20050616

RPT: Purpose

I think I'm going to start using the designation RPT for posts that involve a lot of Random Philosophical Thought. There's been a lot of that recently, probably due to some soul searching as well as from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Anyway, a question and answer pair came to my mind as I was finishing a chapter of the aforementioned book. In my mind this took place with the question being written on a chalk board by an obviously intelligent faculty, while the answer coming from a tired, brain dead student.

Q: What is the purpose in climbing a mountain?
A: To get to the top.

I was immediately struck with a thought. That answer is not an answer that fits that question. To get to the top of a mountain is a common result of climbing, but it is hardly the purpose.

That question of purpose is not one with a specific answer. A mountain may be climbed to enjoy the act of climbing, or to enjoy the woods of the mountain, or to enjoy the views form the top or any of these. Even if one argues the purpose and result could be the same, I would argue that many instances where the purpose seems to simply be "to get to the top" are more than that. It's more likely to be "to get to the top so that" something else can happen. Something like bragging to friends, or to view the surrounding landscape. Anyone who was climbing Mt. Washington to simply reach the top without any additional reasons would be better off driving.

What occurs to me is that there is increasing confusion because of a lack of distinction between purpose and result. Result is commonly emphasized before purpose, which leads to misconceptions as to why a result is desirable. While this isn't always too confusing, such as when a store manager tells an employee, "The store should be clean." It shouldn't be too hard to figure out this is a matter of efficiency and presentation. Unfortunately, I recall that what I probably should have written in that past sentence is pretty bunk, because quite often I've noticed that because the manager doesn't explicitly state the purpose of having the store clean the employee (even myself) may have misconceptions that lead to compromises which leaves a result that isn't the one the manager wished for.

On the other hand, stating only a purpose can skew the desired result as well. If we're only given the purpose of a footrace, that is (arguably) to compete people against each other in a comparison of athletic ability, what result will we get? Without stating that the desired result is to place first, rather than to find out how you compare to other athletes, the purpose can get defeated by athletes comparing themselves in ways different from trying to cross the finish line first.

This shows an important relationship between purpose and result. Without the purpose, the result can but may not be achieved, and without the result, the purpose might be skewed as well.

In fact, many of the problems in projects for school or business might be the fact that often only the desired result or overall purpose are given. Most of the group projects I despised greatly were despicable because they focused on the desired result, an 'A', and not on the purpose. The ones that were the most enjoyable were ones wherein the question was asked, "How can we achieve the purpose of this assignment while still getting an 'A'?" I would approximate that half of all the assignments I've done simply went for the grade or result disregarding purpose, and the other half actually took care of both.

The reason why I tend to cite the focus on result as a common problem is probably because of the current educational school system's inner workings. Because of the "can" and "might" relationships between result and purpose, one can completely forget the result and think only of the purpose and still get a result worth an 'A', or simply forget the purpose and find methods of achieving a result that gets an 'A' that might circumvent the purpose entirely. What I feel often happens in the educational system is that purpose gets put on the sideline because it can take less time or be more convenient to forget purpose and simply go for result. Indeed, the way the school system is setup is so that result is measured, but not the achievement of purpose.

The sad part of it all is that when purpose and result are both achieved in the school system, understanding grows. In many cases this does not happen because the students toss away purpose for the sake of getting it done, or even professors and teachers toss it away giving near purposeless assignments for reasons unfathomable to someone like me who hasn't been a professor. All I know in such cases is that any purpose behind the assignment is not stated, and the assignment becomes "busy work".

Different things happened depending on the situation where purpose and result meet. A quality product might be made, a sense of peace from the woods on the mountain might come, etc. But when purpose or result get lost, it all falls apart.

And now, my RPT ends, because I can't think of anywhere else to go with this that wouldn't be repetitious and I need to go to bed. Hopefully, it was either enlightening, or completely confusing and beyond understanding. Why I'd wish that, I don't know.

As an entirely random addendum completely unrelated to the rest of this, there was some quote I'd thought of earlier to add to the blog's random quote text, but I've forgotten it. Kind of silly of me.

1 comment:

Phil said...

I find that, when climbing mountains, it's fun just to be in the woods and listen to birds. If there's one thing I would want by my house more then anything else, it would be a big forest with some trails, a stream, and wildlife.

It really depresses me whenever I notice all the trash on the side of the road...