Finding Purpose in Process: Musings about Rocks that Roll

Hi Friends, in this essay I would like to explore the abstract human condition and finally give an answer to the question that has plagued Swarthmore students since the dawn of time, or at least from the dawn of Swarthmore’s history: what is the point of it all? (It’s 42, but that would make for an awfully short article.) I got started in this search for purpose when I was stumbling through my camera roll and found an image with a pixelated drawing of what I could only assume was Sisyphus pushing a rock up an hill, with the text, “Find Delight in pushing your rock up your hill.”  I know I’ve now impressed you with my qualifications to discuss such important philosophical matters, but allow me to extend my qualifications further: I am also enrolled in a philosophy class here at Swarthmore (it’s Logic). 

Returning to the question, I propose that the point of it all is that we should learn to focus on and love the process, not the outcome. Learn to love pushing your rock, at least outside of the classroom. This might be a gross over-estimate, but I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of students are biased towards focusing on the outcome of our academic experience. Invariably, this is because a hugely important part of classes is the grade you get. Are we not Grad School-U? I hear that GPA matters with pre-med as well. I think grades are a complicated discussion and in some capacity a poor representation of learning, to put it mildly, though I also understand they are not (yet) in a position to be completely eradicated. 

There are a lot of ways to slice up how we’re motivated in classes, and it’s often multifaceted. For instance, while I do enjoy thinking about concrete beam construction and other aspects of my engineering classes, I doubt I would check my problem set for units as hard as I do if a grade was not attached to the work. At least personally, my academic self balances my intrinsic interests in the material with the extrinsic requirements of the class. This balance is one I suspect many students’ undergo (going bigger: this tension may later find itself understood in our lives as work-life balance). 

Here though, I want to question our use of extrinsic motivation. It can quickly become irrational: as much as we want to climb the hill or push the rock up, will we not find ourselves a bigger, grander rock? At what point shall we be satisfied if the only satisfaction is the moment at the top of the hill, before the rock rolls back down (to return to the absurdist metaphor in Sisyphus)?

I don’t mean (too much) disrespect or disregard for external motivation. We should, however, draw a line between our academic and personal selves. If we define our academic selves in an outcome-focused manner, it becomes especially important to re-evaluate how we define our personal selves writ-large. Do you stop and smell the roses enough? I would argue that the nature of academic life corrupts the process-driven nature of personal life. Electing to have a hobby, to sit in the sun, or to do anything else should not need to have a benefit attached. Declining or selecting personal activities based on how they fit our academic selves’ identities is a poor way to live. 

More frequently than not, I’ve witnessed personal activities being qualified simply based on their future benefits. I think too often we ask “what’s in it for me” in the same way we do within academics, in the sense that we expect a specific outcome for a given amount of work. This is where I return to the absurdist imagery of Sisyphus pushing a rock: I’m not trying to say that in the process of our personal lives, the rock will perpetually roll down the hill, but that instead of being focused on getting the rock up the hill, we should be focused on having fun pushing it. 

In recognizing absurdity in our own lives, we may learn to focus on the process, not on the top of the hill. This, again, is caveated with the idea that I think personal lives should be led by this process-based thinking, and it’s the distinction I am trying to draw from our academic lives. So I say again: find delight in pushing your rock!  (Because it’s probably not going anywhere soon.)

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