The Vanity of Productivity

In light of my suggestion that  happiness should be defined as “a way of living that allows you to love good things,” I want to propose another idea, one that is foreign to contemporary western culture. At least, I only heard it for the first time two or three years ago when I was arguing with an English teacher friend about the reason students study English literature. Since then, I have never stopped thinking about her answer. She said, “I have my kids read books for the only reason anything is worth doing—for its own sake. Because it’s a good and enjoyable thing to do.”

At the time, the zealous English major in me rebelled. We read literature to become better writers, to learn about God, to understand human character, to discover truth and deepen our experience of life. . . right? But now I would like to pursue my friend’s shocking argument. I would like to propose that the only goal worth working toward, either in your own life or in the service of others, is the ability to enjoy good things. 

American culture emphasizes a different objective. In education, business, career choice, and even leisure, we value what I will call “productivity.” The good life is the productive life—keeping busy in the service of some (often unspoken) future goal. The goal might be to achieve a certain GPA, gain expertise in an area, pass tests, make money, become accomplished, or become a better person.

The main problem with these goals is the emphasis only on the future. By denying present good in favor of the future, you deny future good as well. You are setting up as the main motivation a spurious goal, a deferred point of happiness that never arrives. 

“Productivity” is like money; it is desirable only because it represents goods or the capacity to obtain goods. We recognize that money, the physical substance, is in itself worthless, but we have attached value to it as a trade item that stands in for the goods it can purchase.  We have begun, however, to treat other things as if they were commodities just like money. Choosing to see things that actually do have value only as means to another end, we empty them of their inherent value in favor of a borrowed value.

People attach borrowed value to food by viewing it only as a means for maintaining a healthy or attractive body; or, on the other hand, by binging as a way to deal with a bad day. Parents and teachers destroy the value of education in the present when they treat learning as merely a means to the end of passing a test or reaching a high GPA. In the same way, those who define the value of a job by prestige and money turn other enjoyable but less prestigious jobs (such as being a stay-at-home dad or mom) into third-rate occupations.

Now before you nod sagely to my criticism of public education and the corporate world, I want to note that this productivity-focused mindset also flourishes in religious circles. I grew up under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, and I know it well. Among hard-working Christians, the drive to be productive, to be always doing something useful, is cloaked with the injunction to “redeem the time:” to use every moment for useful and productive activities. Those activities were supposed to be productive, I think, toward serving others and improving your God-given talents, but the most important thing was that you used time well and didn’t waste it, since time also is a gift from God.

In both religious and secular circles, our western work ethic de-values time most of all. Time is the limited medium of our productivity, and we know how to squeeze it dry in our efforts to accomplish more. The conception of time as a commodity that can be “spent,” “saved,” and “wasted” is unique to the post-enlightenment west. Most people have forgotten how to conceive of time as something to be lived, rather than used–to view life as a good in itself, and not merely raw material for other ends. 

When people focus on future goals to the exclusion of the present, their attitude toward leisure suffers. American parents tend to judge an activity a good one if it makes their kids better, smarter people with more accomplishments under their belts. As a violin teacher, I admit that I have argued to parents that their children should study music because it makes them smarter. It’s true; studies show that learning an instrument increases intelligence; and reading books improves neural connections in the brain; and playing video games promotes creativity; and watching TV negatively affects all of the above.

But my real purpose in teaching students to play the violin is not to make them smarter. It’s not even to help them become skilled in violin performance. I want them to love listening to and playing beautiful music. It is a fine bonus if they grow smarter in the process.

This is where we get everything backwards. You don’t read Homer to become smart; you become smart so that you can enjoy Homer. Intelligence is not a concrete good on its own. It is merely the capacity to understand, and perhaps to enjoy.

We should battle this tendency to see things backwards, in our own lives and in education. I believe it is possible to live in the prosperous west and still have a right relationship to the world, in which you see things as ends first of all, rather than means. But this healthy relationship might come at the expense of other kinds of productivity.

You might say that there are only three good reasons for doing anything:

1. To bring good to somebody else (e.g. donating, serving, teaching, performing music)

2. To enjoy something that is good to do or experience, with no reference to future goals (Discerning which things are good is harder than discerning which things are useful; but at least it is the right question. You could include activities like eating a good meal, spending time with friends, experiencing nature or art)

3. To work toward gaining the tools that help you enjoy something good (e.g. earning money, practicing an instrument, studying math, refraining from sweets so that you can enjoy the benefits of good health)

Of course, there must be goals for the future, and sometimes painful progress toward those goals. Life is not one long hedonistic fest of living for the moment. Finding and appreciating good things might take time, work, and training. You need certain sets of skills in order to understand and enjoy literature, art, the sciences, math, sports, and everything else school-age children have to learn.

When the work is hard, learners might find motivation in incentives such as grades, competition, praise, and feelings of accomplishment. But these enticements are merely measures of progress towards a different goal. If the incentive becomes the objective–if we love only grades and winning and that sense of accomplishment–we live impoverished lives. We end up in love with ourselves, or with nothing at all.

I wonder if the antidote to the problems of the western work ethic is a sacramental view of the world—the belief, emphasized in Catholicism, that grace and meaning are available in the present moment, through the objects of the present physical world. It’s an idea I would have to explore in another essay, but I would love to hear thoughts about it in the comments.

I happened upon the most beautiful answer I have ever heard to the tormenting question, “What is good for a person to do all the days of his life?” in the book of Ecclesiastes. The answer contains no hint of grandiose ambition, no injunctions to squeeze time dry in the service of God. Some have found this book depressing, but I believe it is meant to lift and free the weary, striving soul. According to the preacher of Ecclesiastes,

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. . . . Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun (2:24, 9:7-9).

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7 thoughts on “The Vanity of Productivity

  1. First, I think you’re on to something here. This comes at a great time for me because I’m about to enter the realm of literature again and I’ll probably have to defend its worth at least to myself if not to a bunch of teenagers. I haven’t been able to do that since the honors seminar.

    Okay, as I understand it you’re not slamming productivity itself, which is how it comes off at first, but rather the tendency to treat it as nothing more than means to an end. I disagree that the word generally means “keeping busy” toward a goal, because the root of the word is “produce.” Productivity to me is making something in some way.

    You seem to obliquely propose that we enjoy the process of productivity. However, your most prominent point is that we shouldn’t find fulfillment in accomplishment and achievement because this is vanity. This seems reasonable, but I’m curious as to why you conclude that enjoying accomplishment leads to self-love more essentially than enjoyment of food, drink, or work.

    You say it takes training and/or intelligence to appreciate some things. If the most important thing is the enjoyment, why should we expend so much effort when there are plenty of things we can enjoy without it? Is there a greater level of enjoyment? Could it be that some people are merely driven to find the ability to appreciate different things?

    Actually I suppose you suggest that some things are “good”. I guess this is more what I should be directing my questions toward. What makes enjoyment of “good” preferable to enjoyment of “not good”? It seems to me that you can’t escape from having a further end, when it comes to that.

    Your three reasons are very insightful, I think. I’ll probably refer to them frequently in the future.

    I would certainly be interested in the fruits of your exploration of the relevance of sacramentalism to work ethic.

    Finally, your ending from Ecclesiastes was perfect. Thank you. I need to write those words on my walls, doorposts, forehead, etc.

  2. Augh, forgot another question. You say the idea of time as a commodity is exclusive to our culture. Then how do you explain the verse Ephesians 5:16: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil”?

  3. Hi Josh, good to hear from you. You’re right—productivity wasn’t the ideal word, but I couldn’t think of another word for what I was trying to express. So I put it in quotation marks and tried to invest it with sardonic meaning. I probably should have just used “busy-ness” or “workaholism.” But that word came to mind because I have so many memories of adults saying, “why aren’t you doing something productive?”

    I think enjoying accomplishment, if that’s the only or main thing you’re enjoying, is likely to lead to self-love because, if you’re not loving the activities, things, or experiences, what else are you loving besides yourself in the activity? C.S. Lewis argues that somewhere—Great Divorce, I think.

    You ask, “If the most important thing is enjoyment, why should we expend so much effort when there are plenty of things we can enjoy without it?” I guess that is the question. I’m not sure, but I would say that the things that take work are generally more worth it—more enjoyable, better. I know that’s an awkward answer, and it shows the awkwardness of this argument without adding what you said–that you can’t escape having a further end. I believe it is to know God, and to “glorify and enjoy him forever.”

    As for the Ephesians passage, I could be wrong, but I’m under the impression that “redeeming the time” doesn’t mean what we’ve taken it to mean. But I’d have to ask someone who’s been to seminary to confirm that. It’s pretty clear, though, that Ecclesiastes is saying something very different.

  4. I like this. I would just add that “redeeming the time” doesn’t have to mean you have a specific goal in mind, that you’re being “productive.” It can simply mean that you are using your time the best you can at that particular moment. In this fallen world, we are looking forward to a perfect one always. As you commented above, we are to worship God and enjoy Him forever, and I think one of the ways we can do this is to fully use the time and transient pleasures he has given us in this world for His glory, even as we look forward to the next. This may not always be doing something productive- we are commanded to fellowship with other believers, for instance, which might not be seen as “productive” at all times. God has given us the feelings of enjoyment, pleasure, as a foretaste of what is to come. I think it follows that we may and should certainly enjoy the innocent causes of these feelings to the fullest, as long as we are prioritizing correctly and doing it for the right reasons. [Insert economic comments about subjective preference ranking here…]

    One more point, in defense of the adults who told us when we were children to always “redeem the time:” That is part of their role in our life as we are sinful children in a fallen world. (Of course, the adults are sinful as well, so again it isn’t a perfect world:) I don’t think any of us would be where we are today without that prompting to always consider how we use our time and to have good goals. Without the goals fulfilled and the productivity we would have far less enjoyment of our “wasted” time. Work hard, play hard. And all for God’s glory.

    Sorry if I’m repeating what you said already, but these are my thoughts at the moment. It brings to mind the line from the FOTR movie, where Gandalf tells Bilbo that all we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. Any good may be distorted, whether it is lofty goals or plain enjoyment of life, this is part of living in a fallen world. (The other thing it brings to mind that probably will make you cringe is a country song…”Time Well Wasted” (http://youtu.be/xr4As__lerY). But I realize that is completely and totally non-intellectual;)

  5. As a teacher and old lady, I strongly concur. I regularly admonish my students to take an interest in every day joys for their own sake–a buttercup, an insect, swinging on a swing set, dinner with your family, etc. One bad side effect that I see of the “connectedness” that we have now via the Internet is that young people feel like dopes if they get excited about something simple, good, childlike, and everyday, They are constantly pressured to be cynical (“using things” in the CS Lewis/An Experiment in Criticism sense) to be cool, Reddit-style. They’re often embarrassed to get excited about the frog in our classroom fish-tank (But I do! and so they eventually come tentatively creeping out of their little hermit-crab shell and get excited, too!).
    I think it’s a balance–you’ve got to be practical and responsible about the future, but as our calling is “enjoy God forever,” we’d better not become cynical about our world or demythologize everything. Enjoying the world that God has made (which, does, in fact, teach us about his wisdom, power, and care) can be happening at the same time as we pursue the “good works” to which we are called and endure the trials, suffering, and sorrows we must endure in imitation of our Lord Christ. Recently I’ve been struck that an expression of our hope in the gospel and the resurrection is that *in the midst* of death, failure, sin, and sorrow, God invites us to enjoy him and his creation–we have a joy that transcends mere happiness. When my Dad died, afterward, I almost felt ashamed of myself to enjoy the cat or have fun laughing about stuff with the family, as if I ought to be forever gloomy and despairing; then I realized that no, it was right to continue to find joy and pleasure in what God has provided, that doing so was an expression of hope and trust.

  6. Oh yeah–let me just add–that cynical attitude that I battle in young people: it’s an impediment to learning. It’s too boring and too dang much work to learn something that you can’t take any joy in. One of my jobs as a teacher is to generate excitement and interest by either pointing out the amazing, pleasurable, or satisfying aspects of math or science or logic and/or to model that excitement for them and hope that my joy in the subject-matter is infectious.

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