#236: On Efficiency

There’s an idea or series of connected ideas that keeps recurring in my life, especially in moments I find myself stuck in some aspect of my work. It popped up again this week, while reading N.N. Taleb’s new book, Skin in the Game:

“Anything you do to optimize your work, cut some corners, or squeeze more ‘efficiency’ out of it (and out of your life) will eventually make you dislike it.”

Interchangeable with the word “efficiency” is the word “convenience.” When you abstract away the code, build your website solely by dragging and dropping boxes in place, what you gain in convenience you lose in the form of contact with the underlying raw material. Here it is articulated in a different way – Jim Tolpin in The New Traditional Woodworker writing about what we learn from shop classes and home improvement shows:

These sources point people toward working with wood as a medium to be machined. In this mindset, tools and techniques are presented in a way that mimic the tooling and processing strategies of the industrial, production furniture maker and not those of the pre-industrial artisan.

In other words, power tools are more about manufacturing than they are about making. High school shop classes teach you to work in a factory. And IKEA furniture pushes it one step further, teaching you to work in a specific kind of factory – one where you over and over again click together the same interchangeable parts.

You can see this everywhere. Meal kit delivery services, which J and I have been getting for a few months now, less teach you to cook than teach you to work in a restaurant. They replace the act of selecting food at the grocery store, imagining and deciding what you can make with it (let alone gathering or growing it yourself, tending to it, pulling it from the soil) with the act of picking out finished meals from on a screen of delicious-looking images, delicious-sounding words. There are no surpluses leading to future meals of impromptu soups and fried rices. No cuisines will ever emerge from these kits’ tiny leftover plastic bags. No birds will be whittled from leftover cuttings of birch veneer particleboard. All the edges of creation – if I can mix metaphors a bit here – get smoothed away in the name of efficiency.

Startup companies think about everything in terms of scale. You could say that they work in the medium of scale. The message we absorb from them, from interacting with their products, is the message to ourselves do everything in a way that can scale, even when we’re doing it only once, only for ourselves.

But scalability in this sense is the antithesis of art. Adhering too closely to formulas, blueprints for writing, sucks the challenge, joy, reward – the soul – out of writing. Even if those blueprints are ones I’ve derived myself from writing the previous book. Writing fiction begs adding friction; you want things to be reasonably difficult for yourself, because their difficulty is what makes them irreplicable, and their irreplicability is what gives them value, enriches the process, makes the endeavor worthwhile.

You don’t have to call it soul, but this I believe to be true: We know we lose something when we optimize for efficiency. We know we’re essentially play-acting being artists, without exposing ourselves to the humility and vulnerability and risks of actually making art.

There’s a big caveat though, to the Taleb quote: It should have the words “Up to a point” in front of it. Up to a point, efficiency saps the soul from the work. What exactly that threshold is … is a good topic for next week.