Humans get systematised for most of their childhoods and adult lives in Western societies. What results are anemic goals and a rigid relationship to time.
I was at a family gathering a while ago and we were discussing my aunt’s imminent retirement. She has had a very successful career in education, starting as a maths teacher and then becoming a Vice-Principal, and for the last few years the Catholic-raised principal of a Jewish school. She’s my godmother, and one of the women I look to as inspiration for the kind of person i want to be and character I want to have as I get older. She is the epitome of a powerful woman, commanding the respect and adoration of students and teachers alike (we had a Jewish school choir come and sing at my Grandma’s funeral inside a Catholic church, which seems to be a beautiful testament to my aunt’s influence and respect within the Jewish community).
We were talking about her plans once she leaves the school, and I asked what she was planning on doing next. Not itineraries or schedules or anything like that, but more – what was going to take up space in her life? What would give it meaning?
She described her plans to go hiking in Nepal, travel in India and South-East Asia, and caravan across Australia. She and her husband have always loved hiking, so that wasn’t a surprise.
I asked what she’d do once she got tired of having a holiday. She’s an ambitious woman with a lot of energy and I couldn’t imagine her simply relaxing for the rest of her life.
‘I don’t know yet. First I need to find out what life is like outside of school. I’ve been in a school for almost sixty years. Even when you’re the principal, you still have people telling you what to do constantly – you can’t just do what you want.’
The discussion continued around the theme of discovering what she was passionate about, but I was somewhat stunned. As a child and teenager I had felt trapped by the restrictions placed on me by school, and even though I voluntarily completed two university degrees I didn’t realise the extent to which my mind and motivations had been shaped by the overarching goals, structures and culture of school until I had been outside an institution for about two years. And here was my wildly successful aunt on the brink of retirement saying she had never known what freedom from those structures was like?
This profoundly shaped what I learned to see as the inverse relationship between certain kinds of societal success and personal freedom. And this conversation with my aunt, along with conversations with friends working in tech companies and as solo entrepreneurs, made me realise that the ‘institutional mindset’ cultivated in us by school lingers, for most of us, long after we graduate.
For years (mostly during university) I would sit down every three months for a personal quarterly planning session. Many guidelines for goal setting emphasise setting goals for different areas of your life (max 7-10) in balance with each other. I would review how I went at achieving the goals I had set the previous quarter (inevitably with only a 30% success rate), and then come up with seven or so new ones that felt balanced enough to encompass every major aspect of my life. I dutifully set SMART goals, emphasising the actionability of the goals or their individual steps. I set a bunch of ambitious goals, and invariably the ones I’d actually succeed at were the ones I was excited about or had social encouragement for. I had no trouble training three times a week, but the goal ‘plan a workshop tour to teach bodypainting’ sat incomplete on my master goals list for years because I wasn’t enthused by either planning workshops or the continual reaching out and networking and logistics that arranging the tour and selling the tickets would involve.
Over the years, it became apparent that whether or not I achieved a goal had little to do with how precisely I defined it and everything to do with how I felt about it. If I didn’t feel excited, capable and socially rewarded by the goal it would never get done.
I’ve come to see laziness as a virtue in some aspects of modern life; it is a relentless distaste for pointless busywork and repeating the efforts of others combined with a desire to make things efficient (so you don’t have to exert effort on them again). School attempts to beat this out of us, whether overtly or covertly – we are praised for trying our best regardless of whether that is necessary in the situation, we are assigned homework to complete regardless of whether we need it. You must always have goals, and they must be reasonable and legible to others.
No wonder people (teenagers, but increasingly adults too) rebel and lapse into internet addictions, TV and video games, and then ricochet back into a self-loathing ‘discipline’ that attempts to squash these ‘lazy’ impulses in the same authoritarian way schools do. For a somewhat heartbreaking peek into how this turns into self-flagellating rumination, scroll through r/GetDisciplined. You’ll find hundreds of stories of young people who hate that they can’t seem to wake on time, do their homework, be a drone. They long to be well-trained animals.
For a while I stopped doing all this. My goal setting process stopped working, and I wanted to be someone else, so I just let it fall apart and waited until something else emerged. The story of how I learned to trust myself in the process is another one, but suffice to say I started to realise that all of those ‘lazy’ impulses were actually very real and wise feedback reactions that communicated important information about what to do to be healthier and more alive. Did you know you can just take a nap instead of working, and not limit yourself to some precise allocation of leisure time to do so, and often that is the most efficient way to get yourself back on track with your work? Intellectually, most people know this, but for some it is a big step to then turn that into personal and social cultures that respect ‘I’m taking a nap’ as a valid option during a workday and don’t turn it into points mentally docked in the game of ‘who can work the hardest’.
After a while, I had unschooled or de-institutionalised myself to the point where I could understand myself as a normal animal might, I was physically thriving and my life was much less stressful. But my soul was not yet thriving. How could I do bigger things, or contribute meaningfully to the world, by just acting on my impulses? I needed goal setting back, but it still felt dull and useless and arbitrary any time I tried to awaken it. I couldn’t find a way to set goals that felt intrinsically meaningful – it felt like because I could pick and choose between belief systems, I could pick anything as a goal, and achieve it – great! But because of that it felt like achieving them would feel hollow and pointless, because I could have picked any of hundreds of different goals and been about as satisfied. When you don’t try to orchestrate your belief system from the top down, you don’t have any useful starting points from which to derive your actionable goals.
Goals were broken for me. Ugh.
Steven Covey recommends a role-based approach to setting goals and managing time. That is, he might see himself as a husband, father, son, community member, writer and team leader, and then consider how his responsibilities within each role might best be fulfilled. I always found this concept overwhelming and pretty restricting, particularly if I considered all the roles that society would recognise for me. And boring – who wants to set SMART goals for being a spouse or a daughter? How does that make your relationship better?
The approach that finally clicked for me was explained by Steve Pavlina in ‘Do Your Goals Conflict with Your Personality?’. In a nutshell:
‘Instead of thinking of goals as specific accomplishments I want to rack up in each part of my life, I began thinking of goals as a means of self-expression.’ – Steve Pavlina
In the article he describes a process of thinking about the different aspects of his personality and identity and clarifying them into a collection of identities or archetypes. He starts with six, and later refactors them into a smaller list. Often they ‘want’ contradictory things; the Master and the Member have different needs for social control which can cause conflict when he’s entering into social situations. This has a similar feeling to Internal Family Systems – a therapeutic framework that some friends of mine find very valuable in helping to resolve internal conflict.
I tried this, and was surprised to almost immediately come up with a list of four that felt like they collectively neatly encapsulated all aspects of my personality.
The Queen (feminine) – She is a powerful figure who rules with a combination of wisdom and compassion. A wartime Queen, the archetype I usually have in mind when I think of her is the goddess Athena, who is the more rational of the two Greek gods of war, known for her strategy and patience. This part feels a deep capacity and responsibility to take care of the world, and to expand her ability to do so. She wants to draw upon an infinite amount of energy, clarity, patience and courage to lead and collaborate on ambitious projects that help the world thrive, and build relationships with trustworthy, expansive people in order to do so.
The Engineer (masculine) – He is less visionary than the Queen; he sees beauty in efficiency, optimisation and problem solving.He’s lazy, and likes to solve a problem only once. He loves understanding complex systems, and is constantly making newer and more accurate mental models of phenomena. Risks getting ‘nerd-sniped’ into optimising unimportant things, but always picks problems to solve because they have humans in them. This part aligns well with working in tech companies, doing work in timed pomodoro sessions, and designing habit rituals.
The Poet (feminine) – This part hates schedules; she loves to wake up at midnight with a brilliant idea that just -needs- to be written down. She has her own rhythms and moods; she will do nothing for three days and then be incredibly productive in an hour and a half in a burst of creative brilliance. She is not a poet in the sense of writing poetry, but in the sense of seeing everything in life in terms of its poetic aesthetics. She loves beauty, even in negative emotions; she is sensitive, unashamed, and loves immersive tactile experiences – she is a subtle vessel for the expression of the human condition. She loves improvisation, dancing with people and deeply exploring a person, or an idea, or an aesthetic. She hates schools the most of all of the parts.
The River (neutral) – This is the part that recognises that it is only one part of a vast universe – a singular wave in the ocean of existence. It recognises that it is not different from others or the world around it, and is alive and responsive to energy flows, like an open bottle filled with water bobbing down a river. It is constantly becoming a more sensitive instrument for expressing the energy of consciousness. This part comes alive with joy, submission, play and meditative inquiry. It may be human-shaped, but thinks identifying as a human is silly.
Now, it may become evident as I’m describing this that as a regular 20-something living and working in a modern city I may not actually be any of these things. I am not literally in charge of a country, nor employed as a poet or engineer, nor on meditation retreat all the time. These are visionary or aspirational archetypes, that may be obscured or weakened by dulling experiences like stress, fatigue, fear and attachment. Each is the project of a lifetime, and fully embodying even one as it seems inside my head would be a tremendous achievement. The aim is simple (but not easy) – to curate a life that allows each of these parts to flourish, if they will.
It may be worthwhile to do this exercise for yourself, and explore different possible identities until you find a collection of them that seem to define your best self. The characters can be as specific or as broad (like mine) as you feel is necessary.
An interesting way to find or predict internal conflicts is to find the ways your archetypes might naturally conflict. They say that successful married couples argue about the same things for years; they just manage to prevent the arguments from irredeemably hurting the relationship. Same deal, hopefully, for identity conflicts. If the archetypes stay stable, you might expect that the conflicts will be the same over the years. The trick is to make each part feel fulfilled and heard regardless.
Conflicts I came up with:
Queen vs River – Queen wants to adhere to plans, River wants to react spontaneously in the moment.
Queen vs Engineer – Queen wants to allow people to solve problems; Engineer wants to get in the weeds and solve problems himself
Poet vs River – Poet wants to be admired by humans; River want to abolish ego
Poet vs Engineer – Poet wants to dwell in melancholy and moods; Engineer wants to analyse and prevent them
Queen vs Poet – Queen wants to scale dominance hierarchies; Poet wants to reject and run circles around them
Engineer vs River – Engineer wants to build lots of mental models; River wants to get rid of mental models
But also, these multitudes allow for beautiful collaborations. What expressions might be possible in combinations that aren’t possible alone?
Queen + Poet – a beautiful, expressive leader inspires love, devotion, and creative expression in the people around her. And making aesthetic-led choices from a position of power manifests beauty more strongly than just from a lone artist.
Queen + River – wisdom comes from listening, and being patient, qualities developed in the River, which is also a source of flowing energy. And the compassionate power of the Queen is an outlet for the flow of energy through the River.
Queen + Engineer – How will you make changes in a technical world? By analysing the problems and fixing them. And the Queen’s perspective helps the Engineer to focus on what problems are important.
Poet + River – Dwelling in the River helps vulnerability and openness arise, and unblocked energy that can be transformed into artistic creation. And artistic expression is a vehicle for exploring the universe – a way of dancing with it.
Poet + Engineer – Engineered systems serve as a powerful vehicle for creative expression. The Engineer is also driven to break down and analyse the skills needed to build beautiful things.
Engineer + River – The River develops the spaciousness required to really see complex systems, and respect the nebulosity of experience. The Engineer creates the space in everyday life to be able to practice being fluid.
So, enough of this narrative imagination stuff. How does it help me like goal setting and time management again?
The goal setting part should, hopefully, now be obvious. If all your goals come from one perspective, the other parts of your personality will eventually get sick of it and lash out in an ice cream-fuelled Netflix binge. Thinking of aspects of my identity as detailed agents like this also makes me more respectful of the inputs required for each of them to come alive – would you expect an engineer to do their best work in an intellectual vacuum, or a queen to be wise and compassionate without constant interaction with her populace? It has given me a more realistic model of what is required to sustain motivation within each identity, and has narrowed down the possible options for goals considerably. No longer do I have an arbitrarily long list of brainstormed goals to select from; now the highest priorities for each aspect seem almost instantly obvious, and if I make a mistake in my decision-making I can feel how ‘off’ it is immediately.
But time management?
Back to the influence of school again. School schedules have a staccato rhythm to them; when you are younger the days are broken up into one hour or shorter segments – commute, practice, class, lunch, class, break, class, commute, sport, homework, dinner. The days within the week are similar, and the weeks are almost identical. When you get into university additional rhythms emerge – the semester, break, semester, break rhythm over the course of year; the soft ripples building up to resounding roars of assignments and due dates over the course of a semester or term. These rhythms might be great for coordinating large groups of humans in the education system, but they sure aren’t optimised for each human inside it.
One of the benefits of de-institutionalising yourself is learning to find the rhythms you best fit into; that make you come alive. Sometimes they are purely clock-bound, measured in chronos time, like the fact that my body works best when it is asleep around 11pm and awake by 8am (unless I’m recovering from something). But school doesn’t teach you much about kairos time rhythms – like that if the inspirations strikes to write I’d better drop everything else and write it, or that trying to sandwich a deep conversation with a friend between two hard time commitments is a recipe for failure.
One of the kairos-like rhythms I’ve noticed, and I’m excited by, is the idea of facilitating moods over longer periods of time. At the moment it’s in the timeframe of days. The idea is that each of these personality aspects functions best when allowed to feast on activities and experiences of its preferred kind, and to control time the way it wants. This is why it’s hard to leave a party to go study, but why you can get life admin, study and room cleaning done back to back. This sounds like the fairly basic concept of ‘batching’ but it’s got a slightly different flavour. With batching, you start with a list of tasks, and then you sort like with like until you have two hours of phone calls to make and two hours of emails to process. This other directing-the-current process would feel more like ‘Today I will allow myself to feel very connected with people, and move away from things that require mechanical execution or high strategy’. You allow yourself to flow into this style of being fully for the period allotted, and turn away from experiences that don’t fit that vibe.
You are setting up planned on-ramps to get ‘in the zone’, except you are aiming towards several zones.
With this process, I might create my weekly plan around spending two-ish days in a given mode. This means being ruthless about reshuffling commitments and canceling plans and being open to scheduling using different methods depending on the preferences of the given mode. Engineer days might have classes scheduled and time booked out for 25-minute pomodoro work sessions. Poet days might have nothing planned except some notes that a particular book is exciting me right now and that my friend invited me to go out dancing. Sometimes the intention you have for a given mood/mode won’t fit the options you have available in the real world and you’ll have to compromise. But if you’re creative and have a lot of options already then you should be able to make something work.
I’m going to make a caveat about spaciousness here. If you don’t feel like you have enough mental space to drop concerns that don’t fit with a particular mode then this concept may not be for you right now. There are perfectly valid and effective ways of being where your focus is more concretely on some practical problem, like making enough money or raising children (several times I’ve given advice but caveated that it didn’t apply to parents; I’m beginning to think that all personal growth advice should include specific strategies for growth-while-parenting, because it definitely seems to be hard mode). In this case, more straightforward life planning strategies like the ones in the 4-Hour-Work-Week or Mr. Money Mustache would apply. Some people definitely don’t have as much time freedom as I do and I’m not sure how well this strategy would work in those cases.
But if this is something you have the space for, it might be worthwhile to try it! This means for someone like me, some days of the week are dedicated to optimising, designing systems, implementing and maintaining systems. Some days are dedicated to being in nature, meditation and spiritual growth. Some days are dedicated to love and art. But the important thing is not batching the activities. It’s that the activities, collected together, are a manifestation of values, personalities and modes of being that matter to you, and that each day or period allows you to sink as fully as is possible for you at that time into that mode.
Your collection of weekly mood modes might look different from mine, and that’s great! I suspect that people would tend to sync up in certain expressions for social reasons (focused work at the beginning of the week, spiritual connection and play at the end) and it’s probably helpful to lean into that for some environmental reinforcement. Your calendar might look vastly different on ‘Maker’ days as opposed to ‘Manager’ days, for one thing. Maybe this works for you on different timescales, like months or years. What is important is not the particular logistics – it’s that each version of you gets the time and space to express itself fully, in whatever timescale it needs.
3 thoughts on “The Queen, the Engineer, the Poet and the River: A meaningful life on de-institutionalised time”
“The aim is simple (but not easy) – to curate a life that allows each of these parts to flourish, if they will.” Of course, what else is the alternative? A chopped, stunted, Tantalousian life? As a decade old retired-but-busier civil engineer I enjoyed the beauty in math as much as the Calgary river softly rumbling under the large ice slabs that would form in Canadian winters especially at dusk.
You are right in that we often spend a whole life over-focused on smaller, short-term goals WITHOUT reflecting on what makes life worth-lived, a test that in your older feeble days you could say: It was a ride! Or as Nietzsche has asked: If a devil tells you you are to live another life as you HAD, will you accept the offer.
We all need material basic needs met; after that it’s up to us what else and how much we pursue it. THAT makes the larger humanity interesting because it is made up of individual INTERESTING people. I pine for those people each day — and in the silence of nights.