Reality doesn’t always match managers’ predictions.Line of Inquiry: Ed O’Brien on How Managers Can Set Smarter Performance Benchmarks
It was sometime last fall when I started seeing them on Twitter, the “productivity hacks.” Their authors were an odd confederacy of mostly young men whose longing for entrepreneurial success seemed second only to an ache for social media stardom.
The tweets that announced them were a strange mix of puritanical self-restraint and self-congratulatory bravado, and they gave the impression that these young men viewed the requirements of human achievement as a goose might the recipe for foie gras, an excruciating routine in service of some decadent goal, with the notable difference that, unlike the geese, these would-be influencers welcomed the abuse.
On Twitter, their advice was torrential. “Schedule distractions: When you start work, note down when your next break will be. But stick to the scheduled time,” one individual advised.
Another promoted himself as Silicon Valley’s reverse Samson: “Peak productivity unlocked today. Took meeting while getting a haircut.”
For a final evangelist of utmost efficiency, even sleep wasn’t sacred: “Give your mind an overnight task. Upon closing your eyes, give your mind a job. ‘How might I make an extra $1k each month?’”
That last tweet, a piece of advice cribbed from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, highlights the spirit in which these hacks are most often received, as superficial tips for the pursuit of spectacular wealth. And yet, to see them as nothing more than mere encouragements to the acquisitive instinct is to overlook what they contend about a far more important matter: what it means to be human.
A job or a calling?
Public advice for professional success is hardly a modern innovation. For instance, in 1748, Benjamin Franklin published The American Instructor, a preposterous catalog of counsel whose ambitions were aptly captured by its subtitle, which purported, in part, “to Qualify Any Person for Business, without the Help of a Master.”
The manual was mostly an adaptation of George Fisher’s The Instructor: or Young Man’s Best Companion, a book that had long been popular on the other side of the Atlantic; however, what made the American edition noteworthy were the additions that were quintessentially Franklin. The most influential among them was “Advice to a young Tradesman, written by an old One.” Fashioned as a letter, the short work included an index of reminders—“Remember that Time is Money,” “Remember that Credit is Money,” “Remember that Money is of a prolific generating Nature”—that aimed to inculcate prudent financial practice.
Franklin’s “Advice to a young Tradesman” found enthusiastic readers in colonial America, but it gained renewed interest a century and a half later when the German sociologist Max Weber identified it as “the characteristic voice” of what he memorably called “the spirit of capitalism.” That phrase was the second half of the title of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber’s most famous book, from 1905, and what he meant by it was not that Franklin’s homily promoted the love of money for its own sake, nor, for that matter, that it implied a worldview of empty materialism or hedonic pleasure. On the contrary, the spirit of capitalism encapsulated what Weber termed “that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling, strives systematically for profit for its own sake.”
Such a selfless approach to one’s daily labor is what gives work an almost sacramental status and transforms it from a job, from a means of keeping your belly full and a roof over your head, into a calling.
The key here is to distinguish what it means for a job to be an instrument of wealth creation from what it means for it to be a “calling.” As Weber understood it, if we want to understand why Franklin advocates an approach to the workday that seems so methodical and strangely ascetic—“Waste neither Time nor Money, but make the best Use of both”—we shouldn’t assume that such sacrifices are ultimately in service of achieving power, exalted status, or delayed gratification of a gilded sort. In fact, they aren’t even principally concerned with securing the basics of sustaining human life. Rather, Weber said, the spirit of capitalism implied by Franklin’s precepts has “the character of an ethically slanted maxim for the conduct of life.” The sacrifices transform work from an instrument for ulterior aims (Riches! Fame! Ferraris!) to an end in itself.
Such a selfless approach to one’s daily labor—what Weber calls “a characteristic feature of the ‘social ethic’ of capitalist culture”—is what gives work an almost sacramental status and transforms it from a job, from a means of keeping your belly full and a roof over your head, into a calling.
The happiness paradox
For Weber, the commitment to pursuing work as a calling plays out in conduct that can seem like a never-ending string of utility calculations or, as the American avatar of such a “spirit” often put it in his own writings, in how we might be most “useful” in our daily behavior.
Franklin died in 1790, nearly 75 years before Weber was born, but not long after English philosopher Jeremy Bentham began his efforts to systematize such an approach and dignify it with a school of thought. That school, utilitarianism, stands as a formal expression of the homespun wisdom of “Advice to a young Tradesman.” Its guiding idea is best encapsulated in Bentham’s most important book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, first published in 1789.
In the opening chapter, Bentham famously defined the “principle of utility” as “that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”
Notably, for Bentham, the principle of utility should guide not only individual decision-making but “every measure of government” as well. What happens, then, when an individual’s utility-maximizing choice is at odds with an alternative that would better enhance the utility of the community? As Bentham wrote in “A Fragment on Government,” from 1776, the choice is clear: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
There is no small irony in this tension, and the ability to master it, psychologically speaking, is the ultimate trial for any committed utilitarian. Adherents must esteem human happiness as the exclusive criterion for moral and practical decision-making while forgoing such pleasure themselves whenever any alternative choice might bring more happiness to the community. (I must abjure filet mignon, so this logic goes, that the poor may have their cornmeal.)
For Weber, the paradoxical commitment to working for benefits you refuse to enjoy yourself was the very spirit of capitalism exemplified by Franklin’s “Advice.” Commercial success would not purchase leisure or gratification, merely the opportunity to reinvest and expand your business.
The New Puritans have ascended the very heights of productivity by losing sight of what it means to be human.
Importantly, as Weber saw it, this spirit gained strength from the Protestant ethic, a psychospiritual response to the Reformation movement in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most important element of that response, for Weber, and why he included it as the title of his great work, was a growing belief in predestination. A central tenet of Calvinism (a branch of the movement that was named after the 16th-century theologian John Calvin, whose tireless sermonizing spawned the Congregational, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches), the doctrine of predestination held that, since God not only was the creator of all things but also had divine foresight, whether heaven or hell was in store for you was totally out of your hands. From the moment of your birth, you were destined for one place or the other. This did not mean that you could, or should, act in any way you wanted. Rather, in something of a harrowing, lifelong exercise of “fake it till you make it,” you had to conduct yourself as if you were one of the chosen few blessed with God’s mercy and the entry into heaven. Such conduct wouldn’t grant you admission if you didn’t already have a ticket, but lest you live out your days convinced of a date with eternal damnation, you had every reason to lead your life as if you already knew you enjoyed God’s favor. Moreover, insofar as human beings had been condemned to labor since their banishment from the Garden of Eden, visible success in your chosen trade was one key way of providing evidence—to yourself as well as to others—of your likely status as a member of the elect.
Franklin, of course, was an avowed Deist whose belief in a higher power was questionable at best, but as Weber saw it, the Protestant ethic still enflamed him. He grew up in Puritan Boston in a household where his father hoped his youngest son might one day become a minister, and one of the abiding psychological consequences of this experience was the “early to bed, early to rise” instinct that inspired his commercial writings and entrepreneurial pursuits. For Weber, Franklin was the archetype of the secular legacy of the Protestant ethic, a sensibility that would continue to shape Western capitalism long after the terrors of hellfire and brimstone receded from the daily cares of most people.
Such a sensibility also helped to resolve the happiness paradox at the heart of utilitarianism. Recall that, for Bentham, adherents of the principle of utility were compelled to make decisions that ensured the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But how exactly do we define happiness? If we define it as “pleasure,” as Bentham did in 1825 in The Rationale of Reward—“To what shall the character of utility be ascribed, if not to that which is a source of pleasure?”—we are still stuck with the same paradox. But if the principle of utility takes on something of a Calvinist chill, if instead of actual happiness it becomes a measure of those commercial activities that could conceivably produce happiness—the establishment of factories, the creation of shipping lanes, the rise of industrial power—then the requirements of wealth creation might become the moral and practical measure of all decision-making. What should otherwise be an instrument instead becomes an end.
A productive illustration
It may seem perverse that the logic of utilitarianism should be championed by those who so thoroughly deprecate leisure time and personal pleasure—key ingredients, for most people, to leading a happy life. For such odd individuals, instead of decisions being made with an eye toward the greatest happiness of the greatest number, they should instead turn on measurements of gross productivity.
What might such an approach look like? Consider as a guide two books by American businessman Edward Conard: 2012’s Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told about the Economy Is Wrong and 2016’s The Upside of Inequality: How Good Intentions Undermine the Middle Class.
Principally written to dismiss concerns about income inequality, vindicate the central importance of the financial sector, and champion small-government conservatism, the books also provide an unapologetic portrait of the productivity mindset. In Conard’s view, productivity is the panacea for most social maladies, and therefore any proposals that might dampen productive behavior are wrong minded and menacing. This is especially true for his bête noire, higher taxes. Conard contends that they discourage the most talented people from entering those high-risk, high-return professions that best promote economic development, pushing them, instead, into high-skill professions that provide much more security but also much less pay. “As the most talented Americans took risks and grew more successful,” he says, surveying the past few decades, “. . . the most talented students no longer aspired to be doctors and lawyers,” preferring instead to try their luck at financially risky endeavors such as venture capital and entrepreneurship.
Conard goes even further with respect to those academic pursuits that, for him, contribute almost nothing to GDP. “America could take a number of steps to increase its pool of properly trained talent,” he writes. “It could reduce subsidies to students and colleges studying curricula that do little to increase employment—psychology, history, and English, for example.”
Such amendments to education policy certainly seem drastic—and, to the liberal arts majors among us, a little mean spirited as well—but Conard insists that they are nothing less than a moral imperative. When the best and brightest pursue useless studies, they join the ranks of “underutilized talent”—those highly capable people who squandered their gifts and the good they might otherwise have done. “We should demand their leadership and risk taking as a moral responsibility,” he writes of such individuals, “no matter their happiness.”
No matter their happiness. It’s a striking statement, but Conard doesn’t seem to particularly value human happiness. On the contrary, he is quite clear that its pursuit often comes at the price of accomplishments that enhance productivity and economic development. “Truly differentiated success requires devoting your life to work,” he writes, “forsaking your family, enduring the psychological weight of crushing responsibilities, and taking risks to achieve it.”
The implication seems bleak, but Conard is unflinching. “God didn’t put talented people on earth to be happy,” he explains. “He put them here to take responsibility, lead, innovate, and take prudent risks.”
The New Puritans
Conard’s invocation of a higher power seems a little jarring. He may well be a devoted man of faith, but in the pages of his work, organized religion—at least of any sort that Weber might have recognized—never intrudes on his thinking. Instead, when he says things such as the reader should assume that “the talents of mankind belong to mankind,” it seems less a conclusion borne of theological reflection than an inadvertent admission that, without the warrant of a higher power, the sacrifices entailed by this worldview are bonkers.
Those spirits kindred to Edward Conard, the New Puritans on Twitter who publicly embrace an ethic of all work and no play for no apparent reason beyond a commitment to making the most money and being as productive as possible, rarely give any hint of such perturbation, however minor. Unlike the men and women of Weber’s world who constantly labored to keep the most dreadful doubts at bay, they have transcended any misgivings together with the demands they make for actual self-reflection.
They have ascended the very heights of productivity by losing sight of what it means to be human.
John Paul Rollert is adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.
More from Chicago Booth Review
Acquiring even mundane details about a stranger can shake our sense of anonymity.The More We Know about Others, the More We Think They Know about Us
We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. Please review Chicago Booth's privacy notice, which provides information explaining how and why we collect particular information when you visit our website.