September 17, 2019

Today I’ve been thinking about an article my friend Vincent wrote a few years ago, called Productivity is Dangerous. I largely agree with him, and definitely when it comes to most forms of modern work.

Many jobs today simply don’t need to be done, as David Graeber persuasively argued in his 2013 article, and even more persuasively in his recent book. People doing bullshit jobs don’t need to do them more productively. And people doing non-bullshit jobs are unlikely to be reading productivity blogs.

The advice of such blogs tends to engender administrative tasks of dubious ultimate importance, then lionize the act of ticking them off of a list, which is pretty much how Graeber defines bullshit.1 When it comes to edification, though, and more specifically to reading and writing, I admit to having operated under the assumption that such endeavours do have ultimate importance, and that in such areas I should try to be as productive as possible.

As a result, I am guilty of most of the things against which Vincent warns: I try to break time-consuming habits, wake up early to read and write more, and I have withdrawn from social life, all in pursuit of intellectual productivity—namely, in the interest of writing a novel.

I had assumed that the creation of art is at worst morally neutral, in the same way that Vincent describes reading and exercise as “probably good in most situations.” And at best it could create something of value to others.

But I suppose I’d been thinking of writing as akin to taking up the violin. It would be difficult to argue that one should not practice an instrument, if that’s what one wishes to do. And perhaps some forms of fiction or poetry could be classed in this category. But I’m interested in ideas, and they are certainly not always morally neutral, so maybe I need to re-examine the assumption that pursuing ideas at full tilt is itself a good idea.2

Is it wrong to get good at something for its own sake? It depends on whether that thing helps or harms others. I had been thinking along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy. In this model, writing is a form of self-actualization to which one should aspire, because that’s what he observed flourishing humans to do.

But does that make it a good idea? I realise now that I had assumed that the pursuit of mastery would, in and of itself, produce virtue as a side effect. In some ways, it has. I have better and less destructive habits now that all of my energy is going into reading and writing. I’m more fulfilled and less depressed, now that I have a purpose.

But if I pursue publication, then it’s not only about whether the act of formulating the ideas makes me a better person. The ultimate moral question in the dispersion of ideas still must come down to whether they tend to help or harm the world. Naturally most people must be convinced that their ideas, or the ideas that they are interested in, are helpful. But surely some of these well-intentioned ideas have had terrible outcomes.

Tonight I am wondering whether discretion is not the better part of valour when it comes to productivity.

  1. NB, I write lists every day and dutifully tick things off them, so I’m not trying to pretend that I don’t fall into this category.

  2. I have also worried that my commitment to intellectual improvement has taken on a kind of zealotry. It does seem to lead to a sense of piety which does not seem ideal. Maybe no more unhealthy than the urge to play one video game over another, or supporting a sports team, but it’s still something I’m worried about.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.