Back in November, I wrote about invisible saviors: people who, due to their proactivity, receive no credit for their positive influence on the world. This lack of recognition is caused by our tendency to reward reactive work far more than proactive work. Why the lopsided acknowledgment? Simply because we can actually measure the result of reactive work, while the same is not true of proactivity. For instance, if someone’s actions prevent a catastrophic loss of life, we have no body count with which to measure the extent of the damage averted.
Like all societal phenomena, this tendency to only reward measurable outcomes plays out at the personal level as well, especially in the workplace. Many of us experience insecurity about appearing inactive. This holds even if the very best thing for our product is time: namely, time away from our meddling hands.
All too often, something perfect is ruined by someone’s desire to modify it. There’s nothing wrong with modifications motivated by purpose; that’s the very meaning of good work. But when our tampering is motivated by forces extrinsic to the work (e.g. overcaffeination, irrational panic in light of a looming deadline, or insecurity about what coworkers or bosses might think of our apparent inactivity), we sabotage the very thing we’re trying to perfect.
In medicine, there’s a name for this brand of sabotage: iatrogenesis, i.e. the bringing about of maladies as a direct result of medical attention. A commonly cited example of iatrogenesis is the bygone practice of bloodletting. In our own time, the rampant overprescription of antibiotics is not only responsible for unnecessarily weakening many patients’ immune systems; it may very well lead to the creation of a superbug impervious to any antibiotic. What’s worse? Being thought ineffective, or causing the downfall of humankind as we know it?
So it seems we not only privilege response over prevention (despite that in the latter scenario, no one dies); we also prioritize deleterious action over advantageous inaction. Why? Because much like proactivity, the benefits of inaction cannot be measured.
However, I submit that it is far better to do right and receive no reward than to do wrong and reap prizes. Far better to remain silent than to say a whole lot of nothing. Far better to be a mindful worker than a busybody.
The benefits of exercising this type of restraint are manifold. A busybody takes one step forward and two back, cancelling and even reversing any positive outcomes the initial action may have had. A mindful worker takes a single solid step forward, and is thus three steps ahead of someone who has expended three times as much energy.
The mindful worker punches out, energized to take on whatever the evening has in store: attentive parenting, nutritious home cooking, perhaps a passion project. The busybody either slumps through the door, flips on the TV, and pours a drink, or, in the case of the busiest of bodies, proceeds to wreak havoc at home as well. One step forward, two back. Such a pattern is not only exhausting. It’s unsustainable.
Do not read me wrong. I am not advocating laziness, nor am I advocating idleness. I am not denigrating busyness, nor am I denigrating those who appear to be busy.
My argument is that from afar, someone who appears busy but is in fact relentlessly counteracting their every effort is indistinguishable from someone who, in a poised and careful fashion, accomplishes much. Furthermore, I hold that we cease being like the former and begin our journey toward being like the latter only by slowing down, taking stock of what we are trying to produce, and then paying careful attention to whether each intended action is likely to contribute to the desired production. If upon analysis, the intended action seems likely to contradict the desired outcome or any quality work already done in the direction of the outcome, then do not take that action, even if the resulting inaction risks being misinterpreted by others.
The proof is in the pudding.
If you believe in what you do (which I’ll grant maybe you don’t, but if so please, do yourself and everyone else a favor and pursue another job), then appearances do not matter. Only outcomes. And often enough, the appearance of productivity is in fact productivity’s opposite.
If you believe in what you do, then why waste your energy cancelling your own efforts only for the dubious satisfaction of being perceived as effective? If you truly believe in the work, then the work should be done right, regardless of what doing-it-right calls for.
And it might call for doing nothing.