The Vanity of Productivity

How our Western work ethic devalues time and goodness.

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 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 playing and listening to beautiful music. It is a bonus if they grow smarter in the process.

We tend to see 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.

It may be 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 will probably 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)
  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. 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, math, sports, and everything else school-age children have to learn.

When the work is hard, learners can 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 students love only winning and that sense of accomplishment–they live impoverished lives. They end up in love with themselves, or with nothing at all.

I happened upon a beautiful answer to the tormenting question, “What is good for a person to do all the days of his life?” in the book of Ecclesiastes. 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, ESV).

Liz Horst
Liz Horst studied music and English literature at Grove City College and now lives in Maryland with her husband and two children. While working from home, Liz has found a precarious balance for her many loves. Besides writing and editing for the Play channel at Humane Pursuits, she runs a Suzuki violin studio and serves as executive director for the Eliot Society, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

3 Comments

  • November 14, 2013

    Mary Beth Baker

    Great piece, thank you! This brings up a question I’ve been mulling for a long time now: what should real leisure look like in an age riddled with screens? I’m guilty of this myself: a free hour often ends up spent in front of a movie or catching up on blogs I follow, not lying back just watching the clouds roll by. It’s not quite the same thing…

  • Brian Brown
    November 18, 2013

    Brian Brown

    Mary Beth, thanks for your comment. This entire “Play” section is permanently devoted to that precise question–keep coming back as we post new articles, and let us know what you think!

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