May 25, 2020

Protestant Work Productrecognizing overwork in the field

We have all skimmed through a report, read through an e-mail, or started up an app and immediately realized that a committee stood responsible. The symptoms are there, clear as letters on the page. Too much material. Strangely antiseptic tone. A lot covered, but not in any unified way. Discontinuous bits, likely missives back from runaway working groups, glommed on at the end.

Another “committee product”, full stop. Not necessarily bad, overall. But a bad specific impression. The phrase is pure pejorative.

In a similar way, I think we develop an intuitive eye for the products of untethered workaholics. The signs are all there, only less well remarked. Length again. But also a kind of complexity, in depth rather than breadth, expressed in a way that only really interests the author. A noted lack of proportionality. A sense of license to indulge every nook and cranny of specialization, without regard to motive or context. A palpable relish for quirks and cleverness within the frame of the prompt, but never outside of it. As if detail and volume had to expand to fill all available effort, and there was going to be a lot of effort, as a fully foregone conclusion. A perverse inversion of Parkinson’s Law.

We ought to have a name for this, as well. I nominate “Protestant work product”, as a nod and a jab at old Weber. Whether capitalism owes its rise to the mythical “Protestant work ethic” remains highly debatable. I would like to see more debate on the contribution of Protestant work product to efficiency and effectiveness in our time.

Having churned out a great deal of this stuff myself, I am also guilty. I was raised in a culture, an educational system, even a religion of hard work for hard work’s sake. But I had plenty of opportunities to veer off that course, and usually went full military power, instead. This has proved terribly inconvenient—not for me, but for those I worked for—when I’ve been faced with relatively straightforward problems. Also, rarely, when I’ve been able to see a clear and simple path through an otherwise enticing thicket, and found myself with many fewer branches to hack than I was hoping for. I am still learning to dial the impulse to grind way down.

In the meantime, I find that budgeting attention, rather than dollars or time, goes a long way.

My best work, and most of the posts on this blog, involve absolutely nothing in the way of scheduled time or forced effort whatever. They aren’t products of any self-discipline. But conversely, when I find myself spending time too easily and too gladly, that is also a very bad sign. The work product becomes a means to the work effort.

Looking back on my own time with hindsight, it seems a good project ought to be something like a good meal. Nothing so bland or revolting that it takes force of will to swallow down each bite, dragging out the process. But not so sweet, salty, and airy that I plow through the lot, craving seconds and thirds, either. Something between hunger and gluttony. Something between indifferent and obsessed.

Having come to this realization way ahead of actually dialing down my gunner drive, I’m caught in a somewhat awkward transition. A queer side effect is many projects. I have a lot of them, in part because when it comes time to turn away from one, to avoid grinding it by effort for effort’s sake, I need some other wheel to spin.

I’m not sure I can recommend the tactic. It may simply spare the product while prolonging the worker’s problem. But as usual, in the great Stakhanovite work culture of the west, it’s worth a lot of plaudits. Better prolific than a pedant, I suppose. Though I’m starting to think I’d rather be neither.

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