FARNAM STREET

Hey Bossman, Reading Books IS Work

"Was Newton working when he was sitting under the tree and the apple fell? These things are subjective and depend on perspective."
What counts as work nowadays? (Wikimedia Commons)

What counts as work nowadays? (Wikimedia Commons)

One of my beefs with the modern office is that you need to be seen as working, even if it’s an illusion. And what classifies as “work” is often defined by the quality of your leadership.

If you work in a fast-food or retail job, you’re always on the go. These are hard jobs. There is never a down moment. If you’re caught sitting more than once on your shift you’re generally fired. In these settings, work is easily defined and jobs generally mechanical. There is always something to do and it’s easy for your boss to see when you are working and when you are not.

One of the biggest issues I have with the modern office culture is that you can’t get away with things that don’t look like work, even if they are work. Reading a book, for example, can be work. Maybe I’m biased, I’ve read over 100 books this past year alone.

If you were a hunter-gatherer back in the day, and you left the tribe early in the morning and came back with food at the end of the evening you’d be considered a hero. The outcome mattered. No one was there to follow you around all day critiquing what you were doing and, more importantly, how you were doing it.

Contrast that with today’s knowledge-worker culture. Not only do you need to deliver results, but you have to do so in ways that show your boss you’re struggling and “working hard.” In other words, it’s less about the work and more about the performance. Sometimes we create work simply to perform.

I have a lot of smart friends who I’d consider rather unconventional, in the sense they eschew meetings, pointless busywork, and other non-productive activities. This often gets them in trouble. They walk a fine line.

Managing knowledge workers is not easy. Outputs are often fuzzy and somewhat random. Skill plays a role, for sure, but so does luck.

How would you evaluate a manager? By the quality of the people they hired? The environment they created for their team? Their leadership? All of those criteria are subjective and difficult to measure, but they require good judgment to perform well and, more importantly, they demand being able to hold a “tough conversation” with an employee when things aren’t going well.

So we tend to grade management and leadership on bullshit — activities that are easy to measure but essentially meaningless.  It’s not like we have bad intentions, we would just rather avoid uncertainty.  So we end up with things like: Did you foster employee development by doing “X, Y, and Z?” (regardless of whether that actually develops people.) Did all of your employees go on mandatory training? Are your employees at town-hall type meetings. And so it goes.

If you pick up a book at 2 in the afternoon and start reading for an hour, you’re likely to get reprimanded at best and fired at worst. It’s not a culturally acceptable behavior in the workplace. Yet, it should be.

The badge of honour in the modern office is meetings. Most of us hate meetings but we attend for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s optics; Rarely to make a decision. Often to feel like we’re doing something. And occasionally, we go for information sharing —  to learn something.

The more we know, presumably, the better decisions we’ll make and the more we’ll accomplish or so the logic goes. That’s why we have meetings ostensibly with the purpose of sharing information, getting perspective and learning.

Another way to learn things and get perspective is to read. And frankly, compared to most of the meetings I’ve been in, reading is better use of time.

Not only are you learning something, but you’re learning about it in depth from someone who, in all likelihood, put a lot of time and effort into organizing their thoughts.

Compare that with the sound bytes tossed around in meetings. Who has time for critical thought? How much do you really learn from that hour?

If you assume that smarter workers are better workers, reading might in fact be the best use of time. But that would require a level of fortitude not often found in the modern office.

Let’s say your boss is ok with you reading on the job. You do your work, you deliver, etc. Anyways, one day their boss walks by and sees you reading a book. They ask what you’re doing and you look up, dumbfounded, and say “reading about the creative process.”

Well I can assure you that your boss’s-boss, when they get back to their desk, will be on the phone with your boss and it won’t be a pleasant conversation. A few “F” words and raised voices later, your boss will come by and tell you no more reading on the job.

However, had you been typing up company policy on how to sharpen pencils or responding to some pointless email chain, all would be well. They’d have no idea you were wasting your (and their) time.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting you neglect your job and read all day. But I am suggesting that based on trust and your ability to deliver, you should be able to read on the job. If you can’t, you can always sign up to newsletters, like mine, that summarize the best of what other people have figured out.

Sometimes it’s ok to read at work and sometimes it’s not. But making that determination requires trust and judgment, two things that are slowly becoming extinct.

It’s hard for people to trust that you’re working when the process isn’t always visible. Was Newton working when he was sitting under the tree and the apple fell? These things are subjective and depend on perspective. Weak leaders default to traditional measures of productivity — how many policies you created, how many pencils you sharpened, etc. While those are not necessarily the best metrics, they are easily measurable.

Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. Join over 36,000 other smart subscribers and sign up for brain food.

 

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