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The Vanity of Productivity

Jens Schott Knudsen

Liz Horst - Humane Pursuits - published on 11/24/13

The only goal worth working toward, either in your own life or in the service of others, is the ability to enjoy good things.

I want to propose a shocking idea about human purpose in work and leisure. It occurred to me for the first time two or three years ago when I was arguing with an English teacher 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 argument, 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.

Western industrialized 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 or accomplishments, pass tests, make money, or become a better person.

The 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 material 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 body, or by binge-eating 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. 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.

This productivity-focused mindset flourishes in religious circles as well as in secular ones. 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 is cloaked with the injunction to “redeem the time:” to use every moment for useful activities—i.e. serving others and improving your God-given talents. Since time is a gift from God, one shouldn’t waste it.

Thus our western work ethic de-values time. Time is the limited medium of our productivity, and we have learned 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. People seem to 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, more accomplished people. As a violin teacher, I admit that I have argued to parents that children should study music because it makes them smarter. It’s true; studies show that

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