,” we’d all say in chorus, “Jurassic limestone, sir.”
I did not find this strategy objectionable at the time because learning facts divorced of context was at least easy and it meant I could get back to making out with my girlfriend or reading comics or whatever it was. And yet now, as an adult, I find myself wondering what an “Ox-Bow Lake” might actually be. I know they’re a kind of lake. I can draw one from above. I can even tell you about how it is formed and how it relates to “meanders,” to “eutrophication,” and to “natural erosion.” But I don’t know what much of that really means or where one one of these fabled Ox-Bow Lakes might be. Are they in England somewhere? Are they in Africa? Mars? To this day, I have no understanding–intellectually or viscerally–of what, really, an Ox-Bow Lake is. I can just parrot some words I learned by rote.
Surely, I wonder now, there must be better ways of teaching kids. Surely no marker of exams ever thought “Oh yes, this youngster really understands the essence of the Ox-Bow Lake.” It’s all so “phoney,” as Holden Caulfield–whom we did not study in English class–would undoubtedly say.
What I’m saying here is that these geography facts and so much else at school were endured in isolation with no end in mind: no reasonable context was given for any of it. The lessons started at the wrong end of things: before teaching this sort of deeply specialised nitty-gritty, shouldn’t we be told something general about life (like, where we are now, historically-speaking, and on which operating systems, geopolitically-speaking, do our lives run) and then, should we graduate to such ludicrously granular specialities as needing to know about the various types of freshwater lake and their formation, about how it all relates to us and our place in the world? Just like “orientation” in a job, how about some orientation from schools on the relevant basics of present-tense Life on Earth?
(Curious to know if there’s a school of thought on this, perhaps called “contextual learning,” I looked it up. It turns out there is but despite the general theory being noble–“teachers […] present information in such a way that students are able to construct meaning based on their own experiences”–the rest of it is really a lot of softy twaddle and involves hands-on “experiences” instead of the noble Aristotelian tradition of classroom- and book-learning, which is a lot of pedagogic wisdom to throw in the bin. You went too radical, Contextual Learning!)
So a kid is not schooled “with the end in mind,” nor is end of schooling kept in mind at all, only the means (which consists, if memory serves, of getting the regulation backpacks and calculators, sitting still, respecting your teachers, not chewing gum, and doing homework on time — urgh). If the end of school is to prepare students for life in a practical way, it’s obviously not fit for purpose. If the end of schooling is to teach an understanding of the world, it’s not doing that either. But I don’t really know what the end of school is because it was never explained. It’s just something everyone had to do.
Imagine if the Prime Minister came on TV again to say “I’ve been talking to the Secretary of Education and, essentially, we just want to keep young people off the streets, alright? So sit tight, grow up, and then you can do what you like.” Again, at least it would be something.
Politics meanwhile is a veritable haven of failing to start with the end in mind and getting wound up in means. Everyone’s got their tribe and nobody wants to ask what the end of that tribe really is. Your first encounter with politics probably involved a political party broadly aligned to an ideology or–more likely–your witnessing a reaction to a party-political statement by someone whose opinion you valued at the time. You’ll have heard your dad complaining about Reds or your mum complaining about Blues and it’s enough to get you started on a lifetime of political opinion-having.
One needs to step back and ask what it’s all for. In the United Kingdom, where I live (and will continue to live until my actual country of residence, Scotland, votes to leave the UK in favour of Europe in a couple of years) the Conservative Party aren’t even slightly interested in what it’s all for. They aren’t so much interested in running a country as holding onto power (and therefore money and limelight and future consultancy or public speaking opportunities).
A Labour Party campaigner I used to follow on social media before I quit had two passions in life: campaigning for a Socialist Labour Party and getting them into power; and what she called “self-destruction.” She’d routinely post pictures of evidence of scarring or of drinking and smoking too much. It didn’t look like she was seeking help or anything: it was more a case of “Self-Harm Pride” or something. I swear I wasn’t being judgmental–go ahead and self-destroy if that’s what you’re into–but I wondered if the Socialism didn’t conflict with the self-destruction. I was too shy to ask.
I don’t look at social media any more, but I asked a young Socialist in the pub what he thought about this. “Isn’t destroying yourself just doing the Tories’ job for them?” I suggested. “If the Tories want to make their cronies rich through privatisation and to punish the poor by inflicting austerity measures and dismantling the welfare state, isn’t it just helping them along to abbreviate your own life and compromise your own wellbeing?”
“Maybe,” he said, “but looking after yourself is what a Libertarian would say.”
He could be right, I suppose. Whenever I do that political compass thing, my position is firmly in the Libertarian left. But it makes me wonder what the point of Socialism could possibly be if it’s not to raise the quality of life of individual people. Even Jeremy Corbyn (while discussing automation in 2018) has referred to “a chance to raise living standards and give people more control of their own lives.” Because that’s the point. It’s not about righteous fighting (which is a means, not and end) while willingly suffering (even inflicting) hardship and rejecting the good life on class grounds. What’s the point of that? Self-destruction isn’t “solidarity;” in damaging yourself–whether actively like the activist I’m talking about or passively through self-neglect–you’re harming a member of the crowd you’re trying to save. You’ve confused means with an end.
At work, at school, and in politics it would be good if the actual “end” could be kept in mind. Performing actions without understanding the end is, I’m increasingly convinced, the origin (even the epicentre!) of alienation and therefore the font of misery. We probably wouldn’t want to escape those institutions so badly or to engage with them so half-heatedly if someone would just take the time to explain what’s going on, how everything fits together in the world, and what the “end” of everything really is. This is more and more important the higher one goes in thinking about society: work, school, and politics are but elements of a world. What about the social world at large. How do we want to live? To trot out a hoary old Wildean wit-nugget:
a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.
And that’s my point. Utopia–whether we’re talking personal and individualist or social and wide-reaching–is an end. And without that end in mind, any project you undertake is doomed. So. Begin with the end in mind. Build it into the foundations, my tolerant and long-reading friend, bake it into the brownie while the brownie’s still still a dough, start with the end and work, like a writer of detective novels, backwards from there. Don’t mistake means for ends. Don’t sweat the small stuff: if you want to run a project or plot any course of action, or if you want to know how to spend your days: START BIG.
This essay began life as one possible introduction to a book called The Good Life for Wage Slaves before being set to one side and repurposed for an online readership. If you liked the essay, please consider buying the book.