If we are facing the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking
Martin Scorsese’s 2006 The Departed is one of the few movies I can quote word for word. Of course, my appreciation of the movie is unrelated to the fact that Matt Damon and Leonardo Dicaprio are lead actors (lie). My favorite scene from The Departed is actually in the ‘director’s deleted scenes’. It is a longer version of a scene that was kept in the movie. In the extended (deleted) scene, Captain George Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) questions Staff Sgt. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) about progress in trying to arrest Francis Costello (Jack Nicholson).
[please read with your best Boston accent]
Staff Sgt Colin – So I’m not making enough progress with Costello?
Capt Ellerby – Progress is hardly defined. I make progress every day. In fact, I am making progress right now. There are guys in this department who make excellent progress for 20 years without ever getting anything you can definitely call “a result”. Who gives a mother’s fuck. It’s like any other American industry. Nobody minds if you don’t succeed so long as you don’t fuck up. Objectives get lost sight off. Fair enough.
I love this speech because it reflects an attitude towards life and work that is prominent in graduate school. As graduate students, we are on a long journey with an ultimate goal: the doctorate. From time to time, I stop and ask myself: what am I doing? How did I get it here? Where the hell am I going next? The scariest question of them all: who cares?
I then look up and realize I’m standing in line at Starbucks. I order my personal non-fat grande latte and move on.
I believe Captain Ellerby’s statement about progress can be applied to any endeavor research, writing, clinical work, or another one of my passions: yoga. I will focus on clinical work, but these ideas can easily be applied to writing or yoga. Simply substitute ‘therapy’ for ‘research’ or ‘posture’ and substitute ‘clinician’ for ‘writer’ or ‘yogi’. The argument is the same.
Therapy [Writing/ Yoga] begins by identifying a goal: a destination. In therapy, goals might relate to change in thought patterns, behaviours, or interpersonal relationships. In writing, the goal may be to finish a psychological report or a research paper. In yoga, the goal may be to hold a posture with comfort and confidence.
Subsequent sessions are steps toward the goal or the destination. Every session is progress, movement towards the destination. However, as a clinician [writer, yogi] I may never see the result. The client can terminate therapy or I might have to leave and refer the client on. I might only see a fraction of the progress. Does that make my work less valuable – is progress enough, or is result necessary? Does the destination really matter?
Captain Ellerby seems to think that progress is enough: “There are guys in this department who make excellent progress for 20 years without ever getting anything you can definitely call “a result. Who gives a mother’s fuck.”
In some cases, progress is the result: change, as long as it is in the right direction, is result. For instance, I once had a chronically depressed client who hadn’t opened his mail in over a year. One of his treatment goals was to open his mail. By the end of five sessions, he had organized his mail, but not opened it. Was my work with him meaningless?
I don’t think so.
Movement, as long as it occurs is positive.
As a clinical psychologist in training [writer, yogi], I have to remember that every step towards the destination is valuable and should be highlighted. In therapy, highlighting progress is important for the client, so he or she remains engaged. It is also important for me as the clinician because observing and valuing progress keeps me engaged and gives me a sense of purpose. The steps and the incremental progress become a goal.
Captain Ellerby’s statements also bring to light a potential pitfall of focusing on progress. His statements “Progress is hardly defined” and “Objectives get lost sight off” remind us that we should keep track of progress and not lose sight of an objective.
Again, this is true in research, writing, clinical work, and yoga. Highlighting progress presumes that it is measured and evaluated. Throughout therapy, I revisit the goals with the client, re-evaluate the process, and adjust expectations. By doing so, the goal, or the destination may change.
In writing, every draft of a document is progress. The end result can be different from the original idea.
In yoga, every mindful breath is progress. The experience of that breath can be surprising.
In order to survive this long journey, I remind myself of the importance of valuing every step along the journey. I accept that clients move at different paces. I accept that even after I work on a report for 8 hours, it may not be finished. I accept that paperwork, bureaucracy, revisions, and editing, are part of the writing process. I accept that the headstand is a challenging posture for me.
I am slowly accepting the fact that I may not reach the destination I chose 5 years ago. This doesn’t mean that I won’t finish my PhD. It means that I may end up somewhere I didn’t expect to be.
In the words of Captain Ellerby – who gives mother’s fuck?
What does progress mean to you?
Is progress insignificant without a result?