How being more inefficient can make you a better human (and a writer).

by 8:14 PM 3 comments

My primary goal here is to explain the pursuit of efficiency as folly for writers, but as typical for me, I feel compelled to make my point in a roundabout manner. Please bear with me though, as I think I may be on to something helpful.

Efficiency is all the rage nowadays. Your car, your air conditioner, anything that plugs into an electrical outlet, are all continually scrutinized for how efficiently they do their jobs. This is good, as greater mechanical efficiency means that they can do more with less. This also means that if the engineers try to shave the build quality too close that they run the risk of decreased the longevity for the component. Sometimes they even design it that way, as their number one goal is always the profit margin of the company-if a microwave works beautifully (and efficiently) for a five years, then goes out in a blaze of glory, a person may be compelled to purchase another one, creating a more “efficient” revenue stream for the company.

We have relentlessly pursued efficiency in the devices we create, but our obsession with efficiency has even bled over into how we treat flesh and blood humans. I believe that our unchecked push for efficiency has harmed our society more than anything else I can think of. Unconvinced? Well, it’s a good thing that I have this endless roll of electronic parchment to explain my line of thinking.

Efficiency works well for machines because they are specialized. They do the job that they are designed for, and little else. There are no extraneous parts to get in the way, with as little wasted engineering as possible. People aren’t built like that (yet). We are built to be omnivorous, symmetrical, and able to handle a variety of terrain and situations. We are the Swiss Army knives of the animal kingdom. We aren’t built-to-order on an assembly line-yet. Yet in our ever-expanding society of selfish, hedonistic expectation, we are routinely treated as though our only usefulness lies in our ability to give others what they want.

Our supervisors at work look to wring the maximum amount of work out of us that they can per hour, because hey, they have supervisors too. If you think this is a recent phenomenon, do a little research into the rise of unions. Nowadays they are just another cog in the machine, looking out for their own interests like everyone else, but in the beginning they served a purpose. Unscrupulous companies pushed workers into unsafe situations because it was more financially efficient for their company. They exploited their workers because they were a renewable resource-there were more workers than jobs at that time-and aside from their paychecks, weren't managements responsibility to maintain. In essence, they were rented, like a car. And we all know how well rental cars get treated, slightly better than rented mules and red headed stepchildren (it's not racism if it's a hair color, people. Give me a break, Gingers are people too).

Millions of marriages are the same way. Some marry because of love,(it does still happen) but increasingly marriage has become more of a symbiotic relationship than romantic. The man has money, the younger woman makes him feel young again. The woman has money, the younger man does the same, and vice versa. Sometimes it’s as simple as two people carrying out different roles in a relationship, one to make the money, one to take care of the kids or be exciting enough to entertain them both. My point is that people have progressively moved away from caring about love because it is, to quote someone that I am too preoccupied to Google at the moment, “a lot of work”. If someone says that something is a lot of work, they are merely saying that the return on their investment isn’t as high as they would like. In this case, the investment is time and attention, even more precious a resource than money sometimes. There is also always the chance that the love will fade, that other will leave, and/or that they will end up hurting them emotionally.

Humans are messy creatures. We make mistakes. Often. And our emotions make us difficult to predict, understand, and control at times. Those of us addicted to power like to think that they hold some magic sway over our motivations, but I think deep down everyone understands the game, they’ve just grown comfortable with the lie. People who marry gold diggers know that the other person doesn’t love them, but there exists a silent agreement to never acknowledge that they are both only after one thing-be it sex with a younger person, a shiny piece of arm candy to draw the envy of others, or financial security.

To assume that human beings can be manipulated in the same manner of machines in the pursuit of efficiency is an exercise in futility. Sure, for short periods of time it can work, but if a manager miscalculates, or simply themselves have a bad day and step out of line, the result can be mutiny. The more you push something, the finer the tolerances become and the more unpredictable the results. So vain are we as a species that we think we can always control any given situation. If it can happen to machines, such as I described in the second paragraph of this post, how much more difficult can it be when you throw human emotions and free will into the mix? If your microwave was capable of a few days worth of PMS every month, chances are you’d just give it space and fire up the grille instead.

That space is what I am instructing our society to plan for. “Acceptable loss”, should only ever be used when it comes to radio signal strength and electrical efficiency. People inherently resist manipulation, just pick up your kids Social Studies or history book and read up on the downfall of the great civilizations that have come before us. Every time, the leadership of that society pressed too hard on their people (or those of surrounding countries), became too oppressive, and once a breaking point is reached revolution or conquest became inevitable. I’m sure each and every one of those civilizations had leaders that thought their “system”, their “society” had become so powerfully efficient that it could not fail. They continued to push for more, and eventually became overextended. Pride, the devils most easily exploited sin.

We can even push ourselves too hard, or allow ourselves to be pushed too hard. The resulting anxiety, or to use its more prevalent term-stress, builds until you are ready for your own little private mutiny. Again, we have developed terms for this as well-a nervous breakdown. We allow the expectations of others to become our expectations for ourselves. We actually feel like we should be able to do something just because someone else believes that we can, or tells us that they need it. We don’t want to let them down, we want to live up to expectations, to fulfill the promise of operational efficiency that is required of us.

Soon enough, we will hit the wall, reach our limit for what we can emotionally and physically give. Another popularized term for it?-burned out. When that happens, we either remove ourselves from the situation or are removed, and promptly replaced. Emotional and mental exhaustion has replaced physical peril as the chief hazard of workplace safety. Of course, death or dismemberment are more reliable evidence then the opinion of a psychologist (an inexact science, of course), when trying to explain why you can no longer meet expectations.

So, I finally reach my main point. Writing is a creative endeavor. Like any other creative pursuit, it requires the faculties of higher brain function that are usually the first to go on vacation when you are physically or mentally exhausted. We writers are judged on output, both in quality and quantity. If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say that you should simply spend all of your time writing or reading if you want to be successful, I’d have more free time to write because I could quit my day job.

Creativity is the antithesis of efficiency. Art is frivolous. Art is superficial. Need proof? We’re in a recession right now, though we are almost out of it (so they say). Anyone feel like dropping a couple hundred dollars on paintings? No? You’d rather make sure you can afford to keep a roof over your head and food in your stomach? Feel like dropping the long dollar on a more exciting car? High performance engines get poor gas mileage, you say? Or do you really just need something silver from Toyota that’s the equivalent of driving a toaster? Something that simply does its job carting you from your job to your house and back again? Congratulations on becoming a soulless robot. Or, as corporate America might say, a more “efficient” employee.

If you want to create compelling art, you need to do the opposite. You need to have experiences, to meet people that you normally wouldn't. Make mistakes. Live. I am reminded of a commencement address by Neil Gaiman before the University of the Arts. If you haven’t watched it yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I fail at conveying the message as eloquently as he did, but I recognize the truth in them. Especially at what he says about how not knowing the rules is a good thing. I'd call it a gift. If you don't know the rules, what is possible, you take chances, make mistakes, and occasionally push boundaries. Pushing boundaries is sloppy, inefficient work, wrought with wasted time and failed ventures. It is also the only way to make the impossible, possible. 

Creation is a remarkably inefficient process. Writing, even more so, just ask anyone that has had to rewrite something repeatedly because it just doesn’t come out right. The harder they push, the worse it gets. It’s the most compelling evidence I can present to encourage you to let your work breathe, to become more inefficient with your writing time. When the Muse returns (and it always will, have no fear) you can make up for lost time, and your writing will be better for it.

It’s just the way we humans are wired.

Chris Godsoe

Developer

Christopher Godsoe is a science fiction author in Central Maine. A single father, he spends his time enjoying video games with his son, cooking, and is an unrepentant film buff.