Efficiency - A Mistaken Virtue
Capitalism has changed our world in so many ways, including, I have discovered, by extending its virtues into our personal lives where these virtues may not always belong. Capitalism lives and breaths through a constant effort to increase efficiency and lower costs, and unfortunately, we have begun to accept these principles as virtues in our personal relations with other people.
I see efficiency lauded as a virtue in many places in society. At work, those who produce the most in the shortest amount of time are celebrated. Managers have praise heaped upon them when they make things more efficient and reduce the number of necessary employees. Parents feel they are successful based on whether they were able to check a large number of items off of their to-do list that day. Friends feel they did their part to offer support to someone struggling because they sent a text message.
We constantly measure our success or worth by the mistaken virtue of efficiency. When a car breaks down, we are upset because we don’t accomplish things. When a child gets sick, we are frustrated that we couldn’t get more accomplished that day. When a co-worker needs to talk for a few minutes, we are upset that we were delayed in our work.
While we often don’t consciously put efficiency as a virtue in our minds, we often place it as a virtue that we strive to live by in our hearts, and our self-worth and measure of success is often tied to adding up how much we can or can’t accomplish.
While efficiency has a place, time, and purpose, it has no place as a governing virtue in our lives. Here’s why.
Good is not efficient. Love is not efficient. Kindness is not efficient. We all need kindness, love, and good in our lives. As individuals, we live each day striving to provide for ourselves and our family, and we live in search of peace, joy, and happiness. All of these things though will never be found by acting efficiently. We log on to Facebook because it is fast and easy to do in search of a meaningful interaction or exchange with another human or sometimes just something to dull and entertain the senses. We send a text hoping to get one back. We pray for friends, for someone who really understands, or who can help with something we need.
Despite this, we rush through each day, focusing so much on producing results, finishing things, cleaning up floors, and meeting deadlines. On these days we have no time for kindness, we have no time to show love, and we have no time to enjoy everything amazing around us.
Efficiency trims most of the meaningful and good away from life. Efficiency causes us to believe there is one thing important in life (making money, accomplishing a list, etc.), and it cuts everything else out, even though those other things are often what we are really looking for. As a father focused on efficiency, I might feel proud when I’m able to discipline children that are fighting and talk to them sternly in under two minutes so that I’m not late to my next meeting. If I do though, I miss out on opportunities to sit and talk, to understand why they are having problems, and to show them love to help them have a reason to change.
While driving to appointments or to home I can’t count the number of times I have passed a car stranded on the road. I didn’t stop because it would take too much time, time I didn’t think I had. When I would let members at church know about an activity, I would type one text and send it to everyone, glad that I could spend so little time letting so many people know about the activity. However, it was extremely rare that anyone I texted would actually come to the activity.
Texting can be a very efficient way to communicate. Mass emails can be too. Same with social media. However, the more efficient the communication becomes, the less meaningful it becomes. This is true about all things efficient. The more efficient something becomes, the less meaningful it becomes. Getting a text about an activity at church is nice, but it usually means little to the people receiving it. Getting a phone call with a personal invitation means more, while having someone show up and say "hi" will mean the most. In other words, the most meaningful things in life are often the least efficient things.
As a Dad, I can come home from work, read a quick story to the kids, say ‘I love you’, and then run out the door again. While this isn’t bad, it doesn’t do anything to really connect with the kids. Love is found in putting aside things that matter to show my kids that they are the most important thing to me. Love is found in spending lots of time sitting on the bed talking and listening. Love is found through having no deadline attached to everything I do.
Life is most meaningful and happy when we have good, meaningful interactions with other people. Money doesn’t bring happiness. To-do lists don’t bring happiness. Getting the daily chores done in one hour doesn’t bring happiness. Inefficiency brings happiness though. Sitting down and laughing with a child while ignoring the chores forges a meaningful connection. Stopping by to see a friend to just talk on the doorstep rather than sending a quick text creates another meaningful connection. Giving an employee the chance to explain how they really feel about things helps create meaning at work.
The reason we struggle so much with stopping to take time for what matters most is because we have to exercise faith to do so. The truly good and meaningful things in life aren’t quantifiable. We can’t assign a number or value to the level of kindness we showed on a given day. We can’t assign a number or value to how well we connected with our children that day, and we have to be able to look at our dirty house confident that we used our time to forge something eternal that day.
The more we demand efficiency, the less faith we have in our ability to do truly great things, as efficiency always follows the need to count and add up our value, and great things aren't built on the quantifiable. Truly great things, or masterpieces, are great because they capture and touch upon far more than can ever be quantified. Masterpieces, the type that lasts through the ages, aren’t efficient. They take hours of effort, tries, and retries, they take connecting to and understanding people at a level never reached through efficiency, and they take patience and devotion.
We try to build businesses with efficiency as the top priority. Those businesses come and go quickly, employees aren’t happy, and the competition is always lurking. It’s a race to the bottom for the efficient business, and the only ones that survive are those who are able to cut the good and meaningful from the work and somehow convince people to keep working there despite that.
Great businesses though don’t place efficiency as the governing principle. They spend resources and time on people, on connecting and understanding, and on creating something that truly has value to it. A business that can create a masterpiece doesn’t have to charge the lowest cost for it. Apple tends to follow this approach and focuses on creating an experience for people, and Apple can charge almost whatever it wants for its products. If it demanded efficiency from all of its employees, it would be cutting out its ability to connect with the unquantifiable factors that transcend its product itself. Apple does well because it has faith in its ability to connect and deliver something that can’t be quantified.
Families aren’t efficient. Raising children isn’t efficient. They need time, they need our attention, and we help even when we don’t have time to do so. If we focus too much on getting dinner done in 30 minutes, the chores done in 45 minutes, and everyone in bed by nine o’clock we’ll miss the moments that will really matter in the lives of our family members. The same with friends, and the more we miss these moments, the less happy we become.
Efficiency drives us to feeling frustrated, angry, on edge, and unhappy as we aren’t able to stop and take a minute to smell the flowers, to really talk with someone, to stop and help a person stranded on the road, or to have meaningful time just shooting the breeze with our friends or kids. If we want to be successful, be happy, or create a masterpiece, we have to learn to exercise faith in how essential it is to invest in the inefficient, the unquantifiable, and the unseeable. We gain so much through embracing kindness, goodness, love, and decency, and these things change our very outlook on and experience with life itself.
If you want happiness, if you want to get past the void inside, if you want meaning or purpose in your life, do something inefficient. Truly connect with someone. Don’t text them, don’t call them, just go and say hi. Have no deadline that you have to meet after. Ask the person how they are doing, and just listen. Stop measuring your success or self-worth through how much you accomplish, and instead focus on placing faith in the importance of the unquantifiable. Be more kind, lend a hand to someone who needs it, plan on getting to your next appointment 15 minutes early so you can stop and help someone you see in need. Yes, it is inefficient, but it will build far more in your personal life than efficiency ever would.
It’s time to recognize efficiency for what it is – a mistaken virtue that robs us of the most meaningful things life has to offer. Efficiency has a place in business and in our work, but it should not govern nor be the most prized in how we interact with others or in how we view ourselves. Life has so much more to it than efficiency will ever let you see or experience, but you can access the beauty and meaning life has to offer through faith and a devotion to always taking time to do the right and good thing.