11/15/09 11/16 What changes efficiency, "doing more with less", into "always having to do more with more"?? It seems to be rooted in some of our most ancient cultural ideals. It's not a global "Ponzi scheme" exactly, but is similar perhaps in how it is both self-rewarding and self-defeating at the same time. Using our natural genius for escaping from traps is complicated. It's some of our own favorite myths we need to escape from!.
We learn how work more efficiency as a way of improving our own lot and make solving almost every kind of problem we deal with easier. Efficiency basically means the same thing as "problem solving", trying to accomplish as much as you can with as little as you can. It's central to our long standing work ethic, but has a "catch". Our work ethic hides what amounts to an unresolved positive feedback loop. That turns one of our culture's organizing principles of success into a need for accumulatively increasing success, running ever harder to keep up with ourselves. That's a kind of "dead end". It's an endlessly steeper climb of learning tasks. It has no real destination but instability. As we work ever more effectively we find it now multiplying the problems we need to keep up with.
Questioning the core beliefs of one's own culture is deeply problematic, of course, likely to be confusing. If our basic method of problem solving is the problem...well, then it becomes quite unclear what problem solving method to use to address it. I start from the basics. In the long term, our success needs to have some destination other than instability. If our habitual way of solving problems is part of the problem, we're not likely to see how to escape from it, so we need to be open to questioning anything. I think questioning principles and values that are sound need not be a threat to them at all. Questioning them is more likely to strengthen our sound principles. It's only those "popular wisdoms that just ain't so" that would seem to be really threatened.
What turns our work ethic into a feedback process is how succeeding at work has become our way of life. We believe in working hard to do a good job and finding efficiencies to be more productive is a constant goal of learning how to do our work. The popular wisdom I think needs to be kicked our the door is the idea that working hard and well is enough. I think that's the wrong kind of "enough" but people seem to defend it with all their might sometimes.
When we succeed it allows us to generate a surplus, giving us time and resources to take on more responsibility, have more of an impact and more success. That way of feeding on itself then also drives us to keep up. If we don't keep up with others who are similarly pursuing efficiencies and increasing their responsibilities and impacts, we loose status and position and fall behind. In our work culture doing well just isn't good enough. Doing ever better is required. So,... to maintain stability in our own social and employment roles we need to maintain ever increasing efficiency and take on increasing responsibility to have an increasing impact.
Our continually "doing more with less" by learning to use the various resources at hand more effectively, then continually increases the resources at our command. There's the rub. How hard we push up that slope of learning how to be more effective gets set for the whole community in which we compete by its most productive and fastest learners. "Being in the lead" then both inspires others and moves the goal posts they have to keep up with. In commanding ever more resources it also continually increases our negative physical impact on our environment and the earth. Both of those have become a problem!
Decades ago it didn't really matter much at all. There seemed like learning opportunities and the resources to use were ever easier to find. They started small, but the rate of increasing negative effects has always increased along with our own rewards. Now they're getting to matter quite a lot, as well as causing us te become really confused. Our old trusted solutions don't solve our mounting array of complicated problems, as they're causing them...
This endless treadmill with the dead end we now can begin to see is curiously an equalizing experience for everyone. The pressure on us individually to learn and do more is set by whatever competitive community we are part of. Each whole community is also in competition with every other, so none can really escape. The upward struggle required to keep from falling behind is everyone's struggle. It applies to the talented and untalented, to the rich and poor, young and old, high tech and low, the speedy rabbits and the slow turtles.
The positive feedback, the part that makes it multiply, is the surplus that efficiencies produce letting you take on more work. In a whole economy all the surpluses we all generate by learning to work better to do more add up. It's accumulated financially as well as in social status and political power. Financially it accumulates as the investment returns that businesses send back to their investors, who then regularly use them to build more businesses to do the same.
What we need to learn is an entirely new reason for accumulating wealth, it seems, other than multiplying wealth. To break the cycle we apparently need to convert "having more" into "having more to give away", to have a point of enough to using our learning to multiply our rewards, and then discover the rewards of a new learning task. There's something very interesting in the whole effect of what we spend on and give to, a whole world.