Productivity vs. efficiency— a philosophy for happiness and democracy

Mike Flynn
5 min readNov 2, 2020


No I don’t mean productivity in the strictly capitalistic sense. Though Productivity does tend to improve the overall economy.

So what why do I capitalize the P in Productivity?

I mean Productivity of the sort that is embodied in the century old tried and true science of Human Development. It’s about observations of how human beings actually live and develop in reality, not according to some artificial concepts made up by bureaucrats.

Productivity as we’ve narrowly defined it is ONLY about outward results. Inwardly, whats going on? The refrain from someone who has never studied Human Development? “Not my problem”.

Why should we care about someone’s inward development as well as outward? 🤷‍♂ Why should we care about a person becoming numb, apathetic or depressed?

Don’t we have a mental health crisis in the USA, let alone prescription drug crisis?
Don’t managers complain its hard to find and hire great creative people?
Don’t employees complain about monotonous mechanistic jobs?

Said another way:

In the 21st century health and resourcefulness matters more than ability to follow a pre-defined process.

Spinning textiles at a mill in Alabama. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why would we Not want people to be productive both inwardly and outwardly… seems pretty reasonable.

It’s a critical question, with lots of obvious and tragic answers. They tend to resolve down to fear and commonly accepted dogma. Specifically a dogmatic interpretation of the concept EFFICIENCY. For example:

I fear for my child that if he doesn’t learn how to follow instructions that he will be uncompetitive in the workforce
I don’t have time to foster employee learning because it reduces cost efficiency and reduces profits

Wisdom and learning took a back seat as non-pragmatic while we wholesale embraced a Cult of Efficiency.

I’m not knocking efficiency in general, it can be a wonderful thing when utilized appropriately. I’m simply deriding the callous way in which we apply it as a faux-panacea for explaining away bad decisions that make us and our families reliably unhappy.

For adults who were raised by their parents to behave and follow the rules, which by the way kids of course rebelled at, but then came to mimic with their own children, we have a distinctly passive aggressive approach to productivity.

Now let’s first not go about blaming people. Blaming government, blaming corporations, blaming workers. To a degree the concept of “efficiency” is so pervasive that just about everyone has been a part of its promulgation at some level.

The only way out of this is to help ourselves and others develop experience of natural learning versus artificial learning. It will be a process and require a great deal of responsibility, creativity, luck, good people, and a firm understanding of the science of Human Development to guide us.

The science of human development makes it clear there is a natural progression to learning, as opposed to an artificial one that we’re used to.

A natural learning progression:

* A prepared environment for learning
* Trained guides to share exciting aspects of the environment, and to entice participation
* An understanding from the guide of the current development of the student, what activities are likely appropriate, and a great deal of patience to avoid forcing the student.
* An informed parentage who appreciate that creativity and ability are more important than arbitrary schedules for outward accomplishment

learning to write through natural tactile experience is natural — physical experience precedes abstraction especially for children, versus expecting a child to understand the meaning of a word first and then write it, which is the reverse of the natural learning progression

An unnatural learning process:

Forces students - rather than fostering the flame of learning, snuffs it out
Replaces learning with short term memorization and forgetting
Establishes an unpleasant tacit agreement between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ that the latter will not be accosted if the former receives the tangible output being demanded
Establishes despite the quid pro quo, a disgruntled relationship between managers and employees when employees feel undervalued and underdeveloped

an emphasis out outward results versus fostering interior passion for learning results in myriad problems

That is not an education for a healthy functioning democracy, by the way.

A natural learning process comes from interest, experience, self-driven repetition, and eventually epiphany when the individual has satisfied their desire to learn about something, and now often has that learning for the rest of her or his life. Without the bitter taste of being force-fed like an animal to be sold at market.

If we are successful in applying these basic but well researched, proven and successful basic findings, we will know we have success by children and adults that are:

More interested at work at at home
More capable
More literate, better read, and owning their own personal libraries (including some physical books!)

As an employer, I can tell you I care about 5 factors, none of which are supported by dousing someone’s desire to learn through force fed testing etc.

* Are you a good person
* Are you resourceful — have you learned to learn and solve problems
* Do you communicate well
* Do you have the relevant skills
* Are you excited to work on the type of work we need

But, to foster this will require significant but practical changes at work, home and the classroom.

* It will require a concerted effort to learn about natural learning
* At work it will require managers that are aware of human development and find ways to produce required output while Also satisfying the needs of their employees to learn and grow. This will be a competitive differentiator for successful companies that retain and develop the best talent.
* At schools and at home it will require active participation from parents — perhaps made more feasible by a new appreciation for their children due to being at home with their children due to COVID.
* And at all levels of leadership and government we will need to reduce artificial requirements, and provide more paths to employment and extracurricular activities that are not solely predicated on grades

Much to be done, but it can be done. More details to follow in a subsequent article coming shortly!



Mike Flynn

For whatever it's worth, I'm seeking to share any wisdom, insights and gifts of learning I've been fortunate enough to receive.