Monday, October 05, 2015

What is the it? (with Meg)

Megan Butler is a regular guest poster on Swart Donkey. We had a chat...

Trev: 
One of the interesting philosophical dilemmas working in the financial industry is 'identifying your value add'. When you dig holes or build trucks, you see what you have done. The more abstract the task, the more it plays a facilitative role, the harder it is to be completely sure that the task, absent you, would have been worse. Beyond a point, I don't think people are working for their salaries. Identity and meaning get tied up into the purpose of what we do every day. 'What do you do?' is short hand for 'Who are you?' and 'What matters to you?'


Meg:
By the same token, most of us will instinctively trot out a short CV when introducing ourselves or others. Somehow it's much easier to say 'I'm an actuary and I teach' than to say 'I love the scent of vanilla, reading and long walks'. Although what we do should be the truest reflection of ourselves (after all, we spend most of our lives "doing"), I don't think that it is necessarily the case for most people. How many people can honestly say that their work is their hobby?

Trev: 
It may not be their hobby, but it is their time sponge. It is what lets them soak up any excess 'what next time'. We don't wake up and think, 'Is there a reason I need to go into work today'. We go. It is a habit. But many of the other things that are important to us are not habits, including hobbies. We wait for rare moments of inspiration. In the mean time, time passes, so if on reflection we are uncertain whether our time has added value, we can get a little miserable. Those moments of reflection when we think whether it was all worth while?

Meg:
And what is the 'it' that we are assessing? This is perhaps the more interesting question, that is considerably more challenging to explore. If your work and your life are interchangeable there is arguably something missing. But as you say, work is a time-sponge. It is sometimes easier to churn out another delivery than to take a deep breath and ask "Is this what I want to make up my life?" And that is really a challenging question if you don't like the answer. Changing it requires all sorts of courage.

Trev:
It becomes rather easy to go with the flow. If the thing we are presented with seems like what we expect, we just get on with it. Stepping back is rare when we pack our days full. There is always a trade off between 'what is the best way to do this?' and 'how can I get this done?'. If something is once off, it is normally said that it is worth just getting it done. If you are going to do it again and again, then there is a lot that can be gained from more preparation time. The challenge with life is we do only get one. As you have pointed out before, not choosing has its advantages. Getting the balance between space and action is tricky.

Meg:
It's also a question of how much of a specialist you want to be. Before the industrial revolution, most families were at least competent at most things needed to keep body and soul together: you grew and reared your own food, cooked everything from scratch and made your own clothes. As our work moved from generalised to specialised we lost many of the skills considered non-essential but still greatly admire those with a variety of skills. What we miss is that it is almost impossible to specialise at everything and even being generally competent at everything was never really feasible.

Trev:
I think we have taken our level of incompetence in some areas to extremes. I do see the value of what Tim Ferriss calls 'Selective Ignorance'. By ignoring some things you can focus your energy more productively. But I think we lose some basic life competence. You don't get better meals by not being a competent cook. It is not more efficient to ask someone else to make you a coffee because you don't know how. There is value in 'low value tasks' other than factory line comparative advantage. There is also perspective in attempting tasks outside your speciality.

Meg:
It really is a question of priorities and some conscious choosing. We can't be fantastic at everything. We are unlikely to even be good at everything but there are going to be things we really should be good at and lots of things where we scrape by and okay to simply be okay. There are also going to be plenty of things that we are never going to get right or even start to learn. Sometimes those decisions are taken out of our hands and that can help reduce our choices to manageable ones.

Trev:
We do need to prioritise. I also think we need to let go of using 'which things we are good at' to justify our choices in some places. A base of competence in life, things you enjoy, and relationships gives you the energy to find an area to 'be fantastic'. Making your own bed, and knowing how to buy jam aren't things you should outsource in search of that thing you are the best in the world at. Having areas of life where you aren't competing, you are just appreciating, reduces the philosophical angst of thinking you might have gone through life and not achieve anything of value.

Meg:
It takes courage to put aside that thing you are awesome at, but hate, and focus on the thing you love, where you are, at best, average. In theory, the 10 000 hour rule means that with enough practice we should all become world-class at these activities. However, it represents a big risk. In high school, I had a friend who was really gifted at maths. She declined to do advanced maths simply because she wanted to study drama and this would not be of any use to her. That's pretty wise when you are 15. 


Other posts by Meg:


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