Mike Rowe on Efficiency versus Effectiveness

Insights from Dirty Jobs

Earlier this week, I listened to Brett McKay’s interview with Mike Rowe. As you’ll learn if you listen to the conversation, following his stint as the host of Dirty Jobs, Rowe has become an advocate for the trades.

In this interview, as in many others, Rowe argues that skilled labor (think: plumbing, welding) can be both satisfying and lucrative, and yet there are still somewhere around three million such jobs left unfilled in this country. He credits this gap largely to a contemporary culture that demonizes blue collar work and preaches the best path is always a college degree, followed, God willing, by a pair of Warby Parker glasses and a job as a social media brand manager.

(I might have added that last part.)

I always find Rowe’s thoughts on shifting American work cultures interesting, but there’s a phrase he often uses in these discussions that has recently begun to draw my attention: efficiency versus effectiveness.

Rowe notes that knowledge work seems obsessed with efficiency, while the skilled trades seem more concerned with effectively solving problems (c.f., his infamous TED talk on sheep castration).

The former can be dehumanizing, while the latter tends to be satisfying.

Stepping away from the immediate context of Rowe’s advocacy, I think he has touched on an important point here that highlights a little-discussed problem rotting the core of the knowledge economy…

The Failure of Techno-Productivism

Those who work with information have become obsessed with what I sometimes call techno-productivism: the idea that introducing technologies that simplify or speed up certain work tasks will necessarily make you or your organization increasingly more productive.

(Note, I use “productive” here in the true economic sense of producing more value per labor hour invested.)

Techno-productivism is intuitive. But it has also been, in my opinion, a failed ideology.

By focusing relentlessly on making specific tasks or operations easier and faster, instead of stepping back and trying to understand how to make an organization as a whole maximally effective, we’ve ended with a knowledge work culture in which people spend the vast majority of their time trying to keep up with the very inboxes, devices and channels that were conceived for the exact opposite purpose — to liberate more time for more valuable efforts.

Instead of striving for the embodied effectiveness of the skilled craftsman, in other words, we’ve ended up a twitching hyperactive mess of unstructured communication.

Rowe hints at an interesting path out of this swamp: stop lionizing efficiency, and start asking the question that has guided craftsmen for millennia: what’s the most effective way for me to accomplish the things that are most important?

(Photo by gato-gato-gato)

#####

Speaking of effectiveness, I want to pitch a kickstarter, initiated by a friend of mine, that just launched this week: Mouse Books. The concept is elegant: important and compelling works of literature delivered in a pocket size printing, roughly the size of an smartphone. When you feel the urge for distraction, instead of pulling out your phone, you can pull out a Mouse book and read something meaningful. This is cat nip for Study Hacks fans. Check it out…


Blog – Cal Newport

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *