The Productivity Paradox
How to consciously choose success in life, love, friendship and work
Here in Phoenix almost every major road is laid out to form a grid. Have you ever noticed that traffic-lights, in grid-systems especially, can be predictably timed so that you hit them at just the right time to never have to stop? Have you, by contrast, ever watched the driver next to you — usually a little guy in a souped-up sports coupe with blackout windows — peel across a four-way intersection on yellow, only to come screeching to a graceless halt at the next red?
Well, that guy is just a conspicuous example of a problem almost all of us have in America today. It’s the most debilitating factor in a society of instant gratification. Namely:
More hurry, less speed.
We scarf down the present moment like fast-food. Chances are, in some way or another, we’ve all treated life like the guy who stops at the McDonald’s drive-thru window every day and eats his Big Mac on the road to work and/or on the way back home. It could be a wax replica of a burger and he wouldn’t know, probably wouldn’t even care, because he doesn’t even look at it before throwing it down his gullet. He’s almost certainly driving while he eats it, without chewing and — yes — he’s racing through each traffic light to spend longer idling at the next one. This guy thinks he’s making the most of every moment, and yet he’ll waste every day as the living dead until he’s actually dead.
We bring the same approach to work, sex and even the pursuit of happiness. This is a central social problem of our time — but it’s also an obstacle to personal success.
Efficiency Versus Effectiveness
False economy kills enterprise and prevents success. Regardless of whether we call it ‘the rat-race’, the hamster-wheel, or mindlessly keeping up with the Joneses, it’s the cultural trap of doing more of the same and more of what the person next to us is doing — and they’re doing the same. Competitive conformity has been killing American enterprise for decades and has succeeded in making the college system into a four-year nursery of narcissism. They make a desolation and call it progress — or innovation.
In the workplace, this is the fast approach to promotion. We often call it ‘efficiency’, but it’s false economy under a more flattering name. False economy arises from acting on misguided assumptions. The workplace assumption of ‘efficiency’ and ‘more, more, more’ is what’s got us locked in a conflict between what we think we have to do to achieve results, on the one hand, and what we can do that actually produces the desired results, on the other. Mike Rowe of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs distinguishes between these different practices as “efficiency versus effectiveness”.
Ejecting from the present moment leads to ‘efficiency’ so-called, while remaining present leads to genuine effectiveness.
Our disastrous attitude to what we know and learn is reflected in our concomitant approaches to attention, education and learning. Much like our attention-span, our learning and self-improvement curves have been attenuated to almost nothing (and, needless to say, the education system is like a failed state). Similarly, the implementation of cost-benefit analyses have become so narrow and blinkered as to be practically resistant to the intervention of common sense.
All of this applies, mutatis mutandis, to how we approach our social lives, sex, love and human interaction in general — and even how we approach ourselves.
So, it’s of the utmost importance that we get the message:
Doing anything is not the same as doing something.
A Lecture from Peter Thiel: Going from One to Zero
The 2014 book Zero to One is a testament to a hard truth. Written by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters together, developed from Masters’ notes on a lecture series given by Thiel, it’s uncompromising — and necessarily so. The authors go to considerable lengths to argue that startups today are failing. They could succeed, but they won’t — because they’re doing the most important things wrong; striving to be merely ‘adaptive’ and reactive instead of proactive and creative; pursuing the derivative and iterative instead of the original and visionary.
The book is absolutely crammed with contrarian observations and solid but dangerous advice. Those who know how to read Thiel’s and Masters’ arguments properly and are motivated to put them into practice — two big if’s, not to be taken for granted—will be able to make notable improvements.
In any case, though, the main lesson stands out from the rest. It’s the one reflected in the title of the book: going from zero to one or nothing to something. In other words, genuine achievement rather than the Xerox approach to success. Thiel calls the former “vertical progress” — which is actually creative — in contrast to merely “horizontal progress”, which is purely derivative or “adaptive” and aims only to replicate what someone else is doing, over and over. It involves no originality, nor any growth-process.
This problem has a place in the longer duration of our history. The etymology of production and productivity—the Latin infinitive producere — has a far richer meaning than its descendants. It’s not simply to make or fabricate, as we think of producing today, but to bring something forth, to grow and nurture something into being.
In this way, the merely productive can be resolved with the constructive and, finally, the genuinely creative.
So, how do we produce something in this way? How do we go from “zero to one”?
The answer is that achieving the desired output depends on how you approach input and process. Successful people seem to intuit that quality must take precedence over quantity to yield the desired outcomes. Indeed, the paradox of effective behaviours is that quality-over-quantity yields not merely better results —it often produces more. A larger output doesn’t always require a larger input, but always the right input.
A Memo from Elon Musk: Excessive Meetings Kill Productivity
A n example: last spring, Elon Musk sent out an internal email to Tesla employees, re: manufacturing goals. His recommendations included insights which seemed counterintuitive (to corporate-managerial types, at least), but which were nevertheless solid advice. Among these were a set of three points about taking meetings.
This yielded three points about meetings:
- First, to the extent that it’s possible, get rid of ‘big’ meetings, which involve a lot of people and therefore take a greater number of people away from their work. They’ll only have larger meetings if they’re “certain they are providing value to the whole audience,” but even so “keep them very short.”
- Second, “get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.”
- Third, leave “a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
In summation, meetings which are “excessive” in either duration, frequency or attendance are counter-productive. They’re “the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time.” People who are busy taking meetings aren’t achieving things and become less effective.
Musk’s strategy is a specific application of a general insight. The negative version of the insight: getting together to state the obvious, talk about what you’re doing, agree in some backslapping way about what you’re doing, is not effective doing. The positive version: focus on effective doing. The specific application: people who want to be effective, and want their organisation to be effective, will cut back on managerial theatre as much as possible. In general, meetings should never take longer than half an hour. Supposing you’re the one calling meetings, account for that and make all the crucial points fit that time-frame. Restrict attendance to those who really need to be there.
Meetings are best set if they must happen and not otherwise; and these will last only as long as they have to last and no longer. A meeting which doesn’t feel like it’s forced upon the person calling it shouldn’t be called. Moreover, those who wish to remain effective will leave meetings which provide no benefit or to which they, in turn, provide nothing. This leaves more time, opportunity and clarity of mind for active doing.
Walk out of meetings and do the work you know you have to do.
The accusation that this is unprofessional says worse things about so-called professionalism in corporate cubicle culture than about those who take Musk’s advice. You can call corporate conformity ‘professionalism’ all you like, but herd mentality isn’t professional.
A Mantra from Ev Williams: Do Fewer Things
Another example brings us nearer to the insight in a more comprehensive form: the example of Evan Williams (coincidentally, the founder of this very website). His advice to those who want to succeed? Do less.
The vast majority of things are distractions, and very few really matter to your success.
The best way to use your finite time is to select a worthy focus area and eliminate the rest. “Do fewer things” really means do less, achieve more. The recipe for dismal failure is adding more side-projects, letting them sprawl out of their focus area, then trying to project-manage the whole nebulous headache. The more things you add to your agenda, the more chance that you’re increasing the noise, rather than the signal.
Reserving your energy for what really matters is the most important rule you can observe. This is why a tea-break or even a nap can do more for your workday than a meeting or a presentation. (We’ll save listing the creativity/productivity benefits of tea-drinking for another time…!)
The solution is to become laser-focused. The key to developing this laser-like focus is to change your approach to yourself first— your skillsets and how you invest your attention and ability — before changing your approach to the problem at hand.
A laser has a tiny fraction of 1% energy waste. So should you. Every moment should feel that way to you, even if it means taking a two-hour lunch break to walk through the park — yes, even if your boss thinks you’re going crazy. Companies achieve legendary and lasting success when all decks are manned by people with purpose, not drones or kiss-asses.
People seem to sense this on some intuitive or experiential level, especially successful people — but they do so as through a glass, darkly. There’s the twist: by its very nature, expressing this insight in a readily applicable form is incredibly difficult. It should be expressed in a rule and yet it isn’t. Being able to overcome this cap on our insight would allow more of us to be more productive and more fulfilled.
We seem able to reach the insight with the guidance we already have, but to grasp it requires that we dive into the forms, structures and movements of the psyche.
In the first of his famous series of interviews given to Bill Moyers (see Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, 1988), Joseph Campbell states that “there’s a center out of which you act”. His immediate examples are the athlete and the dancer. “The athlete who is in championship form has a quiet place in himself,” he says, “and it’s out of that that his action comes. If he’s all in the action field, he’s not performing properly.”
What does this mean? Only invest so much, only learn one thing, without juggling? No, we’re interpreting “do fewer things” at the wrong point in the process, at the beginning. That belongs in the middle.
The middle of what, though?
The three-stage process, as I see it, is I/T/O — that is, Input, Throughput and Output respectively. Throughput is middle, the in media res of the story, the focal point of the process, figuratively and literally. That’s located right at the interface. It’s the crossover point, like the aperture in a camera obscura.
Input should be intense and varied, because for every one task we should make multiple kinds of investment — at least two, but preferably more. Worthwhile tasks require multivariate investment in order to be successfully achieved.
Training, rest, proper nutrition — these, not drudgery, are the ingredients of peak performance.
What do we learn from this development? What do we learn from mythology or history? What do we learn from the more recent examples of successful people?
What, most importantly, do we learn from the richness of our own being?
The answers to each of these questions are, in fact, the several aspects of one lesson.
Don’t just adapt to prevailing conditions — rather, ascend and overcome.
Getting what you want in your office, the boardroom, the bedroom, the first date and your social group is a matter of overcoming drag-force and acting in the world from your centre or hub.
We must move back and forth between the ‘inner’ reality and the ‘outer’ world in reciprocal movements, without being sucked into their flattening demands. Following Thiel’s, Musk’s and Williams’ advice works from a deeper psychological point of view because it strips away anything that wastes our time with needless energy-expenditure or clouds our attention with useless data.
Highly successful people have an unusual ability to internalise objective problems (the movement from exterior to interior) and to actualise deeply held dreams (the movement from interior to exterior)
This ability to move between modes, between the ‘worlds’ as it were, is a powerful potential to draw up into our lives and their tasks. Untrained, this ability yields the odd ‘Eureka’ moment — spontaneous, isolated and seemingly out-of-the-blue — but if we can train ourselves to harness this double-movement, as very few currently do, then inspiration flows in abundance and every project brings runaway success into the realm of possibility. It takes on a life of its own because we are able to draw on the vast reservoirs of the self to actually give life to our creations. This is a far more productive contribution to our lives, our communities and our economy than the dead monotony of even a billion production-lines.
This applies to developing personal relationships as well — whether friendship or love — where a diverse range of energies directed toward the focal point will allow for a rich and rewarding connection to develop with another human being.
In every moment of decision, we must realise what it’s time to discard and what it’s time to pursue — and the manifestation of this is success. What we’re really choosing is how our lives are going to be.