There are two demons that haunt me at Carleton, and their names are Procrastination and Bullshit. Procrastination is what torments me when I go to bed at 4 in the morning realizing that if I hadn’t spent all that time texting and looking at gifs on tumblr, I’d have gotten my reading done on time – after all, what’s the use of doing the reading if you’re too tired to say anything about it in class? Bullshit is Procrastination’s uglier cousin, who tempts me into skipping the reading completely and talking in class anyway, into thinking that my well-rested brain is a substitute for a few dozen pages of Tennessee Williams or David Bordwell.
Every so often, blissfully, I’m free of those demons. I both 1) do the reading and 2) contribute insightful analysis in class. In fact, this happens pretty often – but the times when I screw up, when I’m not productive enough, weigh heavy enough on my mind that it keeps me in a permanent state of Catholic guilt. I’m forever coming up with new ways to maximize productivity, to harden my mind against the temptations of the flesh – you know, like cookies, pop music, bike rides and human contact. And I’m always too fallible to keep myself away, and then I feel even guiltier. I idolize the people around me who are capable of shutting themselves up in a carrel on second libe even when they don’t have that much to do. The discipline, I think. It’s astounding. I look at them the way that other people look at sports stars, and I draw all sorts of tenuous connections between maximizing productivity and athletic prowess. I long for a mystical experience that will make me like them – productive, insightful, and well-adjusted. I more or less equate the Dean’s List with the Pure Land, and I hope that if I practice asceticism and I pray enough – namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu – I’ll end up reincarnated there someday, and I’ll pluck A papers from my sleeves as if from the branches of a fertile tree.
And all of this is completely ridiculous. My deeply personalized, deeply internalized obsession with productivity might be dressed up with as many allusions to eastern religions, sports, self-reflection or creativity as I want, but as long as I think about it as “productivity,” as long as my fixation on my work comes from my focus on doing enough of it, or doing it right, I won’t be Siddhartha, Michael Jordan, Michel de Montaigne or Pablo Picasso. I’ll be a Dilbert character.
To be honest, I’m not sure how we can take ourselves seriously when we talk about “productivity.” Productivity, to me, is a concept that has crawled out of the 1980s corporate netherworld – presumably the kind of thing that we’re trying to escape by getting a liberal arts education rather than going to an engineering school or a management school. It has no place intruding into individual consciousness – it should, in my opinion, restrict itself to the kind of lifeless passive sentences that sweaty division heads use when they’re giving presentations to shareholders – “we’re pleased to announce that workplace productivity here at the acquisitions relations department has been increased by 4.7% in the last quarter.” The term “productive,” and all its derivatives, sound like the worst kind of Newspeak – absolutely soulless words that are imposed specifically to oversimplify and flatten a complex phenomenon. It’s an absolutely nonsensical, third-rate term.
What really worries me, then, is the way we use it. When I say “I’m not being very productive,” what I’m literally saying is “I am not producing very much” – which is such an abstracted, unwieldy sentence that I’d be shocked if I ever heard an undergrad say it in earnest. So what am I doing talking about my personal “productivity?”
I can think of two explanations. One of them is that it’s a nice, euphemistic way of glossing over a more forceful, accurate observation, like “I’m being lazy,” or “I’m not working very hard.” I hear people say those all the time, though, so they can’t be a mutually exclusive. This leaves the second explanation: that we’ve internalized, probably from the blinkered, factory-farm high schools that sent many of us to Carleton, an idea that keeping our heads down and getting work done is model behavior, more important than thinking about what we’re learning and certainly more important than deriving satisfaction from it. This idea has become so ingrained in our psyches that we’ve started to bend pre-existing concepts to suit it – creativity, introspection, and even, apparently, religious experiences. Productivity is the soup that we swim in.
So here I am. I think we’re all in a position to do one of two things: become apostates and avoid thinking about productivity altogether, or announce the formation of a religious group about productivity on campus – we can hire a priest and start offering classes on the correct interpretations of concepts like “flow” and “the 10,000 hour principle.” How does that sound to everyone? Doubleplusgood?