For Aristotle, the proper way to approach any practice or activity is to do so with its right end in mind. Every practice has its proper aims and goals, a telos or end-point towards which it is oriented.
So the telos for doctoring is to bring about the health of patients, and to relieve suffering.
The telos for teaching is the education of students, both in their capacity to know and their capacity to act wisely upon what they know.
The telos for parenting is the development of adults who can live fully in their lives, contribute and participate in wider society.
The telos for lawyering is the pursuit of justice.
Acting skilfully in the midst of any practice requires that we discover or locate for ourselves the right telos and point our activities in that direction.
All too often we stunt our own capacity to excel by pointing our practice towards a telos which is out of place, or too small, or much too self-centred. We point our businesses towards hitting this quarter’s targets rather than making an enduring contribution; we point our parenting towards behaviour that’s convenient for us rather than our children’s development; we teach in order to get the grades rather than helping others become learners; we lead others in a way that has them follow rules and procedures rather than taking responsibility. And we do this because because we’re afraid, or trying to look good, or because we’ve forgotten why we entered into a path in the first place.
All of this is both a matter of discernment (what’s called for here?) and remembering (because we forget ourselves and what we’re aimed at so quickly and so easily).
When we know deeply the particular end towards which we are aiming, we open up the possibility of acting with wisdom and discernment in the many complex, ambiguous situations we are bound to face. And our dilemmas and difficulties become the opportunity to ask ‘how could I act in a way that points towards the right end for this practice?’ – a clarifying question that is often difficult to answer well but gives us a path, each time, through our confusion and uncertainty, and towards the sustainable excellence for which we long.
This, in the end, is the single most importance difference between being practical (just getting things done) and exercising practical wisdom (getting things done in the right way).