The Cult of Productivity
I can’t speak for eastern education since I’m not familiar enough with it, but in the entire western education system, we are never taught how to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. In my estimation, this is a profound gap in education. If you don’t know how to live a fulfilling life, what does any other knowledge matter? It won’t satisfy you anyway.
You might think that an education system couldn’t, or shouldn’t teach students how to live. But it can easily be achieved while avoiding dogmatism by simply leaving the class open-ended, meaning that everyone gets to come to their own conclusion to the question of how to live life. No student is ever to be told “This is what life is all about and you better agree or else”. Instead they’re to be told “No one can tell you what your life should be about except yourself. This class is here only to guide you”.
In a way, life purpose is implied in the existing education and economic system itself. You have to be productive and score high marks on tests so you can advance to the next grade level where you’ll be productive and take more tests. You do that until you graduate after which point you’ll ideally voluntarily do it again for at least another 4 years in college. Then you get to work.
With work, you start all over again. You start out at the bottom of the food chain fetching coffee for those “more important” than yourself in the organization. You suck up to everyone above you, working your way up the corporate ladder until most of your life is behind you. Then finally, with a lot of luck, you occupy an important position in the organization. You’ve finally “arrived” and it’s not the deliverance you thought it was.
With most of your years behind you, you’re nearing “retirement age”. That’s when you can finally quit “the game” and really start living. With all those years of studying and working under your belt, you’ve earned the right to do what you want for the rest of your life. The catch is, for one, you’ll be too old and decrepit to enjoy any of it. And for two, even if you’re still in good health, you never learned how to enjoy life and have no practice living in the present, so it’s almost certain you’re going to waste your money living a life that doesn’t actually fulfill you in any meaningful way.
Congratulations. You’ve just wasted the one and only life you have. But how did this happen?
The Cult of Productivity
The simple answer is we are living inside a kind of productivity cult. But what is a cult really? One answer is a cult is a set of people with extreme dedication to unquestioned, misplaced assumptions. The Cult of Productivity is the unquestioned assumption that the real goal in life is to be productive all the time, to keep yourself busied and distracted through production until you die.
There are people I’ve come across in life that fit the description I just illustrated. They spent their whole life waiting for the future, waiting for that final stage of the game where they could finally enjoy themselves, whether it be being at the top of the corporate ladder or retirement. As they discovered, it’s a total hoax. The “final stage” in the productivity game won’t bring any more lasting fulfillment than the initial stage because the mindset of waiting for deliverance at some future point has already been cemented in over decades of conditioning.
The problem is the unquestioned assumption that it’s always a good thing to be productive, to be getting things done. This is essentially to say “Life is all about the future” because if you’re always “getting something done”, you’re never at a point where you can just be done and enjoy it. Despite this, if you say “I got a lot done this week”, you’re likely to be congratulated by others. “Keeping busy” is seen as inherently good.
Now I’m not saying getting things done is bad if that’s what you want to do. But what people don’t understand, mainly because our education and economic systems have conditioned them not to understand, is that “Getting Things Done” doesn’t get you anywhere in terms of fulfillment. At best, after you complete a big project, you’ll be satisfied for a day or a week before you need something else. Just consult your own memory. What’s the greatest work-related achievement you ever accomplished? How long did it hold you over before you felt the desire to start something new? My guess is not very long.
To decondition ourselves from this cult of productivity, we have to question the basic assumptions. Why is it a good thing for instance to “Keep Busy”? There are people that Keep Busy not because that’s what they want to do, but to avoid their own thoughts. If that’s why someone is Keeping Busy, then it can be a very bad thing. Work isn’t the only way to busy the mind. Overeating, drug addiction, social media addiction and smartphone addiction also keep people busy, but they’re not good.
And what about “Getting Things Done”? That’s not always good either. If you’re Getting Things Done just for the sake of it and not because it’s what you want, that can come through in your work. For instance, I write blog posts when motivation strikes. That’s why my blog doesn’t have a defined schedule. Otherwise I would just be writing for the sake of Getting Something Done, not enjoying myself doing it.
Another personal example is my interest in living in a monastery as a monk for a few years. When I bring this up, many western people ask me “What’s the point? What does it accomplish?” as if I always need to be accomplishing something. I always reply to that with rhetorical questions: “Why does there have to be a point? What does Getting Things Done ultimately accomplish? Isn’t endless production of labor wasting one’s life?”.
Cults can’t withstand sincere skepticism. So the best way to challenge the cult of productivity is by asking questions, challenging the basic assumptions as I’ve been doing. Again, I’m not saying productivity is a bad thing. I’m only just saying it shouldn’t be accepted as an unquestionable good.
Experiencing the benefits of unproductivity can be a strong antidote to the cult of productivity. Watch a movie. Take a walk/hike. Spend time with friends/family. Don’t learn anything. Don’t create anything. Don’t clean your house. Don’t make plans. Don’t try to improve yourself in any way. Turn off your phone and spend some time unplugged. Just practice existing in the world without “accomplishing” anything extraordinary. Most importantly, don’t make any apologies for it.
Now I’m not giving a free pass to be lazy and not hold your own weight in society. That’s not what I mean by unproductivity. All I mean is taking some time to be unproductive and not feel bad about it. “Unproductive” has become a pejorative, for no good reason really. It’s actually healthy to be unproductive sometimes, something we in modern society never emphasize.
In conclusion, just ask questions and practice unproductivity. Why is working long hours something to be proud of? How much of your job is actually productive and how much is just procedure? Would you be more productive during work if you spent more time being unproductive outside of work? What unproductive activities do you enjoy? Is all the production of labor in the world really needed or would we be just as happy producing far less? Do we even need as much production of goods as we have?
See? Questioning the assumptions of the cult of productivity is easy. You can apply these questions to your own personal life and come up with new ones. All it takes is some out-of-the-box thinking. You can encourage others to do the same and deprogram themselves. Form your own opinions. Don’t just go along with whatever the corporate media and the government tells you. They want good, obedient workers that produce without ever questioning why. But you don’t have to blindly follow what they say. Choose to be your own independent thinking person. I’ll end with a quote.
“Think deeply about things. Don’t just go along because that’s the way things are or that’s what your friends say. Consider the effects, consider the alternatives, but most importantly, just think.” - Aaron Swartz
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