Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya is not a book I felt strongly enough to put on my Monday Morning reading list. However, there are a couple of ideas that I found very helpful and powerful, and want to think through here. They speak to aspects of leadership rarely discussed, having to do with the leader’s inner world, rather than specific practices or strategies that normally occupy the leadership literature.
I’d like to set the context for why one idea in particular was helpful and insightful, taking for granted that you know I’m middle aged (47), though, thank God, in no sense of midlife crisis (I picked up the book after hearing the author on a podcast, which I found interesting, not because I was in any obvious midlife crisis that I was trying to solve. Doth I protest too much?). Through the early years of my Headship, and certainly through COVID, one question repeated itself again and again, in different forms: How do I manage the incredible stress, strain and pressure of this work? Because if I can’t, I won’t last very long in this role, and everything else that’s valuable in my life (read: family, personal pursuits, Torah learning) will suffer.
I first tried little hacks, like putting my phone on a shelf when I got home; taking social media off my phone (that was not a big deal – I have very little desire for it anyway); and removing notifications from my phone. These helped in small ways. I tried increased exercise, diet, and removing or reducing caffeine. Again, these helped, but not enough. The challenge was ultimately about my mind and its attention, which kept getting drawn away from what was important and in front of me, and towards the things about work that bothered me the most, or I found most aggravating. Sometimes these were genuine crises, other times they were just distressing interactions that I couldn’t get out of my head. But in both cases, they distracted me from what was really important – my family, and aspects of my work that I wanted to, and should have, prioritized.
My improvement in this area over the last year has been incremental, with a large dose of it happening by itself by COVID receding. But I’ve also shifted some of my thinking, or at least tried to. The book 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals was helpful in me thinking about when to say ‘no’, or perhaps more accurately, accepting that one has to accept saying no to many things if one is going to say ‘yes’ to others, and be present and productive in life and work (easy to say, harder to do). My coach was helpful as well in helping me think about boundaries in my life and mind, giving me the permission to say no, which is hard in a mission oriented job, and with a servant-leadership mindset. And more recently, an idea in the book in question helped me clarify this line of thinking.
It will be helpful to frame these ideas within another idea, developed by Simon Sinek, which you can read more about here. Sinek says there are two types of games: finite games and infinite games. Sports are a great example of finite games: you know who you’re playing against, the rules are pre-determined and clear, there is an endpoint, and someone wins. Infinite games lack all of these qualities. Think about my work: it’s not clear I’m ‘playing’ against anyone, the rules for success are not always that clear (Heads succeed in many different ways, and parents certainly have different metrics for their success), there is no endpoint, and winning doesn’t have the clear meaning it does in business, where one either does or does not make money. It’s a ‘game’ that just keeps going, ad infinitum. We’re always trying to get better, there are endless ways to do so, and there’s no place to stop and say that the work is done. The question then becomes: How does one live successfully and happily within an infinite game, which life writ large, not just educational work, certainly is? This is where Setiya steps in.
Setiya describes two kinds of activities in our lives: telic, and atelic. Telic activities (from the Greek ‘telos’ or end), are things we can complete, or that come to an end, like writing an article, or going to a party. These are a little like finite games. Atelic activities, in contrast, don’t aim at an endpoint, at any final achievement. While you can walk from points A to B (telic), you can also walk for no reason or destination whatsoever. The same is true with listening to music or spending time with family. You cannot complete these activities, and they have no limit, so nothing brings them to an end.
While we have both telic and atelic moments in our lives, my sense is that our professional lives, and even much of our personal lives, are motivated, perhaps impelled, by telic activities. We have a thirst to accomplish. I came across a great example of a description of our need to ‘accomplish’ and its consequences on Cal Newport’s podcast, where he talks about Deep Work (please read the book!), which is about removing distractions and increasing attention in order to be more creative and productive. A D.C. lawyer, a partner in a high-power firm, wrote Cal a question, saying that he was struggling to find deep work in his life. Newport’s response was direct and surprising: that he’ll never have it. Why? Because he made a series of choices years ago that are hard to escape. When he was in high school he did well on his SATs. So he did what people who do well on SATs do (or are told to do, culturally speaking), and applied to an Ivy League university. And when he did what successful undergrads do, he went to a great law school; and when he did well there he did what talented law students do which is to go to a high powered firm; and when he was successful there he did what came next which was to become a partner. He consistently accomplished, completed tasks, made professional progress, and went on to the next task he could accomplish and be noted for. So now he makes a million dollars a year, with a lifestyle to match, which is hard to walk away from. But at the root, he did what was valued given his success at each stage. The problem was, he never asked what he himself really wanted out of his life. Meaning – he accomplished each goal, each telic activity, but never asked the atelic question – what does he want his life to look and feel like? Where does he find purpose and meaning? And can he find it within the system he was building? The answer, said Newport, was no.
Similarly, we have habituated ourselves to accomplishing and judging ourselves and our lives by this metric: getting a degree, getting a title or role, writing a curriculum, running a Shabbaton, publishing an article. But then they are done. And what is left? First, an emptiness follows, and then, another task. It never ends. This doesn’t mean these activities are not important or valuable. They just need to be understood for what they offer us, and what they don’t. But more than this process is the way telic thinking creeps into other parts of our lives, and further, the way telic experiences become dominant and crowd out atelic thinking. Setyia describes this mindset as follows:
Suppose, like me, you are relentlessly prospective, project-driven. Beneath the bustle of activity, you hear the hollow beat of completion and discontent, an inchoate perception of self-defeat. Something is amiss. But you can’t say what. It is easy to blame your choices: the wrong relationship, the wrong profession. And so you leave your partner and change careers. There may be good reasons for doing those things, but this is not one of them. It is a confused response to a midlife crisis. Sensing a flaw in your projects, you blame their particular goals, not the fact that you are goal-fixated, and attempt to start over. So long as starting over means adopting new goals, it will at most distract you from the structural defect in your life. Keeping busy is a great diversion; but it treats the symptom not the cause.
My affliction is chronic, not acute, masked by the whirl of activity: more papers to grade, meetings to organize, books to read. It is not that I take no pleasure in going for a walk or spending time with friends, not getting much of anything done. But the roots of meaning in my life are principally telic: they are aim terminal states. While my condition is less extreme, its etiology is the same. I am ruefully possessed by the telic mindset. This is what explains the sense of emptiness, of repetition and futility, in getting what I want…. (p.137-9)
But, he says, it doesn’t have to be either/or.
[A]telic activities correspond to each of the projects that structure your life. Take me, writing this book. In doing so, I am writing and thinking about philosophy: an atelic activity. This matters, I think, not just as a part of finishing the book, but in its own right….. If my problem is an excessive investment in telic activities, the solution is to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project. (p.140)
I think the powerful point he makes is about the way in which telic and atelic goals overlap, and can occupy the same space – depending on your frame of mind. He points to a living-in-the-present, a mindfulness that challenges our mental habit to accomplish, that allows us to focus on the meaning of the telic activities we’ve chosen in our life, which is to say, the atelic within the telic. It’s not just a focus on the present for its own sake, like when I tried to meditate (with very moderate success!). I found mediation useful to relax and refocus, but only briefly, and not more broadly in my life. What Setiya offers is a deeper shift in perspective.
To be clear, it’s not just about attending to the present, which a higher level of meditation would allow for. It’s about being present within what we believe is meaningful and desirable – family, friends, making a difference in the lives of children through their learning, etc.. As Setiya says, “It matters what you are doing, not just that you are doing it in the Now.” (p.153) This is what differentiates the kind of present-thinking to that which mediation offers.
Will this solve my problem of presence? I don’t think so. But it’s a tool in the toolkit of my practice that I’ve found valuable, another step is becoming the leader, and person, I want to be.
And since I’m about to go on vacation with my family, it will be a good time to practice.