Progress, or the arbitrary rationalisation of numbers

drinking about museums2
With Joanna and Eric #drinkingaboutmuseums

As with my last post I’d like to preface the below with a caveat:

I’ve been doing rather too much thinking and reading this week and as a result the following post could border on the indulgent (even more so than usual), tenuous and/or nonsensical.

With that in mind, let’s begin.

On Wednesday I attended a networking and social event, (as opposed to a social networking event, which would have been a whole other thing entirely), at the Royal Institution in Mayfair. To my shame it was my first trip to the Ri, despite only working a five-minute walk away. However, having now made this discovery I will certainly be making a repeat visit and would recommend a trip to anyone who has not been, as well as a look at their events programme.

While there I met the founder of the Brooklyn-based Morbid Anatomy Museum, Joanna Ebenstein; a serendipitous occurrence since I had actually been in touch with her previously via email when I was working on a book of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings back in 2012.

In her I discovered a kindred spirit; someone with the same niche interests in the history of medicine and religious material culture (a somewhat obscure and seemingly disparate set of interests, I know) and a passion for museums.

Amongst other things, we talked about the history of anatomical study, the intersection of science and religion – seeing in both the human inclination and need to find patterns and make meaning, rationalising behaviour and events within a cause and effect model and creating purpose for action – as well as about ideas of progress and degeneration (all light-hearted stuff for a Wednesday evening as you can imagine).

This conversation, alongside a recent reading of a blog post on the relationship between run trackers, enjoyment levels and achievement during exercise, and an ongoing personal desire to return to, and surpass, my own sporting performance, reignited my thoughts on our attitude to physical development during training, the motivations for measuring performance and how we cope with a lack of progress, with regression, and ultimately, with decline.

Can we view our inclination to ‘run numbers’ through the lens of a wider underlying tendency to rationalise outcomes and situate them within a narrative of advancement? Is there a part of us that needs these measurables, as it is through them we can view tangible indicators of progress, and through this narrative we are able to comprehend and structure our actions – getting our head into the game and retaining focus throughout training to achieve what are ultimately (for lay athlete at least) seemingly arbitrary personal goals?

Is this why a run with a tracker, offering up stats on speed, distance and time, and rating your performance against previous runs, is somehow more satisfying than running the same route ‘blind’ without any quantifiable record? And why we like to rationalise our output, explaining away peaks and troughs through causality and mapping achievement against a number of variables?

By comprehending performance within a presupposed framework of progress, we also go some way to explaining why we equate the idea of the passing of time with improved output and thus why the idea of regression or relapse is all the more disheartening and problematic. Regression, in this model, goes against the driving metanarrative and ultimate purpose of the activity, making us question the overarching impetus for action. In this view, activity for pleasure, or for its own sake isn’t sufficient (a point which I’m sure some readers may contend). Also, in this view, the assumption that having once achieved a goal we should surely be able to re-achieve it, regardless of the intervening lapse in time or lack of consistent training, makes logical sense, despite its apparent irrationality (as pitched in a previous post).

Thinking about athletic ability within a grander narrative of progress also raises the question of how we know when we’ve reached our peak and how we can cope with plateau and eventual degeneration when it occurs. Professional athletes have this concern for the course of their career, but for non-professionals, whose learning curve is more ad hoc and less scientific, how do we know when we’ve reached our saturation point? And what do we do at this stage? Can we measure progress against other performance indicators and gain the same satisfaction from advancements in one area, while in others we experience regression?

Ultimately, of course, none of these issues really matter, providing you are getting what you want out of an activity. But it is interesting to think about how much your conscious or unconscious approach and outlook on an activity can impact of your target setting and motivation to train and how this can be manipulated to your advantage (if you are so inclined).

Or at least I think so in any case!

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