Sunday, January 29, 2012

Accidental Productivity

Work doesn’t always look like work.

Over the last week, I’ve had a couple of long, meandering conversations with professors as they’ve returned for the Spring.  One was completely spontaneous, and the other was a focused discussion that quickly and thoroughly overran its purpose.  They were the kinds of discussions that can only happen before the crush of classes gets fully under way -- deadlines aren’t looming yet, students aren’t hunting them yet, and everybody is still relatively well-rested.  It’s a brief window.

In the moment, they both pretty much felt like goofing off.  And I won’t deny that some of the discussion was basically shooting the breeze.  

But they both helped me understand some issues that a more purposeful inquiry wouldn’t have.

I won’t violate any confidences by spelling out the issues, so I’ll give a parallel.  For many, many years, I used to wonder why the Catholic church insists on teaching rules that it knows perfectly well don’t work, like the bans on contraception and homosexuality.  Like the Unitarian liberal that I basically am, I could rattle off the perverse consequences of those prohibitions, and have wondered with frustration why the church continued to stick to its guns even in the face of mountains of evidence.

Then, a few years ago, someone explained to me that failure is the point.  Failure brings guilt, which requires forgiveness and inspires a need for validation.  (“Don’t make the same mistakes I made...”)  The impossibility of actually following the rules was a feature, not a bug.  In that light, my uses of mountains of evidence were either beside the point or actually counterproductive.  

In both of the recent discussions, I came to understand that some issues on campus that struck me as obvious were only obvious if you took them literally.  If you instead took them as “statements” indicative of “identity,” then suddenly my well-reasoned and empirically accurate objections didn’t quite stick.  They weren’t “wrong,” any more than the evidence-based objections to banning birth control were “wrong,” but they answered a different question.  

Getting to that realization, though, had to happen indirectly.  People don’t always have fully developed explanations for why they think the things they do; sometimes you can only get at it indirectly and even accidentally.

That kind of planning for accidents -- making yourself accident-prone -- is hard to reduce to a schedule or a cost-benefit analysis.  Some conversations lead nowhere, and it’s certainly possible to veer off into rants, hobbyhorses, or Grand Unified Theories of Everything.  In practice, it’s often a fine line between “productive wandering” and “goofing off.”  These useful moments came surrounded by moments discussing Tim Tebow, the ethics of the honey badger (“Honey badger don’t care!  He takes what he wants!”), and what it must be like to work in the HR department on the Death Star.  

Yes, I’m a little nerdy.

Moments like these strike me as both necessary and difficult to encourage.  They happen when people have time, but are still physically around.  They require a level of personal comfort, and a willingness to put in a chunk of time without any specific agenda or hope of payoff.  They require enough slack in the system for people to be human.

As budgets tighten and accountability measures proliferate, I hope we’re able to keep enough  slack in the system to allow smart people to have actual conversations without “action items” or “strategic goals” or “measurable outcomes.”  Sometimes, the most productive moments happen in the gaps, by accident, precisely because nobody’s trying.