On the Hidden Slapping Power of Useful Things and Your Business

The way we perceive things and people in our environment largely, if not entirely, depends on how we view our life, ourselves, and our purpose in this life of ours. And at night, it's darker than during the daytime, yes, a Captain Obvious moment. But let's think about it, what does it actually mean?
6 min read

So, we exist. We go about our days, we have goals, we have projects, we have opinions; we carefully construct our system of beliefs and values. We choose one thing and reject another. We feel, sometimes more than we want to. We are constantly doing something or thinking about doing something or trying not to do anything, which is also doing something. And every day we come into contact with other people, things, and creatures. This is where it gets interesting.

Because we don't exist in a vacuum, we always find ourselves thrown into some kind of environment. What do we do with this environment? Sometimes we mould our existence to fit our environment. In most cases, though, we perceive our environment and all that it consists of the way it fits our existence: our goals, our projects, our views. We could go as far as to say that everything we encounter around us, we perceive as instrumental: something to help us achieve our goals, to do our tasks, to feel a certain way, to do something for something.

For example, your office will manifest itself to you as the place to run your business. This place is filled with tools to get specific tasks done and employees to perform those tasks in a way that is subordinate to you running the business. Everything there has its "assignment": it exists as something for something. The keyboard is for typing; Outlook is for sending emails; the designer is for making things pop.

As Heidegger points out, the more engaged we are in our everyday activity (e.g., you running your business), the less aware of these 'things' we use to perform our tasks and achieve our goals we become. How often do we take notice of the mouse and the keyboard that we hammer away on, or our colleagues engrossed in their daily tasks or memes on 9GAG? We usually do not. 

If we paused to think about every single thing we do or every single person we interact with, we'd never get anything done. We'd have a very rich and eventful internal life, though. So, we prioritise, right? But even then, most of our activities happen on autopilot. That is not to say that we are acting mindlessly. What happens is, that we distance ourselves from what we are doing, how we are doing it and why—it becomes almost impersonal. 

Just think about it. In the last half an hour, what were you up to? How many times have you actually thought about what you were doing, how you were doing it and why? How many times did you become aware of the things and people that surrounded you? 

I have been sitting here, writing this text. The only times I became aware of the things around me and their relation to me and to what I was doing was when things went wrong—when something that usually worked, stopped working (hello, Magic Mouse!). 

When we view everything around us (and we can even go as far as to say in us as well) as instrumental means to achieve specific ends, we do not give much notice or thought to these 'things' unless something goes wrong. Then we are forced to become aware of them. 

Why does that happen? Might be because, as Heidegger argues, these things manifest themselves as a totality: they get their meaning and use from the totality of other useful things they belong to. Like us, they do not exist in a vacuum. Nor do these useful things miraculously emerge out of nothingness and then slip back into it once we stop being aware of them. They are bound together by their "assignment", their purpose, their reference to other things—to that something for what they are.1

So, every useful thing refers to other useful things, connected to our activities and our attitude towards these activities, our goals and purposes—all together they make up a system of relations. A useful thing is something for something in order for us to do something. So, we create these systems of relations and order these useful things in a way that they help us achieve X, Y, and Z. 

For example, take your website, or let us be more specific, your website content. It is only inasmuch useful to you to achieve goal X, as long as it is in sync with and belongs to the totality of your business. Without your business strategy, products and services (offering), employees, branding and marketing efforts, infrastructure, etc., it would be rendered pretty much useless. Like a Magic Mouse 2 without Bluetooth. If in place of the relevant content, we will swap it for Lorem Ipsum and cat memes, we will break this system of relations in the totality of your business.

Now, let's rewind a bit. As we've already said, your office (shop, bedroom, etc.) is filled with a collection of tools to get specific tasks done, and employees to perform those tasks (hopefully, not in your bedroom, though) in a way that is subordinate to you running the business. But your "running your business" is in its turn subordinate to the reason why you're doing it. It's an activity aimed at something. It's one of your life projects, so the question is, what is it leading towards? In the ideal world, everything you do, every business decision you make should link to that towards-which, it should eco it and help you get there, wherever and whatever that is.

So, if we think about it like this, the relations of 'things' in the totality of your business are not referring to the act of doing business but to the purpose, the towards-which you are doing it. Then if we swapped the content of your website for irrelevant, random stuff, we will break the link between this 'useful thing' and the towards-which of your business. It will confuse others—they wouldn't know what to think of it. It will make you angry, and you'll want it fixed yesterday. But again, why so much fuss?

  1. Because something that worked stopped working and slapped you in the face: Here I am, I matter. Its importance in the context of your towards-which became painfully apparent and visible. Or maybe the disconnection from it. You are not disconnected from what you're doing anymore—you stop doing things on autopilot, it becomes personal, real. And this moment gives you a chance to take a look at your business, your life and your towards-which. Do they align? Do they make sense? 
  2. Because you and the totality of your business is a useful thing in someone else's system of relations—an instrumental thing to help them towards-something. And so, if the link is broken in your system, it will ripple through all the other systems of relations. 

Seems rather obvious, right? Yet, how often do we think about it in our day-to-day life? How often do we take an inventory of all the things our business consists of, all the little things we are not even aware of, the people we take for granted and tally it against the towards-which we are doing it? And then take action based on that and not on autopilot?

What if when things go awfully wrong and stop working when these links in our crafted systems of relations are broken, it's not a bad thing; it's not an obstacle. It's a slap in our face, so that we pause and, first, let all that storm of emotions have our way with us, and, then, think about it; look at all what we have done so far and ask ourselves, What am I running towards and why?


1 If you're interested to read Heidegger's thoughts on this first-hand, you'd want to grab this book: Heidegger, Martin and Joan Stambaugh. Being and Time. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996, p. 64/69.

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