The Productivity Debate Begins

This material was originally part of a productivity debate about the merits of hard work vs. laziness. The website that hosted the debate in 2005 has long since gone offline, so I’m resharing my contributions to the debate here.

My favorite definition of success comes from Earl Nightingale: “Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” Since our goals and values are unique, our personal definitions of success will be unique as well. Therefore, we must treat success as a relative term. The key part of this definition is “progressive realization.” Success is a process, not an end result; it is a path, not a destination. If you’re pursuing a worthy goal or ideal (worthy based on your values, not mine or anyone else’s), then it doesn’t matter what your external results are right now — you’re successful.

Hard work is whatever challenges you to grow. Hard work need not be tedious or boring or painful. You can do what you love to do and be passionate about it, and it can still be hard work if it causes you to push past your perceived limits. Writing and giving speeches is hard work for me. It challenges me tremendously and requires me to work at 100% capacity. But I also love it and find it deeply fulfilling. I think one of the greatest breakthroughs people can make in their lives is to fall in love with hard work, which means finding a challenge that you can pursue with passion. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “Work is love made visible.”

Passion is enthusiasm and desire. It is the emotional fuel for work which can provide extra drive and energy. It’s easy to sell people on the idea that if you just dive right into doing what you love most, you’ll be incredibly successful and fulfilled and everything will magically work out somehow. For some people this certainly does work, but desire is just part of the equation. For most people (myself included), passion alone is not enough. Personally I’m more passionate about making love than I am about giving speeches, but two kids is enough for me. The value of passion varies from person to person; for some people it’s a better fuel than others. If you’re a fairly emotional person who’s driven largely by your heart, passion is likely to be a powerful success factor for you. But if you’re more logically minded and driven by your head, you’re likely to find passion a much weaker fuel, and you may be suspicious of passion’s risk of leading you astray. Using the fuel of passion effectively requires a high degree of self-awareness, and you must intelligently decide for yourself what role it should play in your life. As a human being, you must respect the fact that you are also an emotional animal. You have the high-level cerebral cortex of a human, but you also share the limbic brain of a leopard. It’s extremely valuable to learn to control your own limbic system instead of being controlled by it. This means using positive emotions as added fuel to achieve the goals selected by your cerebral cortex. Learn to use your emotions to drive you to fulfill your purpose instead of being victimized by them. Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year to influence you through your limbic system, so if you don’t take control of it, you can bet someone else will.

Happiness is an emotional state. While many people define happiness as the primary goal of life, I personally don’t see that as enough. If you want to experience emotional happiness right now, there are many ways to do that, especially if you’ve studied NLP. For example, if I just glance over at a picture of my wife’s smiling face on my desk for a few seconds, I can’t help but feel happy and start smiling myself. You don’t need complicated efforts to achieve happiness when it can be done so simply in a matter of seconds. While happiness is certainly of great value, especially to your health, I don’t think it provides enough of a context for living. To base one’s life merely around the experience of a particular emotion seems shallow. I prefer the ideals of purpose and fulfillment as a context for living. This means considering your needs, desires, abilities, and conscience and balancing all four of these areas. So you’re passionately doing what you love, in the pursuit of a meaningful purpose, and you’re making a great living doing it.

Laziness is sloth, slacking off. It means succumbing to the emotional impulses of your limbic brain and living more like a lower mammal and less like a fully conscious human being. It means living in the unconscious realm of fear-avoidance as opposed to consciously embracing courage. Here I’m referring to perpetual, long-term laziness. Periodic rest, on the other hand, is extremely valuable. Think of weight training. If you work out all day, every day, you’ll burn yourself out, and your muscles won’t have sufficient downtime to grow. If you don’t work your muscles at all, they’ll atrophy. You’ll get the most growth from an intelligent cycling of effort and rest, whether it be from physical work, mental work, or spiritual work. Being a workaholic is akin to overtraining; it’s inefficient and harmful. Laziness is akin to undertraining, being stuck in a prolonged rest phase and thereby experiencing no challenge or growth. Temporary laziness (aka periodic rest) is of great value. It’s during the rest periods between workouts where your muscles actually grow. And a great deal of mental processing happens during sleep, including the integration of short-term memories into long-term ones. Prolonged laziness is like oversleeping — if you sleep too much, you can actually end up more tired and even depressed.

Productivity is your ROI. It depends on how you define “return” and “investment.” In terms of my own personal productivity, I define “return” as the fulfillment of my purpose and “investment” as my time and energy. So if I’m working effectively to achieve my purpose, I’m productive. I define success according to internal criteria, but productivity is something I base more on external factors. For example, because a big part of my purpose is helping other people to define a purpose for their own lives, my ultimate productivity is based in part on how well I accomplish that end. If I write and speak for years but don’t impact people enough to make a real difference, then I can’t say I’m productive in the long run. This might sound extreme, but I will go so far as to say that if you haven’t defined a purpose for your life, then you can’t be productive in any meaningful way. You can’t measure productivity when you don’t know what return you’re shooting for. At best you can only be a pawn in contributing to the productivity of others. By default that’s your most likely outcome in the absence of a self-defined purpose; you’ll be a productive consumer just as advertisers want you to be.

A strong work ethic means you achieve the level of maturity necessary to recognize and respect the role of hard work. We may wish hard work wasn’t necessary. Marketers sell tons of products based on the ideals of fast and easy. Desire along should be enough, we exclaim. We wish the law of sowing and reaping was just the law of reaping. Perhaps there are alternate universes where all our desires are instantly fulfilled, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them. In this universe, yelling at the ground, “Give me some crops, damn it!” just doesn’t work. Remaining in perpetual denial of the law of sowing and reaping is a sign of emotional immaturity. We must act in accordance with natural laws instead of bemoaning their existence, especially if we humans are to continue to survive instead of making a big mess of our planet. A denial of the law of sowing and reaping is one reason that no civilization in the history of our planet has ever survived its own success. The United States, for example, was founded on a strong work ethic (thanks in large part to the Puritans), but today that American work ethic is dying, and Americans are getting very, very fat and very deep in debt as more and more people fall victim to the illusion that hard work isn’t necessary. But eventually you’ve got to pay the piper. As Jim Rohn says, “the pain of discipline weighs ounces, and the pain of regret weighs tons.”

Efficiency is similar to productivity. Again, it’s a measure of ROI, but I usually think of efficiency in more granular terms, such as the efficiency of a process. The investment could be money, time, energy, or a combination of various resources. And the return is your desired output. Efficiency is important because of the scarcity of resources. If we all had limitless time, energy, money, etc., then efficiency would be meaningless. Being efficient with your investment of scarce resources is just being smart. If you can achieve an equivalent result with an investment of 1/2 of X instead of X, then by all means do so.

Motivation is motive in action. It’s similar to passion and desire, but motivation is specifically directed towards taking action to achieve a result. While motivation can help to initiate action, it is also a consequence of action. You can be totally unmotivated to do something, but if you get started anyway even if you don’t feel like it, you’ll usually find that momentum fuels motivation, and it becomes harder to stop working than it does to keep working. Motivation and self-discipline are terrific partners. Motivation is often greatest when you want to start something new, but it will usually fade after a while. Achieving pervasive long-term motivation in any area of your life is very difficult. We all have times where we know we should do something but we’re feeling unmotivated to do so. Self-discipline can help fill in the gaps when motivation weakens. Proper rest is also a key ingredient. If you’re just feeling temporarily lazy, you can use self-discipline to push past it. But if you’re feeling seriously burnt out, taking some extra time off may be what you need to restore motivation. I’ve found great benefit from developing skill in motivating myself (visualization, setting goals, celebrating successes, etc.) while also building my self-discipline (eating a strictly vegan diet, getting up at 5am, staying organized, etc.). Developing both of these tools is far more effective than over-relying on only one of them.

What about going with the flow?

Where will going with the flow of nature take us? What will laziness get us? Do you actually know where this path will lead? Not just us as individuals but all of humanity? Given the status of our planet and the history of our world as we appear to understand it, where will this philosophy take us?

Where has it already lead most of the other species on our planet? Where did it lead the dinosaurs?

You see, if you want to accept the philosophy of going with the flow and living in accordance with nature, then you must accept the whole package, which includes giving up control of your life to natural processes outside your control. You must trust that the path of least resistance will lead you somewhere good.

This is an easy (and very tempting) philosophy to adopt. And if you don’t mind becoming extinct, then by all means go for it. But if you’ve fallen in love with humanity’s potential as I have, then perhaps you’d prefer that we don’t drown in our own pollution and go the way of the dinosaur. Maybe it’s worth the effort to keep this wonderful and creative species alive and see just how far we can go.

We humans are the only earth species to have left our planet. We visited the moon. Isn’t that absolutely incredible? And we busted our butts to do it. Think about all we’ve accomplish as humans and how hard many of us worked to achieve these goals. What we’ll accomplish over the next 100 years is astonishing to even contemplate. I for one am glad to live at this time in history, and I’m grateful for all the hard work of previous humans to get us to this point.

To me this is not a time in history to be lazy, complacent, and cowardly. Humanity has some big challenges on the horizon. So let’s get busy and tackle them with our intelligence, our courage, and our capacity to work hard. Stop bemoaning the existence of these challenges and wishing we could all take the easy way out. If you want the easy way out, there are plenty of drugs to choose from.

I’d rather participate actively instead of passively letting life slip away. If that requires some effort and hard work and facing down fears, then so be it. I’ll pay that price willingly. I won’t go to my grave thinking of the people I might have helped but didn’t because I was too lazy and fearful to make the effort.

Hard work IS painful when life is devoid of purpose. But when you live for something greater than yourself and the gratification of your own ego, then hard work becomes a labor of love. Who wants to work hard for money? You want to dedicate your whole life to collecting smelly pieces of paper with pictures of dead people on them? What kind of pathetic motivation is that? Of course you’ll cringe at the thought of hard work if that’s all you care about. But there are so many more interesting things to live for that make hard work worthwhile. And this requires getting out of your own little shell of personal gripes and fears and taking a look at the rest of the world and asking yourself, “How can I contribute?”

As Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.