Productivity as Your Central Purpose: Part 3

Productivity as Your Central Purpose: Part 3

Good Monday, dear readers, and welcome to the exciting conclusion of my miniseries on productivity! In Part 1, we primarily discussed what a career is, isn’t, and should be. In Part 2, we got a bit more psychological and philosophical, discussing fundamental human needs and how productive work fits into the total context of a flourishing life. This time – finally – I’ll break it down to an even more concrete level and offer some practical advice on how to get where you want to be if you’re not already there. Bear in mind, it’s virtually impossible to give detailed, step-by-step career advice that will be useful to most people – and that’s not what matters most, anyway. The kind of advice I will offer is intended to help you check your principles, as well as the specific substance and method of your thinking. I intend to help you improve your ability to think about your career and the standard by which you judge it, and therefore your ability to come up with a detailed plan of your own; the goal is not to try to guess how you should answer hypothetical interview questions or what industry you should work in.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a dim but charming coffee shop downtown. In about 45 minutes, I’ll shut down my laptop and drive to a small farm on the outskirts of town, where I’m being paid to tend to the animals for a week. After that, I’ll finish up a short article on education, then begin work on a simple real estate writing gig that I just landed this morning. My day will conclude with finalizing the sale of an item I’ve refurbished for a tidy 20% profit. By bedtime, I’ll have made about $150 for four hours of work, performed at a comfortable pace – and with none of it really feeling like work. Not bad, but I can – and will – do better in the future.

This is a radically different picture of my professional life than the one you would have seen even as recently as three years ago. I’ll give you the short version: it was mostly arbitrary rules, backstabbing coworkers, an ungrateful boss, and a net paycheck totaling about 1/4 of the value I was producing for my employer. It wasn’t all bad, but it certainly wasn’t good enough to keep doing it. Prior to that, I was doing similar work for much better pay, but in a significantly more toxic environment.

My career in medicine was getting to a point where I felt like I just couldn’t win.

My choice of words in that segue was deliberate: I want to talk about “winning” and “losing” as critical concepts in work and productivity. Properly understood, there are no “losers” in business or in production more broadly; if all parties aren’t realizing a net profit (either materially or intellectually/spiritually), it’s not a “winning” and sustainable arrangement, and a rational, flourishing person will look for better opportunities elsewhere. (In a future post, I will discuss why “win/lose” arrangements aren’t good for you, even if you’re the “winning” party.)

Have you ever felt like you aren’t being paid what you’re worth, or otherwise not being compensated adequately for your time and skills? Perhaps you’ve experienced the opposite extreme – being paid handsomely for work that feels too easy and doesn’t challenge you. Or maybe your pay and benefits are about right, but there’s something else you don’t like about your job – the specific tasks involved, the monotony, your coworkers, the rigid hours.

If any of this sounds familiar, I have some news, and it may not be what you were expecting or wanting to hear: the core problem might be primarily the fault of your employer, but statistically speaking, it’s probably you.

Hear me out. I’m not here to attack or criticize you. I write this blog primarily because I like to write, and also because I sincerely like to help people. During my time in the workforce, I’ve identified a few grievous errors in the thinking of almost everybody that I’ve ever interacted with, from the receptionists all the way up to the CEOs.

The problem I’m referring to is a complex and multifaceted one, but I’ll do my best to summarize it succinctly without losing meaning. In essence, it’s a failure to properly understand the natures of three things: rights, productivity, and wealth. All of these are big topics, and all will be discussed more thoroughly in future posts, but for now I will touch on the fundamentals most relevant to this subject.

First, and most importantly – what are rights? Where do they come from? They aren’t subjective, they don’t apply differently to different people, and they don’t come from God, the government, or society. Rights are natural and discovered. That is, your metaphysical nature as a human being dictates your requirements for life and flourishing, and you discover that knowledge by observing certain facts about existence and following an unbroken logical chain from those observable facts to their necessary conclusions. Rights are a sanction to act, not a guarantee of stuff.

Perhaps that was a mouthful. Let me simplify: rights are not handed down from on high. They’re not “created” or “determined” by anyone, or any group of people. Their nature is determined by human nature; rights are existential absolutes, and if our nature as human beings were to fundamentally change, so would the nature of human rights along with it. But as long as we are what we are now, rights are objective, inviolate, and equally applicable to all human beings. (This is why there are no such things as gay rights, trans rights, minority rights, etc. All rights apply equally to all humans; no human possesses any right that others do not.)

Do you have a right to a job, a certain wage, or particular working conditions? If you believe that you do, I challenge you to rethink that premise. Having a “right” to goods or services would necessarily mean that someone else is required to provide those things to you if you don’t produce them yourself. This is merely another way of saying that you have a right to use force against someone in order to make them give you a particular job or salary. Nobody has any such right; there can be no such thing as a right to initiate force – no such thing as a right to violate someone else’s rights. (More on freedom and force in future posts.) If your employer is paying you $10 per hour, that’s because one of two things is true: either you’re only generating about $12 of value, or your employer is dramatically undervaluing you. In the former case, nothing is wrong – except, perhaps, your expectations. In the latter, you owe it to yourself to ask for a raise, or to leave and go work for someone who will pay you what you’re worth. (Contrary to what the media and alleged economic experts would have you believe, the vast majority of employers pay their employees a pretty accurate wage; it’s uncommon to be paid significantly less than what you’re worth.)

What about productivity? What is it? Put simply, it’s just what it says – the act of producing, of making things (either physical items or spiritual/emotional values) that didn’t exist before. Why is it critical to human health and flourishing? Doesn’t nature provide an endless bounty?

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. In its default, unaltered state, nature is overwhelmingly hostile to human beings. It’s not a coincidence that a majority of human beings died young (and often terribly) throughout the vast majority of our existence on this planet. Hunting and gathering can only sustain very small numbers of humans in a given area, and not reliably or safely. Only when we discovered and began to implement our ability to change our environment – to adapt it to our needs – did the overwhelming safety, efficiency, and comfort you see around you become possible. In order to live and thrive on any sort of meaningful scale, human beings must think, work, and produce goods – we must change the world to suit our needs.

How about wealth? Is it just another word for money? Not really. Wealth is better described as net added value, or goods/money/resources produced that didn’t exist before the relevant productive activity happened. For this reason, the concept of wealth encapsulates more than just money – your home, your Netflix subscription, and your elegant, spiffy business website are all forms of wealth. This is also why it’s not accurate or helpful to judge your career based solely on your salary; you might also receive health benefits, vacation pay, valuable professional contacts and an ever-expanding mastery of certain skills. All of those things enrich and enhance your life and should be considered when thinking about your compensation.

So, if what I’m really saying here is “nobody is entitled to anything,” how does that count as constructive career advice? Well, when you recognize that human progress and flourishing only happen when individuals engage in free trade to mutual benefit, trading value for value in win-win transactions, you are able to engage in relationships free of resentment and hidden hostility – able to enrich yourself and everyone around you at the same time, and to walk away without guilt or grudges if that isn’t possible.

With this new standard in mind, what kind of work should you look for? What can you do that will pay the bills, support your personal flourishing, and promote mutually beneficial relationships with everyone around you? I promise, it’s not as impossible as it might sound.

If you couldn’t tell already, I’m a huge fan of self-employment. Don’t take that to mean that I think traditional W-2 jobs are inherently lame; some of the following specific advice will apply only to U.S. residents starting their own businesses, but the general principles apply anywhere in the world, to traditional W-2 employees as well as entrepreneurs. Obviously, you should always do your own research and familiarize yourself with laws that might affect you, based on where you live. Laws change frequently, and usually not for the better – always inform yourself thoroughly and never make major decisions based primarily on anyone else’s advice.

Practical Tip #1: Be Flexible!

This is really what it’s all about. If you can break free of the mindset that there’s only one thing you can do to be successful and happy, half the work is already done. I talk to many people who complain about their jobs, but seem confused or intimidated by the notion of doing something, anything else. The most common specific complaint I hear is “but I went to school for four/six/eight years and racked up $80,000 in student loans, I can’t just let all that be for nothing.” Yes, you can – and you should, if you’re not flourishing in that career. Besides, it’s never truly for nothing – the wisdom you gain from this kind of experience is invaluable, and many of the skills you learned in that career will likely still be useful. This mindset exemplifies a common logical error called the “sunk cost fallacy.” Just because you put a lot of time and money into something that sucks doesn’t mean you should keep exposing yourself to suckage. It’s amazing how many people think this way; it really makes no sense, even on the surface. If your situation sucks – change it! Time spent not moving forward is time wasted stagnating or moving backward. Always be on the lookout for new opportunities to make some money doing something you love, or to try entirely new things just for the value of a new skill.

Practical Tip #2: The Sole Proprietorship is the Gold Standard For Beginners

If you think self-employment is for you and you have an idea about what to sell (and to whom), the first real challenge is deciding how to start and structure your business. To some extent, you will be smothered half to death by bureaucracy no matter what you do, but this is in part why I’m such a big fan of the sole proprietorship – it greatly limits the amount of BS you have to put up with, provided you don’t intend to hire any employees. It’s also the most flexible and inexpensive option; converting a sole proprietorship into an LLC or something else is much easier than going the other way, and your startup costs on the legal side of things are minimal. In most cases, your tax burden will also be noticeably lower. Usually, all you need to do is register your business name for a relatively small fee if the name of the business doesn’t contain your legal first and last name; if it does, you don’t need to register anything. You can freely use your personal bank account to take payments – just make sure you keep meticulous records. Any and all business income is treated the same as W-2 wages for tax purposes, so there’s little else you need to do. I’ll talk more about the nuts and bolts of starting your first business in a future post, but for now, just know that for most people, this will be your best option for getting a first venture off the ground.

Practical Tip #3: Remember What Money is For

It’s not for gathering dust in your bank account, nor is it just something to be impulsively traded for any good or service that tickles your immediate, short-range whims. Money is a tool; it will take you anywhere you want to go, but it will not replace you as the driver. It does no good if it sits around and doesn’t turn into stuff that makes your life better, and it also does no good if it’s spent frivolously on irrational, spur of the moment things. The mere fact that something gives you a rush of endorphins does not mean it’s actually good for you (see drugs, religion, sugar in more than occasional servings). Money is for promoting and acquiring your rational, long-term interests. It’s not always easy to know what’s actually good for you, but it can be identified via careful thought according to an objective standard based on the factual requirements of human life. Sometimes money can buy happiness, sometimes it can’t. Wanting more of it may be compatible with your particular rational goals – or it may not be. The point is, money isn’t the standard – your life is. I make about half as much nowadays as I did when I was working as a highly skilled medic, but my life is now significantly better overall. Choose your career wisely, and not based solely on how much it pays – it’s where you’ll be spending most of your time, and you need to love it passionately.

Whatever you do and whatever you decide, I encourage you to keep one thing in mind: no matter how vast or how modest your intellect, you must think in order to succeed. You can’t emote your way through your career, or through any other part of your life. Emotions are a critical part of what it means to be human, but are not the mechanism by which we should make decisions. (You guessed it – more on emotions in a future post.) It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 88, it’s never too late to improve yourself, to make a change that will make the rest of your life more conducive to real flourishing.

I hope this miniseries on productivity has been helpful to you. I welcome your constructive feedback in the comments below; as my audience slowly grows, it’s helpful to know who some of you are and where you are in life. Are you experiencing a particular dilemma around your work life, or considering a change? Let me know!


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