The Tao of Selma (or, the Problem with Productivity)

The trouble with productivity as a value is that it treats a morally ambiguous act as a moral good. What, specifically, do we want to be producing more of?

Before she died well into her 90s, I was pretty close with my paternal grandmother, Selma. She was a Polish Jew by birth, from Bialystock, and she and her mother had left on a ship when she was five years old to come to America. Like many in her generation of Jewish immigrants, she was unsentimental about the old country and generally forward-looking, with little time for self-pity or wallowing in regret. For Selma, the wife of a microbiologist and medical school professor, and herself a retired public school guidance counselor, the purpose of life was to enjoy it — through uncomplicated pleasures like inexpensive travel, hiking, reading great books, and spending time with friends. Any fussing and existential silliness beyond that and you’d get her “meh” gesture — a shrug of the shoulders, pursed lips, raised eyebrows. 

I was a little overweight back then and I remember her once telling me that it was good that I had some substance. A little meat on my bones. This was a slight dig, I think, at my parents who were always exercising and counting calories. She frowned on self-improvement in general because it asserted that life ought to be something better than what it was.

I wonder what she would have made of all the apps and devices and TED talks these days designed to make us more productive. All the pseudoneuroscientifically based programs designed to boost our this and maximize our that. Aside from the fact that she had no interest in anything technologically more complicated than a microwave, I think she would have found it all a silly waste of energy. And for the most part, I think she would have been right. 

The trouble with productivity as a value is that it treats a morally ambiguous act as a moral good. What, specifically, do we want to be producing more of? From the perspective of the owners of and investors in commercial enterprises, so long as business is going well, more productivity is always better. But productivity (like "hard work") can produce many things, some of them great (like a cure for cancer), others horrible (like atomic bombs). From a moral perspective, it is not always necessarily good to be more productive. 

Intelligent people will differ on what sorts of things are good to produce, of course. I'm not a big fan of Donald Trump's life or work. Others might argue that his massive, ugly construction projects provide jobs and increase New York City's attraction as a tourist destination, thereby bringing still more jobs and income flowing into the city. They might actually try to argue that Trump Tower is beautiful. Some might even insist that Trump's "straight talk" is refreshingly honest. I think that one Shakespeare soliloquy is worth an infinitude of Donald Trumps. Others find Hamlet's droning on a complete waste of time and even (if they should be forced to endure it) a threat to their personal happiness.

But let's say you're producing something we can all agree is great, like the aforementioned cure for cancer. That kind of creative problem-solving, experts agree, requires a lot of plodding away in the laboratory and then (sometimes after a nice, long nap) a keen flash of insight or two.

In this case, increasing your productivity could mean one of at least two things: plodding less (and thinking more) or plodding for longer hours each day. Either way, you'd presumably be approaching your goal (of curing cancer) faster than if you'd just kept on at your natural, unimproved pace. And who could argue against a quicker cure for cancer? 

Right about now, Selma would be making that face. For her (though she wouldn't have put it this way) too much engineering was a threat to serendipity. Not that she saw some intelligent design in the way things happen naturally. Selma was no mystic, and she'd have been skeptical of the comforting thought so dear to my other grandma, Bea, that "everything happens for a reason." If anything, and though I don't think she'd ever read much Eastern philosophy, she was a Taoist, a believer in the subtle balance between taking action and leaving things to run their own course. This was most manifest perhaps in her serious hobby of gardening. She grew vegetables, mostly, spending time each day clearing away weeds and bugs to create the conditions that would allow her cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini to grow fat and free amid a chaotic tangle of leaves and vines. Her kids, too, my father and my aunt, got the essential lessons that school was paramount and that automobiles could kill you, and were otherwise more or less free-range. I can't say the same for my own son, growing up in 21st century New York City under the loving but unflagging supervision of a phalanx of educators, coaches, and two very involved parents.

More productivity might be good if it meant producing good things better and more efficiently, thereby leaving yourself more time to range free, to explore, to learn new things. Among today's productivity gurus, Tim Ferriss is remarkable at least for the fact that he seems to be focused on rescuing people from the treadmill of wasted time and effort. Whether or not it is possible, as he claims it is, to make tons of money in a "four-hour work week" while spending half the year mastering the tango, Brazilian Jujitsu, and Sanskrit is another matter. 

But in the end I fear that most efficiency and productivity programs, from Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century to Tim in the present day, tend ultimately toward turning all of life into a relentless lab experiment in which no space is free from scrutiny and nothing is ever allowed to happen by chance. An obsession with productivity also generally seems to lead not to tango lessons in your newly spare time, but to more work. I suspect a slave mentality at work here, the transformation of the wage slavery most of us live under into a matter of principle. After all, if we choose to work like dogs and treat it as a form of self-improvement, isn't that a sort of freedom?

According to the Tao of Selma, too little and too much human intervention lead to a world out of balance, one with no room for "play" in the sense of wiggle room. No possibility of surprise. One so circumscribed as to squeeze most of the joy out of living. Aside from the occasional shrug of disapproval, she didn't go on and on about it the way I've been doing here. She just lived the way she wanted to — what I'd call the good life, one not easily packaged into a sexy system of actionable advice for personal and professional success, but more likely than most of them, I'd be willing to bet, to lead as close as any of us can get to lasting happiness.


talk to @jgots on Twitter

By the way: Physicist Brian Greene is this week's guest on Think Again - A Big Think Podcast, LIVE on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher! Jason Gots hosts. 

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