Friday, May 14, 2010

Reflections on The Tao of Productivity

I'm a big follower of productivity blogs and books and ideas. I live and die by my calendar and to-do list! One of the blogs I regularly follow is Zen Habits managed by Leo Babauta. I enjoy much of what Leo posts and have found much of it useful. The excerpts below are from a wonderful, insightful post from Leo and afterward I share my (somewhat contentious) perspectives and reflections on the post:

The principles I propose are inspired by Taoism, a philosophy that has deeply informed my life. I am not a Taoist, nor an expert at it, and many of the things I'll write below are not exactly in line with it.

Be Content

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

Master Non-Action

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master's way.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Relinquish Control

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Stop Planning

Other people have a purpose;
I alone don't know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

This goes hand-in-hand with letting go of control. Stop planning, stop trying to control how things will go and what the outcomes will be. Life never goes according to plan, so why stress yourself out worrying about the future and then worrying about the past when plans get disrupted?

Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

Let Go of Success & the Need for Approval

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

Success is something that's ingrained in our culture, and almost every moment of our childhoods and schooling are geared towards success. But it's a hollow concept. Who defines success? Why is it so important? What happens when we don't achieve it? And what happens when we do, and still want more, or realize it wasn't worth all the effort, and that we've wasted our lives?

The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn't try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn't need others' approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.

That quote says it all really. I have nothing to add. Give up the need for approval, and the need for "productivity" fades away.


This post is filled with wonderful ideas about reducing stress in our lives and increasing happiness. There is much ancient wisdom in it that is helpful and true.


But I think that beneath it lays a choice – an unstated assumption; a presupposition that isn't discussed or articulated in the article itself.


The choice is in answering a fundamental question about human life and how we live it. Underlying Leo's post (and the Taoism it draws from) is the presupposition that we are tiny, insignificant pieces of a large, purposeless, chaotic (yet beautiful) system of existence. We don't know why it exists – we don't know why we exist. All we can do is look to our nature to determine what we are "supposed" to do.


If you believe this, then Leo's advice is sound and wise – the advice will in all likelihood lead you to a greater sense of peace and contentment in your life – though not necessarily material success or security (though Leo would say these things either don't matter or that there's nothing we can really do about them anyway if things "are as they are meant to be").


If, however, you don't believe this – his advice could be catastrophic.  If, for example, you believe that human history is heading somewhere or that each human life has unique and important value, the suggestions look much less like sage wisdom and begin to look like laziness or cowardice.


I'm not exactly sure where I fall on the spectrum between the idea that human existence is just one infinitesimal bit of the cosmos that has no more significance than that of the amoebae (and even doubly so of an individual human life) and the belief that humanity as a whole is something unimaginably special, powerful and important in the cosmos and that each human life is incredibly special and unique and valuable to the cosmos in a way that no other creature is. But I definitely believe I'm more toward the latter than the former.


With that in mind, then, how does Leo's advice fare? Not so well.


What Leo's (and Taoism in general) advice is intended to do is to remove desire, struggle, strife, stretching, and generally anything that makes us uncomfortable and teach us to find the "paths of least resistance" that allow us to be at peace, without stress or strain. This is all well and good if you're prepared to come to the end of your earthly existence having accomplished nothing more than those things that you do naturally and automatically – regardless of their societal, moral, or spiritual value.


Don't get me wrong – removing stress and pain and discomfort certainly have an upside! And Leo is exactly right – the reason so many of us rise early, push hard and stay up late is merely because we want more stuff or more recognition, etc. And these are, I think we can agree, shallow and selfish and perhaps even pitiable motives to trade our lives for.


And in these cases, Leo's advice has real merit. Folks trading life and time and stress to get a bigger house or nicer car could find easier (and probably less destructive) ways to be happy in reducing their desire for such things – since being happy is presumably the goal of having more stuff and more recognition.


But what if it isn't about happiness at all?


What if there is real purpose and meaning to human existence? And if there are larger purposes and we are truly free and moral creatures, what if that implies some kind of moral obligation to do things that quite probably will make us unhappy but will serve some greater moral good – even at the cost of our stress, pain, struggle and discomfort?


It seems the Master in Leo's quote is really a very selfish and meaningless person – at least in a cosmos where humanity is a moral species and where the cosmos has some moral purpose.


In fact, go back and reread Leo's advice. Then ask yourself to imagine how our world would be different if the greatest people in human history had lived in accordance with it.


These are people who believed their choices and their lives could make a difference. These are people who deliberately planned, chose and lived difficult, arduous, painful, stressful lives because they believed their happiness wasn't the goal. Their goal was to make a difference in the cosmos – at least in some way and to some degree. They believed that our comfort was - at least at time if not always - secondary (or even diametrically opposed) to doing important things.


That last phrase is of pivotal importance! In order for someone to believe they can or should do important things, they first have to believe that some things are important. This is a value system. What we think is important determines our values and our values determine our behaviors.


In Leo's model, what is important is our peace, contentment and happiness. These are all good things. And if you value system places these things at the top, then Leo's advice is sound. If, however, there are things higher on our importance list than these (say, for example, freedom, liberty, equality, self-determination, etc.), then Leo's advice can be dangerous – because it places my feelings above my accomplishments.


In other words, Leo's advice calls me to contentment, not to achievement. And this, in Leo's system, is because achievement is depicted as a negative value. For Leo's worldview, achievement that causes me to become stressed, that requires me to plan, and asks me to work late hours or to work weekends instead of wind-surfing, etc., is a bad thing because it gets in the way of the most important things in Leo's value system – my feelings of happiness and contentment.


Let me be clear, I'm not passing judgment on Leo's value system or the advice he gives. What I am doing is pointing out that before you can accept Leo's advice – as poetic and lyrical as it is – you need first to determine if you understand and agree with the presupposed worldview and value system it is based on and derives from.


As for me, I'll keep my calendar and my to-do list. I think what people do matters in some way beyond our own inner sense of contentment. And while we can all agree that there are bad reasons to be stressed and discontented (materials possessions, physical appearance, social status, etc.), I think it likely that there are very good reasons to be stressed, uncomfortable, weary and stretched thin – and likely even good reasons to be in pain and distress. I do wish this were not so. But I believe it to be so.



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