September 15, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 34: The efficiency trap, releasing burdens, and books as the engine of innovation

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  The efficiency trap

“It can’t be the case that you must do more than you can do. That notion doesn’t make any sense: if you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or that others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time—no matter how grave the consequences of failing to do it all might prove to be. So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken. We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations. We would be forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.

“But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory.

“Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it. (Your boss isn’t stupid: Why would she give the extra work to someone slower?) Figure out how to spend enough time with your kids and at the office, so you don’t feel guilty about either, and you’ll suddenly feel some new social pressure: to spend more time exercising or to join the parent-teacher association—oh, and isn’t it finally time you learned to meditate? Get around to launching the side business you’ve dreamed of for years, and if it succeeds, it won’t be long before you’re no longer satisfied with keeping it small.

“’Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,’ the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke, and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of ‘what needs doing’ that expands to fill the time available.” — From Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (Read my three takeaways)

Burkeman notes that the more balanced our lives become, the more the goalposts shift around how we should spend our time. We might reach a point where we're thriving at work, spending time with family, and sleeping 8 hours—in short, attaining the mythical 'work-life balance.' Then, we have the idea of taking up a weekly painting class, writing that novel, or enrolling in an online course. Now we must carve out more time from our already full weeks, ensuring something else will suffer. Burkeman explains how the technology that enables us to save time equally exposes us to more ways of spending it:

“The technologies we use to try to ‘get on top of everything’ always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.”

This constant balancing act leaves a permanent taste of dissatisfaction with life, resulting in burnout, seeking respite in holidays, or endless entertainment. Burkeman believes that ruthless prioritization is the answer:

“You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.”

II. Releasing our burdens

“In our favorite version of an ancient Buddhist parable, a group of monks is returning to their monastery from a long pilgrimage. Over high mountains and across low valleys they trek, until one day they come to a raging river, where a beautiful young woman stands. She approaches the eldest monk and says, ‘Forgive me, Roshi, but would you be so kind as to carry me across the river? I cannot swim, and if I remain here or attempt to cross on my own I shall surely perish.’ The monk smiles at her warmly and says, ‘Of course I will help you.’ With that he picks her up and carries her across the river. On the other side, he gently sets her down. She thanks him, departs, and the monks continue their journey. After five more days of arduous travel, the monks arrive at their monastery, and the moment they do, they turn on the elder in a fury. ‘How could you do that?’ they admonish him. ‘You broke your vow—you touched that woman!’ The elder replies, ‘I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her for five days.’

“The monks carried the woman in their hearts for days; some perpetrators and victims carry their burdens of guilt, grief, anger, and revenge for years. What does it take to set those burdens down?” — From Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The use of parables and short stories can be more effective at communicating lessons than merely sharing advice. The above passage from Mistakes Were Made is similar to another story I read online some years ago, source unknown. The mere fact that this story has remained with me demonstrates the power of storytelling. Here’s the story, rewrote from memory:

Two friends are walking through a forest. Finding an overturned log a few hours into their journey, they stop for lunch. As they're finishing up, two snakes emerge from a nearby bush and bite one of the exposed legs of each friend. As quickly as the snakes appear, do they disappear back into the surrounding undergrowth. Knowing the danger these snakes present, one of the friends pulls out a knife and cuts out the snake's venom to stop it from spreading. The other friend chases after the snake, screaming insults as he runs. After only ten minutes, the second friend lies dead on the forest floor. So embroiled with seeking revenge did he forget about the venom.

The venom symbolizes our negative emotions, burdens, and worries that we carry within, just as the monks did with their thoughts of the women. All toxic emotions represent poisons that are better cut out than ruminated on, or worse, allowed to infect our actions. The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves, as the parable goes.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Arthur Schopenhauer on books being the engine of innovation:

“Without books the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change, windows on the world, ‘Lighthouses’ as the poet said ‘erected in the sea of time.’ They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind, Books are humanity in print.”

II.  Friedrich Nietzsche on the power of illusions:

“Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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