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On Tire Pressure and Productivity

The other day the low tire pressure indicator came on in my car. I didn’t see an obvious flat, so the likely explanation was some combination of colder temperatures and natural pressure loss over time, meaning that there was no immediate danger. Nonetheless, the bright orange warning light on my dashboard injected a steady dose of subliminal anxiety when driving.

So, as I was leaving my house this afternoon, somewhat late to catch a matinee showing of The Creator (which I had convinced myself was necessary “research” for someone who writes professionally about artificial intelligence), I decided to take five minutes to pull out the pump and add some air. Soon after I pulled out of my driveway the pressure warning clicked off.

I’m telling this story because of what happened next: I felt a short-lived but intense feeling of satisfaction.

Because I have a book on the subject coming out in March, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about both the promises and perils of “productivity.” It’s easy to dismiss interest in this topic as pure artifice, propped up by an exploitive “hustle culture” orchestrated by the logics of “late-stage capitalism.” Such sentiments, of course, are not entirely unwarranted as there are subtle but urgent truths buried within these general analytical broadsides.

But my experience with my tire pressure complicates the discussion. Our brains find deep satisfaction in seeing a problem, devising a plan, then witnessing its successful completion. We’re wired, in other words, to enjoy getting things done. To flee this impulse is to alienate ourselves from our basic nature.

Where does this leave us? It’s becoming increasingly clear that the right question regarding productivity is not whether it’s good or bad, as it’s both a reflection of our humanity and a target for exploitation. The better query is how we can more fully reclaim it — to build a life that enjoys the pleasures of accomplishments while avoiding the sting of overload and burnout.


In other news…

Are you interested in a one-on-one conversation with me about any topic of your choice? You can bid on this opportunity between now and October 3rd at 9pm ET at the Authors for Voices of Color Auction. This is my third year in a row participating in this charity event as I feel strongly about the cause. Click here to see all the items up for bid and then scroll down to find my offering. Looking forward to getting to know some of you better soon!

In podcast news, in Episode 267 of Deep Questions I take a deep dive into why we’re exhausted at work, pointing to a perhaps unexpected culprit and using this explanation to identify some effective solutions. Check it out.

10 thoughts on “On Tire Pressure and Productivity”

  1. “We’re wired, in other words, to enjoy getting things done. To flee this impulse is to alienate ourselves from our basic nature.”

    I also am addicted to functioning and getting things done. But while I don’t believe in the need to ‘flee this impulse,’ I’m not so sure this is our ‘basic nature.’ Perhaps we’re only hypnotized into believing this.

    Why? Because I think most people, including myself, have experienced moments when there really was nothing on the slate. So they find themselves with just enough discomfort to “have to” create or do something, a diversion of sorts. For me, I know it’s often a subtle strategy to avoid feeling in general.

    This reminds me of the scene in the movie Pleasantville, when two of the main characters are making out while parked by the local lake. Out of nowhere the guy says, “I need to stop!” The girl, played by Reese Witherspoon, says, “Why?” The guy responds, “because I’m starting to feel something!”

    • It’s worth remembering that we have a tendency to rationalize anything we do and usually do it subconsciously, and the claim that this would be our “basic nature” may very well be one such attempt. The environment also plays its role as you imply. I’m pretty curious to see how Cal approaches this topic in his book and what angle he chooses to argument from

      • I would argue that the only outright wrong answer is trying to reduce human experience to one “basic nature.”

        There were likely competing evolutionary pressures which acted as a web of causality that led to what humans are today. Being nice is sometimes beneficial, but so is being selfish; being risky is sometimes beneficial, but so is being safe; being driven is sometimes beneficial, but so is conserving energy; etc.

    • Carl,

      You raise a good point about what is “basic to our nature.” I would argue, however, that Cal would likely respond in two ways, just based off his books on podcast episodes.

      First, the notion of doing things is certainly drawn from a much richer philosophical account of agency, one that can be found in the work of the philosopher-motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford. Doing things puts us into a relationship with a world not of our own making, and that we must submit to its “what-ness.” I would say this is precisely what Cal’s example demonstrates.

      Second, there is the question posed by Josef Pieper in his book, Leisure the Basis of Culture. And the question is this: what will we do when all else is done? What happens when there is nothing left to do? Then what? Certainly Aristotle’s notion of contemplation plays a significant role in Cal’s response.

      • Brian,

        Yes, I agree that “Doing things puts us into a relationship with a world….”

        And that we need to, are even obliged to, express ourselves via creating, manifesting, working, etc.

        However my contention is that something askew when we solely base our entire identity on these things because they have then become crutches to avoid our most primal instinct, which is to feel.

  2. That’s the whole dilemma: how a natural feeling of accomplishment has been engineered by our culture and within this engineered environment turns out to become destructive.

    It’s a bit like those who are addicted to food: this addiction is especially hard because you need food everyday as a basic human need, but their lives have made this need a horrible experience for their health.

    I agree with Carl’s comment: this productivity environment can be a strategy to avoid feeling in general. Our brains need to pause and feel in order to learn. We can have the best resources in the world, but if we disrespect this basic rule, our previous generations will learn better than we do with fewer resources.

  3. All that from pumping up a tire. You know modern society has long since relegated doing manual/material things to hicks/rednecks/illegal immigrants. I’ve spent a lifetime fixing things. Got a 5 speed electronic automatic transmission stripped to the c clips in my garage. Yeah, satisfaction when you’re driving the thing down the road.

  4. I completely agree with the idea that satisfaction of accomplishment is a basic human drive, similar to food or sex. I agree with Cal that chalking this up purely to capitalism or exploitation doesn’t take into account either personal experience or pre-capitalist writings/experiences. If this is true, then criticizing the satisfaction of accomplishment, or otherwise seeing it purely as the manifestation of exploitation, is analogous to food-negativity or sex-negativity.

    That being said, when it comes to writings of an ethical/moral bent (including religious writings from many traditions), desires and the fulfillment of those desires are seen as fundamentally good BUT with a significant note of caution. Food and sex are human pleasures, but they can easily become all-consuming (as in gluttony and lust), and people are encouraged to keep those desires in check and in balance. The satisfaction of accomplishment (“productivity”) may be similar: it is a drive that is intrinsic to human nature and can be a source of good and a source joy—like food and sex, it is necessary to the survival of the species!—but can easily be twisted by oneself or by others and become a nefarious end in itself.

    On Cal’s recent episode talking about these comments, he mentioned the book of Genesis. I think this is particular interesting because at the end of the first creation story (Genesis 2:2-3), God is said to have rested after the work of creation. In Exodus this is then said to be an example for humankind. The work of creation is good, and humankind’s ability to participate in creativity is also good. Still, the example is there that resting is also good. Work (“productivity”) comes so easily that we need to be told, in a less intuitive instructive ethical framework, that our identity is more than what we do.

    In other words, the voices of caution against productivity are onto something significant, but for the opposite reason: it’s not because the satisfaction of accomplishment is foisted upon us, but because it needs to be kept in check, since we are worth more than our accomplishments.

  5. Cal’s argument is pretty much a Marxist argument–at least a classically Marxist argument. For Marx, the “natural” satisfaction of doing work is a big reason why its exploitation in a capitalist system is characterized as so harmful. It’s perverting this essential human expression. This is Marx’s “theory of alienation.”

    Had to chime in with this after listening to the recent podcast follow-up on this post, because I’m not sure it’s accurate to attribute the idea that “all drive to productivity is brainwashing” to neo-Marxist critical theorists. I mean, there’s probably someone (there’s always someone) making that argument, but it’s far from consensus. The idea that humans want to be connected to our labor is in the foundation of theory. Critical theory folks may argue (I would) that capitalist structures inevitably interrupt our relationship with work in a way that we can’t just opt out of, but that’s not the same thing as saying all desire to work is a late-capitalist ideological construction.


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