Most of us, I think, want to feel productive, to believe that we are making a contribution to the world we live in. We want to feel that we matter, that we are making a difference. The question is…how do we know if this is true or not? Our society tends to answer this fundamental question by devising ways to measure our impact, our productivity. However, could it be that in our desire to be sure that we are making a difference we actually are making our world worse off? I suspect that this may be true.
As an economist, far be it from me to say that we should not be productive. Promoting productivity, and its first cousin efficiency, constitutes my profession’s bread and butter. Yet for many years I have believed that we have misconstrued this concept.
In our desire to know that we are being productive we have focused on devising methods for measuring something’s output. Typically we determine the productivity of a resource by how many units of output it produces in a given period of time. For instance, an acre of land that produces 100 bushels of corn per acre per year we say is more productive than one producing 50. Or, a salesperson who closes 50 sales in a month we say is more productive than one who closes only 30.
Within certain contexts this provides us a clear picture of something’s (or someone’s) contribution. But how do we measure the contribution of the individual on a sales or production team who doesn’t sell a lot or produce many widgets, but who somehow motivates everyone else to work together harmoniously (and “productively”)? How do we value a piece of land that produces little corn but, because of its history, provides a community with a sense of who they are and where they fit into the world? What about those “unproductive” sacred places that are “just sitting idle” or the peacemakers and artists in our midst? How do we measure their output?
Attempts to measure productivity can lead us to confuse output with contribution. Sometimes the largest contributions to the well being of the world consist of precisely those things we can’t measure. A mother’s love cannot be quantified, yet her contribution is enormous. However, our quest for certitude and efficiency lead us to stress those things we can quantify and undervalue those things we cannot.
The Productivity of Standing Still
Orthodox Christians say that the most important thing we can do is to stand still. How can “doing nothing” contribute the most to the world? Perhaps we may understand what they are trying to tell us by examining at a group of musicians that believes the world desperately needs to hear their music. So, they all get together one evening and start playing, each one zealously playing in whatever key he thinks is important, performing whatever song she thinks needs to be sung in whatever genre she wants to share. It takes very little for us to imagine the chaos that results. Due to their zeal and certitude as to what needs to be done the musicians don’t listen to one another and resist cooperating. They confuse action with results. After all, they’re playing music, aren’t they? For this reason large ensembles usually have a conductor or bandleader who determines the pieces to be played and literally gets everyone on the same page. A good leader brings harmony and meaningful results.
When we “stand still,” we aren’t inactive. We instead take time to listen to the still, small voice of the Conductor and to get direction as to what the Conductor wants us to play. The Spirit cares more about the world and its Music than we do. If we truly want to contribute, we all need to stop frantically running around doing things and to start listening to the One trying to get us all on the same page. Once we start responding to what we hear in the open silence of our hearts, we can have confidence that we will be contributing profoundly to our world. We may not be able to measure our contribution or even know exactly what it is. This requires humility. We can know, however, that we are helping to produce something profoundly meaningful. So, let’s all go out and stand still. Let’s develop “ears that hear and eyes that see” and learn to relish the quiet, allowing it to change us…and our world.