It’s ok to take a walk without headphones

The Big Sur MacOS update delivers a delightful Easter Egg.

Your AirPods now magically follow you across devices. Gone are the awkward transitions (“hold on, let me connect my AirPods”) while fiddling with your Bluetooth settings and pressing that random button on the white case.

Now you can gracefully glide from podcast, to Zoom call, to Discover Weekly, to Clubhouse, to audiobooks while enlisting Siri’s help. Seamlessly and without interruption.

Yet it turns out that our headphones have been following us for much longer than a MacOS update.

Image result for original ipod add

Remember that original promise “1,000 songs in your Pocket?” That was 20 years ago.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal. Yet thanks to these white little earbuds, we never need to spend that quiet time alone.

Do all of life’s moments need to be productive moments?

To answer that question, let’s distinguish between two types of activities: telic and atelic.

Stemming from the Greek term Telos (“Having an inherent purpose”), telic activities are directed towards an end goal. Conversely, atelic activities are pursued for their own sake.

Telic activities include writing a novel, learning a new skill and building a house all have specific outcomes.

On the other hand atelic activities – going for a walk, a long talk with friends, making love, and listening to your favorite songs – have no end goal. You derive joy from the activity itself.

Here’s the rub. Atelic activities are not “productive.”

You do not move yourself closer to your goals when you do a puzzle with your toddler. Or when you pause to observe the beauty of a sunset. These aren’t productive activities.

And since my Type-A self finds these activities very uncomfortable, my brain does a little mental jiu jitsu to make them more comfortable. I call them Telic Transformations.

As I watch Soul with the fam, I’m processing ideas for upcoming blog posts. (And when I watch Toy Story, looking to identify the Hero’s Journey narrative arc.)

When I surf, I’m constantly thinking of the next maneuver to learn (cutbacks), or the next board I could buy.

Heck, even when sitting on the John (without an iPhone), I’ll grab one of the cleaning products and look for examples of good copy, logo design, or color pairings.

As Pascal says, those quiet moments with myself can be quite uncomfortable.

And then there’s the ultimate telic transformation: the podcast.

Thanks to this venerable audio format, the last bastion of atelic activities (a beach walk, cooking a family dinner, getting your kids to sleep) can become instantly productive with the most recent episode of The Tim Ferriss show.

Now this isn’t a critique against learning. Nor one against continuous self-improvement. Or about pursuing one’s insatiable curiosity.

But isn’t this pull to turn everything into an outcome quite peculiar?

And here comes a conundrum. Telic activities end. Yet the desire lives on. So we move the goal line. Another goal. Another outcome.

And one starts laying the bricks for the hedonic treadmill.

In The Philosophy of the Midlife Crisis, the philosopher Kieran Setiya writes that “there’s something intrinsically self-defeating about getting things done.” Once you do the thing, it can’t be done again. Setiya continues:

“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. In pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.”

Setiya concludes that “being consumed by plans” can be problematic:

“They are schemes for which success can only mean cessation.”

We’re not human doings. We’re human beings. Personally, I suspect that my telic transformations come from a place of fear. The fear of not doing enough, comes from the fear of not being enough. Confusing identity and achievement becomes a slippery slope that robs me from the present and the beauty and love that surround me.

So I’ll heed Pascal’s advice – and ditch the AirPods during my next beach walk.

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