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Mastering Productivity - Epilogue: Eat the Cookie

Epilogue: Eat the Cookie

Every week, you’ve probably seen or read an article which extols a slew of virtuous behaviors in listicle format. “Ten things successful people do!” or “17 things that are the secret to success.” The author’s advice is hard to argue with: spend time thinking each day, be curious about new subjects and topics, but don’t spend time thinking about things that you can’t influence. The article ends with an appeal to the idea of the common man”

“The rich aren’t any smarter than us… [t]hey are just more strategic.”

Not only is the advice simple, but once revealed, it seems to be obvious common sense. As soon as we see it written down on the page, it seems patently obvious that incurious and perpetually anxious people will be unsuccessful. This happens every time we read one of these success advice articles — what’s written on the page just feels so true. We get drawn into the author’s worldview, remembering all the small-minded worry-warts we know, while hoping that we aren’t them. If we are, we vow to change our detrimental behavior so that we can be successful.

Personal growth is commoditized and distilled down to pithy statements and articles, which we consume with the hope that some of the lessons will stay with us and we’ll ultimately end up “better” people.

This kind of advice falls short. Books and articles like this hide three major questions.

First, is the advice actually generalizable? In other words, can we reliably and repeatably achieve success via simple paint-by-numbers schemes? Connecting entertaining anecdotes to scientific studies is a great way to make a chapter come alive but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the advice will work under any condition. For example, if I tell you that taking yourself out of a stale office environment will lead to higher levels of productivity, does that mean that by going to Starbucks you’ll get that project done? Or, to connect back to the example at the beginning of this article, will spending 30 minutes a day thinking about specific topics like “how do I make more money” lead to you becoming rich, as the article suggests?

Second, what happened to all the people who did exactly as the book suggested, but still failed? These folks don’t get a say in what is written in these advice articles, and without their voice, we’re likely not getting the full story. And, perhaps the most important point of all, what’s the purpose of all this optimization towards higher levels of productivity?

These are deep questions that anyone who seeks to better themselves must eventually grapple with. Louis Menand offers an interesting perspective on these issues in an article in The New Yorker titled “The Life Biz: How to succeed at work and at home”. Menand, in the incisive way that you come to expect from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, reviews Charles Duhigg’s book on improving the self and becoming more productive titled Smarter, Faster, Better.

Both Menand and Duhigg are authors that Pete, my Grove Ave co-founder, and I respect enormously. We were excited to dig into the review when the link popped up in our queue.

Menand artfully dissects the recent spate of popular science books dominating bookshelves, exposing the formulaic prose format: chapter after chapter of incredible anecdotes each backed by a generalizable scientific study for things you should seek to emulate.

For Duhigg and others (Dan Pink’s Drive is one that comes to mind), by applying the research and lessons learned from the fields of psychology and business, one can get a lot better at, well, life. The goal is to optimize your lifestyle until you are the most efficient machine possible.

This is the worrisome part for Menand — the blurring of workstyle with lifestyle until you achieve cyborg-perfection or the most efficient human being possible.

He writes, “[t]hey try to sum up current thinking in the business world about ‘human resources’ and transmute it into a manual for self-improvement. People don’t read these books to find out how to be better human beings. People read them to figure out how to become the kind of human being the workplace is looking for.”

Is that all we are and all we should be? Should personal growth be reduced to a productivity maximizing exercise? Since when did becoming a better human mean becoming more and more like a robot?

While the work of journalists like Duhigg and Pink have merit, we have to admit that we are a bit more philosophically aligned with Menand. Our society tends not to take the Oscar Wilde position on these matters, summed up as “everything in moderation including moderation.” Americans tend to think if something is good, then you can never have too much of it. If we can eliminate one bad habit then we should replace them all. If we know that the roots of intrinsic motivation are to be able to have autonomy, mastery, and work for a higher purpose, then we should all abandon our jobs (consequences be damned!).

Pete and I are more or less in agreement with Menand’s overall point that maximizing our lives for productivity to the degree where personal and work life mirror each other (or are so intermixed as to be indistinguishable) might be too much.

“Productivity” in our minds, is something that is achieved at work while what we’re trying to do at Grove Ave is to flesh out the idea that success is defined beyond just what happens in the workplace.

Society has become (or perhaps always was) obsessed with seeing work success as directly equal to life success. We think there’s more to life.

This isn’t to say that we agree with Menand on all of his points. We disagree with his blanket criticism of the entire genre of self-help business books. The fact that they largely relay common sense strategies shouldn’t be a knock against them. In fact, many people, in their day-to-day behaviors lack common sense. We’re inherently inconsistent beings influenced by emotions rather than rational utility-maximizing homo economicus. What many of these books do is give us the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks to behave in a more self-aware and composed manner. That’s why classics like How to Win Friends and 7 Habits are so timeless. It’s not simply about being nice to people to get what you want, but about making your mind aware of the need for empathy, putting yourself in someone’s shoes, and striving for win-win scenarios. Not everyone does this or has the awareness to do this no matter how “common sense” it might appear to be to others.

The implication of many of these books and articles about productivity is that without taking these (sometimes rather extreme) steps, we won’t ever be successful. We are told by these theorists and popularizers of scientific findings that we should take risks and dream big, yet there is little talk of what happens when we do so and fail. There’s no Malcolm Gladwell around the corner that can pick you up off the mat and save you. For the most part, you have to do that yourself. There’s also no real talk of what you do when you’ve largely “succeeded.” Once you’ve optimized your life to the point of it being frictionless and pain-free, what are you going to do with all that extra time? Don’t expect these theorists to be able to answer (or want to answer) that question for you.

Another major problem is that we tend to want to reduce important lessons and advice into capsule-sized products, to be packaged up and easily ingested. For example, the personality measure called grit has been hailed by lots of research as being even more important to success than intelligence. There’s now a movement afoot to “test” students for grit in public school and to call out schools for “failing” to improve a student’s grittiness. As the psychologist and primary grit researcher Angela Duckworth recently decried in an op-ed, when she found out what was happening based on her research:

“I felt queasy. This was not at all my intent, and this is not at all a good idea. Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes. Can the practice of giving feedback to students on character be improved? Absolutely. Can scientists and educators work together to cultivate students’ character? Without question. Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no.”

Yes, grit and character are important for success and yes, both can be improved. It doesn’t mean that we should test students on these measures to hold schools accountable for character growth. After all, character, like paths to success, is multidimensional and difficult to measure in real world settings. You can have not only too much of a good thing, you can turn a good thing into the opposite. The world is too complicated for these anodyne solutions to be universally helpful. One-size-fits-all recommendations for building grittiness and becoming more focused generally ignores the real problems people face that impede improvements. How can a test for grit capture the reality of your life, if just getting to school or work is obstacle-filled and difficult?

A related problem is that the advice from popularizers like Duhigg and the Business Insider type articles generally come from the most successful (i.e. wealthy and famous) people. Americans almost fetishize successful people, which Menand points out is something that changes based on where we are in history. Right now, we seem to be in love with risk-taking startup virtues and believe that if we can only emulate these people, we ourselves will become successful, seemingly by spiritual osmosis.

There is actually a conceptual term for only getting your advice from “successful people”: in science we call this “selecting on the dependent variable.” Basically, you wind up reverse engineering your findings once you know how things turn out.

But in our minds, success might only be an illusion, generated by luck, starting position, or genetics. We tend to laud those who are successful, but ignore those who followed the same path and ended up as failures. We also ignore how privilege and starting positions influence where we end up. It’s easy to score a run when you were born on third base.

For every Mark Zuckerberg, there are thousands of failed startup founders. This is a widely acknowledged critique of the strategy theorist and popular business book writer Jim Collins. The core of Collins’ approach is to find companies who have outperformed the market and find the common traits that make them successful. Seems simple enough and it also seems perfectly valid to do it this way. But what about the companies that possessed those same traits and still failed? In fact, many of the companies that Collins profiled in the book Built to Last have vastly underperformed the market (such as Motorola, IBM, and HP). If all it took for companies to be successful was to follow Collins’ advice, then every company should be “built to last” simply after reading his book. If success were formulaic, we’d all have it by now! But we know that’s not the case.

Finally, the problem with these narrow definitions of success is that they are interpersonally dependent, externally defined. Where are the articles about success and internalized happiness borne of being able to spend time with family and friends? We tend to conflate success with character-building, as if becoming rich, famous, and writing a bestseller will suddenly make you a virtuous person who is also fun at parties. But how many successful people are total assholes?

Ultimately, we have two takeaways: first, pursuit of success can quickly devolve into a race to an externally-defined bottom, lacking true personal and internally-defined growth. Second, as Menand exhorts, drawing on an example from Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, sometimes it IS okay to eat that cookie (Duhigg tried to eliminate that “bad” habit). Life is too short and could become a meaningless venture if you are focused on pursuing efficiency gains all the time. Efficiency at work is one thing, but taken too far, it can leave you with an empty shell of a life. If you follow the productivity rainbow to the end, you probably won’t find a pot of gold waiting for you. The only way you can find that pot of gold is to bring it to yourself.


Part 1 (Principles 1 thru 10) | Part 2 (Principles 11 thru 20) | Read Summary