Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

A friend once asked if I thought it necessary to suffer in order to succeed - it seemed like a trick question. After hemming and hawing a bit, I had to confess that although I wished to think otherwise, I sadly believed that suffering leads to success.

And it should be no surprise. Judeo-Christian enshrines suffering as a test of faith and valor, one from which the sufferer somehow emerges greater than he entered (Book of Job, for example), closer to salvation. Take a look around at the countless variations on the "no-pain no-gain" mantra, particularly as regards athletic training and performance. Nietzsche's famous quote "what does not kill me makes me stronger", taken out of context, figures prominently in this Western mindset according to which success stems from hard work, which in turn requires effort and therefore suffering.  

Indeed, it can seem like sweet justice that those who succeed should have to sweat for it. Under this system, the lazy have only themselves to blame for their mediocrity while the mediocre are made to feel guilty that they are not working hard enough. Meanwhile, the industrious can forever hope to be rewarded for their pain - except that it doesn’t always work out. Why is that? 

Continuing with the sports analogy, it's quite clear that it's possible to train too much, to inflict so much suffering on one's body that it cannot benefit from the training. It's also possible to do wasteful work that yields limited or negative returns. Identifying useful work and finding the sweet point between effort and rest is the task of the coach. Looking further, the notion of pleasure is paramount: one can only excel at a task that provides enjoyment, even if effort is necessary. Indeed, that is Nietzsche's overarching point in Ecce Homo: 

"Now by what signs are a well-made human being recognized? They are recognized by the fact that such a person is pleasant to our senses; he is carved from one whole block of wood which is hard, delicate and fragrant at once. He enjoys only that which is good for him; his pleasure, his desire ceases when the limits of that which is good for him are overstepped. He divines cures for injuries; he knows how to turn misfortune to his own advantage; that which does not kill him makes him stronger. " 

Let's leave the athletic pitch to enter the shop floor. Workers, who extend themselves physically and psychologically, are much like athletes. Days are long, repetitive tasks cause injuries, and bodies age and whither at ill-conceived work stations - with well-known impacts on productivity. In the corporation at large, busyness is rewarded through so many indicators, most of which are essentially proxy measures of suffering. And yet, powering through pain, the ethos of bygone eras, has shown its limits. Unsurprisingly, concepts like lean come from outside the Judeo-Christian cultural sphere.  

Workers, we can all agree, should seek to maximize production while minimizing their suffering (which we can expand to include all waste). Nietzsche provides perspective and a few hints: seek pleasure and 'that which is good' when looking for optimization. A "well-made" person will know when his/her limit has been reached, will learn from mistakes, and find solutions to recurring problems. But there is more; Nietzsche's "well-made" person  
"… instinctively gathers his material from all he sees, hears and experiences. He is a selective principle; he rejects much. He is always in his own company whether his intercourse be with books, with men or with landscapes; he honors the things he chooses, the things he acknowledges, the things he trusts. " 

In these few lines we find some key ingredients to an innovative optimization process. We have left the realm of suffering for gain and entered the domain of progress through thoughtful observation, self-awareness, personal commitment, education, intuition, and (ultimately) pleasure.  

Today, I am changing my vision and trying to reject suffering as a basis for success. Effort is necessary to improve, but pleasure is a key driver. This is easier said than done. Abandoning suffering for pleasure requires trust and confidence  
  1. Self-confidence because(a) if underlings suffer, the boss gets stature fromimposing the suffering, and (b)each individual must believe in his/her sustained desire to strive in a positive-reward environment that markedly departs from western cultural norms  
  2. Trust because, under a pleasure-based management model, management must trust its underlings to continue to work efficiently and innovate without fear of punishment - this despite the pernicious notion that underlings are somehow "lazy" (otherwise, they'd have worked hard and become part of management!) 
The benefits are potentially significant: workers will use their innate wisdom to improve their performance, as long as that they operate in an environment that gives them choices, and even more so if they can use the services of a well-meaning 'coach'. In short, management must trust that workers are "well-made" and engaged employees. This can be a difficult step to make for those raised in the worship of pain as a pathway to success, but it is a step on the long path to  kinder and wiser management.

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