From as early ago as my school days I have been an efficiency pundit. I have no clue where I picked it up from but I somehow latched on to the whole idea of ‘let’s try to get maximum output from minimum input’ during my school days itself. Of course this helped me crack exams and competitions and all the glittery stuff that symbolize recognition and achievement. Of course Life* also dealt me many different blows (to be translated as learning strokes) in the years to come and I eventually became lesser of an efficiency maniac. However, lesser is a relative term only. I vividly remember congratulating myself and my son when we jointly pushed him out after just four hours of labour. It was a perfect example of efficient delivery – how much lesser could the labour have gotten?
This essay however is about experimenting with the possibility of moving from efficiency to soulcrafting* (an idea I develop later in the essay). It is about the realization that the striving for efficiency might have itself been an inadvertent force that slowly started eroding joy from my life.
I started my teaching career in 2010. I am someone who loves teaching and facilitating and I have consciously made several changes in my life and career to be finally able to teach and talk on topics that I deeply care about. My work is absolutely sacred to me and I see it as an opportunity to contribute to the universe in a way that feels natural and fulfilling to me. Very often I have felt so much in flow while preparing or conducting a class that I might as well have been grooving to some heady beats in a rock concert. In my quest to do more, for the last few years I had been continuously increasing the number of sessions and workshops I conducted. I had believed I was getting more efficient, and was learning to be able to contribute and achieve more and more.
However, life took some unusual turns and this year I decided to keep my teaching and speaking engagements limited. I did this mainly because I needed to have more flexibility in my schedule and teaching or training commitments by their nature are schedule-bound. I decided I would do more writing in during the time I was not teaching because writing is a non schedule-bound activity. If you notice, I was wearing my efficiency hat firmly on. I was just replacing one output activity with another.
This week I had to turn down three invitations to deliver outstation training programs – first one was a request by a multinational corporation, second one from a very dear friend who runs her own business, and third from a premier educational institute. In fact I have been saying no more often than yes this year to requests for teaching and talks. A part of me was feeling really bad about having to do this. I was plagued by questions like, ‘Why am I choosing to contribute less rather than more? Why am I choosing to earn less rather than more? Why am I choosing to do less rather than more? Why am I not being as efficient as I probably could?’ Finally at the end of the week on friday afternoon, Life* decided to intervene and grace me with some insights.
The gift of this insight came from a seminar given by my colleague and friend Deepak Malghan. The seminar was titled, ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius: A Global History of Efficiency’ and was based on years of work and research that Deepak has been doing on investigating the historical and political economy of the idea of efficiency. Having absolutely no interest in history, I nearly did not go to attend the seminar but somehow Life orchestrated my friday afternoon to make sure I went. And am I glad I went!
Deepak’s research demonstrated how the very idea of efficiency is an object of modernity – conceived and constructed like many other things during the rise of the industrial era. After the seminar and the stimulating discussion that followed, I can no longer see efficiency as the absolute meter of self achievement that I had internalized it to be. I am psychologically relieved because I can now stop evaluating myself internally on an imagined scale of neverending efficiency. No longer am I limited by my own mental model of efficiency as something akin to an ‘obvious virtue’. Now, I can finally stop arguing with Nature* that her design of the human menstrual system is highly inefficient. Nature probably never had efficiency on her mind while she engaged in her masterstrokes of creation!
My new relationship with the concept of efficiency has already started bringing me peace and insights on quite a few domains of my life. In this essay I will tell you how it is helping me understand some observations about my own experience with teaching.
As I had mentioned earlier in the essay I had decided to limit my teaching and speaking commitments this year because of some personal constraints. As a result of this I only taught two courses last term and they had my full attention. Because of my relaxed schedule I was able to give as much time and attention to the smaller and ‘unmeasurable’ aspects of my work as I gave to the ‘measurable aspects’. Since measurement is very intricately related to efficiency, while pursuing an efficiency goal it logically becomes important to do more of that which can be measured. This term however, since ‘more’ was an option I had ruled out, I felt free to give myself to doing even those aspects of work which were interesting, important and joyful but unmeasurable. The result of this has been that this last term has been one of the most satisfying and joyful of all my teaching terms in the recent past. I now realize that (unknown to even me) I had been gradually eroding my chances of joyful engagement by pursuing the goal of efficiency. Let me tell you how.
When I had started my teaching career, I was teaching a very small number of classes and I was carefully designing each aspect of every class. I was alert, I was learning, I was crafting, I was improvising and I was experimenting. I was on a high and my students would catch that enthusiasm from me and we would all go on a roll together.
Over time I started teaching more and more and my schedule got fuller and fuller. I grew more efficient in my teaching design and technique and I noticed that often I would go into a ‘replication mode’. So what do I mean by ‘replication mode’ – it is a bit like, ‘I’ve done this topic before….I know what to cover and how to say it so I’ll just say it’. The more efficient I got however, the more distant I somehow seemed to get – from my content, from my students, and from my key purpose of teaching itself. Finishing one ‘task’ and moving on to the next ‘task’ with minimum depletion or use of resources (time, energy, etc) seemed to be at the cornerstone of the notion of efficiency that I was holding up as important.
This year Life forced me to put a strict cap on the number of engagements I would take on. This forced constraint has paid off in wonderful ways. I realized that all it took for the joy to come back to my work was for me to lighten up on my ‘efficiency agenda’. As a most unexpected effect, I have fallen back even more deeply in love with my work and with my students. I have been able to reconnect with my own personal mission which led me to teaching in the first place and I have started feeling grateful once again to have an opportunity to do what I do.
Yet, even as I basked in my re-discovered joy of teaching I was struggling with having to say no to offers to do more. It was making me feel like I was not ‘ambitious enough’ or ‘productive enough’ or even ‘clever enough’ to just organize my time better and get more done by working more efficiently. However, now after having re-understood efficiency as a socio-political construct (and not a virtue I need to necessarily live my life by) I am finding it easier to back away from the lure of ‘more’.
I can now consciously tell myself that that efficiency need not be a goal for everyone and that it most often comes at the cost of something. For factory-created garments it came at the cost of handcrafting (and so much more). For my ‘replication-classes’ it came at the cost of soulcrafting** (and so much more). The factory garments lacked the human touch that handwoven fabrics had. My ‘replication-classes’ lacked the soulful prayers I made in asking the universe to design and deliver with me something unique for each audience.
For me soulcrafting requires time, energy and attention. Soulcrafting requires these in much larger quantities than can possibly be justified in an efficiency paradigm. But then again (for me) soulcrafting pays back in ways that make work feel like play and interactions feel like a dance tango. I wonder how this could be accounted for in an efficiency paradigm anyway.
Given my learnings in my career domain I am now planning on experimenting with how I can put this to use in my home domain. At the risk of sounding ‘efficient’ I am a great believer in cross-applications of learnings. There are some tasks on the home front where I have usually tried to be very efficient. Grocery shopping, laundry, and organizing are some examples of these. I wonder if my experiences on these activities has followed the same trajectory as my teaching experience (but just at a pace that was so gradual that I did not notice it). Could my pursuit of efficiency have gradually eroded the joy that I once used to experience in performing these (and other similar) tasks?
I do have childhood memories of joyfully spending an entire afternoon scrub-washing my white canvas shoes. It was such fun to find and improvise just the right tools (scrubber, old-toothbrush etc.) and experiment with different soaps (detergent, body soap, toothpaste, bleach etc.) to get those stubborn stains off even from the remote and unnoticed parts of the inside of the shoe. Was this not laundry?
I do fondly remember playing shop-shop with my sister where the entire game was about creating a shopping list and then going and getting various things and stocking and arranging them in little improvised jars in a semi-imagined kitchen. I remember at least one instance of cleaning out and organizing my mother’s cupboards and shelves in her so called dressing table. It was a dressing table in name only because it housed everything from photos to knicknacks to old electronic items. I had spent almost the whole day doing it and it had actually felt like one of my art projects. For the reader who does not know me, I have absolutely always loved art projects and now it might seem obvious why. Somehow in my internal representation and understanding of efficiency, art had been allowed to exist untainted by efficiency requirements.
So today if I give up my need for efficiency will my grocery shopping start feeling more like the play it once used to be? Will my laundry become a joyful challenge and will organizing the home start feeling like art once again? I think this experiment is definitely worth a shot!
How about if I can let go of my need to be efficient with living itself? What if I stop measuring my so called ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ and stop trying to minimize the former and maximize the latter? What if I stop seeing time, effort, attention, and labour as inputs that I give to an activity but just see them as neutral attributes of my existence? What if I decide to soulcraft in everything I do? Will my life then start feeling like the long and beautiful dance my heart tells me it can actually be?
How about you? How have you internalized the construct of efficiency? What are the demands of efficiency that you have placed upon yourself in various domains of your life? In your work? In your home activities? During your travel planning? How might the goal of efficiency be limiting the ways in which you could possibly experience each of these activities? How might the goal of efficiency be inadvertently defining the ‘rules of the game’ for you – both internally and externally?
Would you like to join me in my experiments with Soulcrafting? Are you curious to experience what it might open up for you? Would you be willing to see where it leads you?
* note to reader: I use capitals intentionally when I refer to Life, Nature, and Universe, because I use these terms to denote a personalized conception of a unified (and very much alive) consciousness that permeates everything.
** Soulcrafting is just a term I made up to express the way I approach a piece of work or art when I am giving all of myself to it and also inviting the Universe to come and co-create it with me.
Photo credit: My school photographer had taken this pic during a musical we had staged – ‘The Fiddler on the Roof’. I had played the role of the youngest daughter and here my eldest sister is teaching me to sweep the home :-)…..
If you like this essay you can read more at http://www.craftingourlives.com/blog/
You can also read my poems on http://www.sharingmypoems.blogspot.in