The Satisfaction of Practice in an Achievement-Oriented World

An excerpt from What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal-Setting by Tara McMullin

The rules had been constructed long before I was born, and I did not know yet I was allowed to break them or redefine them or ignore them entirely.

— Jami Attenberg, I Came All This Way to Meet You
What Works hardcover book

THANKS TO MY daughter’s persistent recommendation of a particular digital art app, I started drawing in early 2021. Visual art has never been an aspiration of mine. My brother is a talented artist, and anything I tried to create paled in comparison to his effortless renderings. And goodness knows I don’t like to play second fiddle. But sketching on my iPad while watching YouTube or bingeing old television shows in the evening became a way to calm my mind as I went through a particularly difficult mental health year.

At first, I played with color and textures—nonrepresentational art. Then, I followed step-by-step tutorials to recreate images. Eventually, I gave myself the go-ahead to fly solo. Instead of relying on someone’s detailed instructions, I would find an image I liked and break it down into shapes and proportions that I could recreate. It’s been slow yet rewarding work. This drawing practice has also been a study in finding satisfaction with imperfection and inadequacy as well as joy in the process rather than in accomplishment. I’ve probably created a thousand or more images in a thousand or more hours. None of them will make me any money or win me any accolades. Not so long ago, I would not have devoted that much time to something with such middling results. But the results are only middling if the purpose of the time I spend drawing is to achieve a great (or marketable) piece of art. The purpose of this time, though, is not achievement. It’s practice—a practice that relieves anxiety, stretches my self-imposed restrictions, and nurtures a deep sense of satisfaction.

For most of my life, I’d avoid anything that didn’t come easily to me. If I tried a new activity and didn’t get better-than-average results in short order, I simply wouldn’t do that activity again. My identity was wrapped up in being a person who is good at things. If I wasn’t good at something, I couldn’t do it and retain that identity. As I got older, I realized how much I limited myself, how many incredible experiences I denied myself. Because I like to win, I tend to choose activities that give me a greater chance of winning. Because I like for things to come easily to me, I avoid experiences that I might have to work at to enjoy. It’s hard to learn new things when you only do things you’re already good at, you know?

One thing that I’m really good at, however, is routine. Once I’ve established a routine, I’m unlikely to deviate from it. It’s one of my autistic superpowers. So when I decided to change up things and stretch myself, I knew I needed to establish a routine. I started slowly—setting an alarm instead of waking up on my own, a privilege that I enjoyed ever since I became self-employed. Once up, I powered up the treadmill and took a 10-minute walk. Ten minutes became 15 minutes, 15 minutes became 20 minutes, and the dead of winter became the dawn of spring. With the temperature a bit warmer and my energy a bit higher, I started jogging. I picked up other exercise activities that I was curious about along the way: powerlifting, hiking, bouldering, yoga. It was all new to me. And I wasn’t good at any of it to start. In some of these pursuits, I did improve over time, and I certainly trained my body to withstand more demand. But I discovered what I really loved about these new additions to my routine was how they made me feel while I did them. Even when I earned a medal after a race or sent a difficult boulder problem, I found that what was really meaningful to me in the experience was knowing how I’d put in the work. I felt good about what had gotten me to that point of relative excellence, rather than just finding meaning in the outcome of my work.

I’d stumbled on something that Kieran Setiya describes in his book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, as the difference between telic and atelic activities. In philosophy, teleology is the pursuit of understanding the goals or purposes of things. Telos is a Greek word that Aristotle uses to describe an entity’s full purposes or ultimate end goal. In a metaphysical sense, that might be the greater purpose of one’s life or the goal of their belief system. But for our purposes, I want to examine this idea of telos and, as Setiya puts it, telic activities, in a much more mundane way. Let’s start with one of the core reasons that our goals make us miserable: the fact that they’re designed to end. Setiya states it clearly:

Think of it this way. What gives purpose to your life is having goals. Yet in pursuing them, you either fail (not good) or in succeeding, bring them to a close. If what you care about is achievement—earning a promotion, having a child, writing a book, saving a life—the completion of your project may be of value, but it means that the project can no longer be your guide.

So far, I’ve focused on why the goals we set make us miserable. I’ve examined the moral systems they derive from and the objectifying forces that compel us to set many of the most common types of goals. I’ve considered how we seek greater power through our goals and perpetuate systems of harm in the process. But here, we look at goal-setting as a problem in and of itself. Setiya defines telic activities as being those focused on their end goals. A telic activity might be the task of making dinner, accomplishment of completing a work project, or achievement of running a marathon; worthwhile activities, to be sure. But once they end, we’re at a loss for what is next, or we realize that we’ll just do the same thing tomorrow. When we organize our lives around this relentless cycle of completion, we risk the sort of going-through-the-motion malaise that leads to many career and family crises. Setiya contrasts telic activities with atelic activities—those activities in which value is found through doing them rather than in completing them. Atelic activities might be taking a walk or playing music with friends. It’s not that they don’t eventually end—it’s just that completion isn’t the point of the activity.

As a culture, we obsess on telic activities. We believe that, each time we accomplish a task, we climb that old familiar ladder. When really, we’re just putting miles on the treadmill (shout out to the runners who enjoy the treadmill, I am not one of those people). We set goals, create plans, and we strive toward their completion—in lock step with a whole industry that promotes this as the key to living a good life. Setiya argues that, while there is value in planning projects or working toward particular outcomes, our over-reliance on telic activities and end goals keeps us fixated on the future, ignoring the meaning of the present moment.

For me, and for Setiya, telic and atelic activities can have considerable overlap. And switching one’s orientation from future outcomes to present mindfulness can have a huge impact on overall satisfaction (a concept I’ll explore soon). It’s here that I want to abandon this philosophical jargon—as fun for me as it might be—to offer up two more familiar terms to describe what Setiya is getting at: achievement and practice.

I prefer these terms because they help to describe how an outcome-oriented activity can be recast as a process with value in and of itself. For instance, I’m writing this chapter on New Year’s Eve—the day before many people will attempt to “get healthy” and take up running. I’ll see them out on the trail tomorrow, huffing and puffing. And good for them! But here’s the thing, for many, they’ll define get healthy as losing some weight. For them, running is a means to an end—it isn’t a meaningful activity in and of itself. Others might set the goal of running a springtime 5K or half-marathon. Once the race is over, will they stick with running? Some will, but many will not. Running might accomplish the “achievement” of losing those pesky 10 pounds or completing the race, but it won’t become a part of daily life for many of the people who decide to take it up tomorrow. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, the reason I’ve been able to stick with exercising every morning for five years is because I’ve embraced the practice. I find value in the time I spend pounding the pavement or on the yoga mat.

This shift doesn’t only apply to exercise, of course. Cleaning the house might feel like a chore that has value only once it’s finished. What would it take to turn cleaning into a process that provides value in doing it? For me, the answer is extra time to listen to podcasts. Completing a report at work might feel like busywork—something that only seems to have value because someone has required you to do it. What would it take to turn the process of completing that report into a satisfying process? Maybe you make a habit of hitting play on a favorite album each time you do that report. Or maybe you use the report as an opportunity to thank each member of your team for their particular contribution to the work that week. There will always be tasks or required outcomes that can’t be turned into a satisfying process. And certainly, privilege is a big component into how successfully you convert chores into satisfying activities. But reconceiving much of how you spend your time into practice is absolutely possible.

What Is Practice?

Okay, so what do I mean by practice? First, I absolutely, positively do not mean “practice makes perfect.” The purpose of practice is not perfection, or even improvement. The purpose of practice is presence, groundedness, and perspective. Practice can be extremely simple—no equipment or software needed—and transform basic activities into something nourishing or satisfying.

As I mentioned earlier, routines are one of my autistic superpowers. Autistic people often develop routines that help them navigate the world and their emotions. My routines are extremely important to me. I don’t do them compulsively, but I do feel off when I haven’t gone through an important routine. For example, my morning routine consists of a cup of Aeropress coffee, a big bowl of nondairy Greek yogurt with fruit and cereal, time with whatever book I’m reading, and then my workout for the day, which ideally ends with a long walk listening to one of my favorite podcasts. I wake up between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. every weekday morning in order to move through that three-hour routine before I start work, and I’ve been doing it for well over three years. When we visit my husband’s family in Montana, I don’t have access to all the same “ingredients” of my routine. But I recreate it as best as I can. I brew my coffee in the Keurig, eat a different brand of nondairy yogurt, and read my book. Then I drive myself somewhere I can get in a good long walk and listen to a podcast. The same thing goes if I’m traveling for work or on vacation. I know it probably sounds like a burden, but it’s grounding.

My morning routine is a practice. It’s something I come to every day to find presence and perspective. When I don’t want to get out of bed, I think about how good I’ll feel eating my yogurt and drinking my coffee. When I know I have a busy day full of difficult tasks, I linger in that routine to saturate myself with everything it has to offer me. Practice shows up in my life in plenty of other ways, too. Writing is practice; baking is practice; podcasting is practice; reading is practice. They are activities that remind me where I am and offer me space for observing my own thoughts and feelings, even though each of these activities result in tangible outcome. The essay, loaf of bread, episode, or completed book aren’t the point of these activities. They’re the byproduct of time spent mindfully.

The way I engage practice is no doubt privileged. But there are so many ways to incorporate practice into daily life, small ways to turn the mundane into the satisfying. Maybe you take the bus to work, and you find that walking to the bus stop shifts your mood when you listen to music—that’s practice. Maybe you feed your cats, as I do, at the same time every evening, and you use that small amount of time to watch how their little bodies move eagerly while they wait—that’s practice.

My guess is that I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. #savorthemoment, amirite? Yet, when we make practice intentional and conscious, we shift our relationships to systems of power. These systems would rather keep us rushing around, constantly consuming, and producing more and more with our time. Practice is resistance. It reduces urgency, creates satisfaction, and reminds you that there is more to life than being productive. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that practice is a good way to “stick it to the man.”

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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