The difference between process and product can be absolutely stifling.
As a teacher, I’ve constructed the philosophy that the process is much more important than the actual product itself; however, without some supposed product, therein lies absolutely no process at all. After all, process can be defined as “a series of actions [or steps] that produce something or lead to a particular result” (Merriam-Webster). That series of steps or series of actions is constantly heading towards something, whether we know what the result is or not. It actually, in a way, adds merit to the “everything happens for a reason” argument, as each step in the “process” is an integral contributor to the “product.”
Racing Toward the Finish
One time I ran a race–a 10-mile race. I didn’t prepare nearly as much as I should have. I got a bit cocky, and thought I could do it without really training. Aside from the mere mile or two I ran on the weekends, I was hardly prepared for the race, but I still got up at 5:00 AM that morning, scarfed down a Power Bar, guzzled some Gatorade, and went off to my first race. It was the Soldier Field 10-mile, the one where you start outside the stadium, and finish on the 50-yard line. Super cool, right?
While waiting in line, my unpreparedness caught up with my brain, and I started to get nervous. I couldn’t comprehend just how far my legs were about to take my body. 10 miles, I thought, as I stretched my arms out, winding them in broad circles around my shoulder, until WHACK! In a fit of self-absorbedness, I had neglected to consider that a runner was standing a foot or so behind me, and I sent my arm around the back of my body in full force–right into his face.
I was so in my head at that point–so focused on the product. How was I ever going to make it to the end?
Despite my fears and the incomprehensible notion that I would be running over a third of a marathon, I plugged in my iPod, turned on Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and I began running. I was hit with the usual runner’s adrenaline kick–the taunting and teasing feeling of elation, the sudden and immediate burst of energy when you start running. I felt great; in fact, I was passing a bunch of people in the crowd and making my way nicely. I knew, though, that I would need to slow down. I had run enough to know that this adrenaline rush was a mere facade, and that if I kept up this pace, there was no way I would get to the end.
And I imagined the end in all its glory: My arms in the air, sweat dripping down every orifice of my body, glistening in the spring sun which would burst out from behind the spotty tufts of clouds, illuminating the sky with bright and defined rays of light. Yea, so I fantasized a little bit. It happens.
But what I noticed, as I slowed my pace, is that I got into a groove. I started to enjoy just being there–just running. My legs seemed to be on autopilot, to the point where, even if I had attempted to bring their momentum to a screeching halt, that I wouldn’t be able to do so. My body had overridden my brain. My breathing was evenly paced, my music was beating loudly in my ears; I was present, happy, and enjoying the process–at that point, at least.
And then there were points when my knees began to hurt, my mouth would run dry, and in order to pull through, it would be necessary to focus on my hope, my dream of crossing the finish line in all my glory, glistening sweat and all. Until finally, at one point, I was heaving and running unevenly on my legs (I should have trained more.) within half-a-mile of Soldier Field. My overly fantasized moment of glory came back into my mind, yet again, and my body turned into the loading dock. I ran through a large concrete room and down a long passageway, until I reached the grassy turf. The wide expanse of the arena was breathtaking and the view of the jumbotron high above was humbling, to say the least. I felt small, but I continued running, panting, picking up speed, my hands sharp like daggers on my arms, and my feet like one continuous wheel spinning out of control towards the finish line.
And then I crossed the finish line.
Yes, I was sweating a ton, and yes, the sun was poking out of the clouds, and yes, I had even finished the race, but my arms weren’t in the air, and the glory that I had fantasized had ended up being just that–a fantasy. Instead, my lungs seemed clogged with 10 miles of pavement, and my brain beat against my skull so violently that I would have done almost anything at that point to silence its screaming. I bent over, hardly able to catch my breath.
And that’s kind of how a race, and how life, is. We build ourselves up to these moments of accomplishment. We always seem to be working towards these “things,” and at times, these moments of accomplishment are so gratifying; at other times, these moments are the opposite of what we imagined, and most of the time, the reality of our moments of accomplishment lie somewhere in between exactly what we imagined and what we never saw possible. But in essence, the moment you accomplish something really is just that–a moment. A moment which, proportionally, pales in comparison to the length of the process leading to the accomplishment.
Expectations are a difficult thing to navigate. We build these ideas in our head–these products–that we see ourselves achieving, then we set expectations, and hope to God that we are going to meet them. But in reality, it is extremely rare to achieve the vision you’ve set for yourself in your head. More often than not, we achieve a variation of that vision or something completely different. But this makes it confusing. How do we know when we’ve reached the product? How do we know when to enjoy the process and when to work for the product? And how do we know when a process has come to fruition or reached its maximum potential? How do we know when it’s time to end the process, celebrate or accept its product, and move on to the next?
Some people will tell you to just enjoy the process, and I couldn’t agree more. But when you’re only enjoying the process, it would seem that you aren’t really in a process at all. If you don’t know what you’re working towards, then how is it even a process, if according to the dictionary, a process is a series of actions leading toward a particular result?
Others will tell you to set goals, figure out what you want, and work to achieve it. Some might even go as far to say that you should set attainable goals along the way to know you are making it towards your final goal. And I agree with them too, but if you are only setting goals and only think about the product, then you are not enjoying the present, the process–the now.
Or maybe the best option is to say screw it and not worry about either. Maybe life is one big process and the only product is the feeling we get right before we die, which will hopefully be a feeling of satisfaction. And maybe, just maybe, all these little things we call processes and products within the smaller timelines of our every day lives are only parts of the larger process of growing and learning.
And maybe that’s what everyone says to enjoy the process and not focus on the product.
But how do we find that balance? You can’t really have a process without some sort of real or imagined product somewhere in the background of your mind, and without some sort of potential goal or endpoint, we are all nothing more than nomadic, aimless, hopeless wanderers. And we all hope; we all dream. We all want things for our future. It would seem to me that the absence of the product would only imply an absence of hope, but an absence of the process would imply an absence of contentment.
We owe it to ourselves to be both hopeful and content, to focus both on our processes as well as our products. We can show love to ourselves by knowing that there is more that lies out there for us, while still appreciating what has currently been laid before us–or what we’ve currently laid before ourselves.