Have yourself an atelic little Christmas

14th December, 2023

A strange thing happened to me one Christmas Day afternoon. I was a young adolescent, certainly not too old to enjoy sweets and gifts and the inevitable Bond movie on the telly. Yet after the presents had been unwrapped, and the turkey and pudding consumed, I found myself feeling deflated. I took to my bedroom and lay down in the December dark. When my father found me, I tearfully complained: Christmas was already over, but it wasn’t even four o’clock.

It was all a little juvenile, but then, so was I. Yet perhaps my bout of sadness reflected something more universal. Did not Alexander weep because there were no more worlds to conquer? (Possibly not.) We busy humans are always looking ahead to the moment our goals are achieved. And then what? The feeling of emptiness often stalks the feeling of accomplishment like a shadow.

What distinguishes the teenage me from the adult me — and from many other adults — is that the adult me has far more projects, with far more goals to achieve. When I tick something off the list, I don’t flop in my bedroom; I’m too busy for that. The to-do list is long. I’m not sure the adult me is really wiser than the teenager, though. There is nothing wrong with having goals but — with apologies for the cliché — life must be about the journey as well as the destination.

Oliver Burkeman, in his splendid book Four Thousand Weeks, reflects on the distinction between “telic” and “atelic” projects. (The terms originate, of course, with a philosopher, Kieran Setiya.) Telic projects have a goal, an end state; atelic projects do not. The telic runner works towards the achievement of completing an iconic marathon; the atelic runner enjoys the experience of running and the immediate consequence of feeling fit from day to day. The telic reader hopes to sharpen their skills, impress people with their insight at dinner parties, or pick up some followers on GoodReads. The atelic reader likes books.

As Burkeman ruefully observes, instead of “atelic activity” we could say “hobby”, but that word has “come to signify something slightly pathetic.” Our culture tells us that hobbies are for losers.

A project can be partly telic and partly atelic — both a means to an end and an end in itself. But in that ambiguity lies a trap, because the goal has a tendency to obscure the activity itself. For example, loyal readers may know that I love role-playing games. (The most famous example is Dungeons & Dragons.) They are utterly atelic: a joy to prepare for, a joy to experience with a group of old friends, a joy to remember. They are never complete; you never win or lose.

But recently I found myself starting to plan a game, and before long I was dreaming of relaunching an old gaming fanzine, maybe fundraising on Patreon. A hobby wasn’t enough; somehow it had to become a publication, even a side-hustle. Madness! So if I sound harsh about telic projects, the harshness is directed at myself: too little of my time is spent doing things for their own sake.

Christmas offers an opportunity to observe the struggle between the telic and the atelic. When we haul out the Christmas-card list and churn through it, we are in the world of the telic. When we spend time and thought writing to old friends (or phoning them, or even being so bold as to visit them), we are in the realm of the atelic. One completes a Christmas card list; one does not complete a friendship.

Or consider the venerable tradition of gift-giving. Last year I noted the work of the behavioural scientists Jeff Galak, Elanor Williams and Julian Givi. They argued that we often choose gifts with the moment of unwrapping in mind, even though this is just the beginning of the story as far as the recipient is concerned. As a result we are too focused on surprises, on “humorous” gifts (although even the best punchline soon passes) and on stuff that can be wrapped rather than experiences, which cannot. Another way to see this is that, again, we are obsessed with the moment at which a goal is achieved (present delivered!) even though many of the best gifts endure in someone’s life. If we thought more about the ongoing role a gift might play for the recipient, and less about achieving our own short-term objectives, we’d do a better job of choosing good presents.

Even Santa Claus makes a list and checks it twice, and I cannot imagine preparing for Christmas without a thick wad of checklists. But I’ve come to realise, over the years, that my rather elaborate Christmas preparations no longer have a particular goal; Christmas has become a seasonal hobby of mine. The list is long: decant treats from kitchen cupboards into an old picnic hamper; curate a Christmas playlist; write letters to old friends. Some of it happens, some of it doesn’t, most of it is great fun — and somehow or other, Christmas comes just the same. It is a state of mind I would do well to cultivate all year round.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 December 2022.

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