Once or twice a semester I pick up a non-theological book – sometimes fiction (from novels like Orwell’s 1984 or Albert Camus’s the Plague) and sometimes non-fiction (Biographies, treatises on other subjects, collected essays of authors, or the like). This time I thought it would be fun to pick up a book on work efficiency: ReWork. A New York Times best-seller, written by a couple of software businessmen, its premise is simple: traditional ways of working are really quite overrated, and the easiest, fastest way of doing things, especially in this technologically advanced age, is the best to go. The book is very short, and filled with a bunch of pictures and big slogans, and could really be finished in a single sitting. There were a few gems in it that I learned from – but the book as a whole stimulated my thinking about how the field of business touches upon academics, and the life of the church or the mind.
Particularly, the question that arose in my mind was this: What does it mean to be practical? Is being practical in one field actually the same thing as being practical in another?
For example, on pages 97-8, and 108-111, the authors would always contrast “concepts” or “abstract ideas” to real things – meetings are unhelpful because in meetings only words are thrown and words mean nothing without real pointers or real examples (the authors would use examples of talking about a chair and pointing to a chair). All this strikes a bit Kantian (that concepts without experience are empty), and it is, but I digress. All of these warnings are to serve, again, the main purpose of the book: a pragmatic way of getting things done the easiest way possible.
Nevermind the philosophy behind such a statement – let’s keep going – on page 93 the authors tell us that as soon as a product that we want to sell could do the essential thing it is supposed to do, get it out and sell it as quickly as possible. Getting something out there is getting it done – and getting it done, making decisions as quickly as possible, all indicate progress. These are the practical things to do.
Well, maybe so for the business model of doing things. But considering these things from one who is engaged in an, say, academic career, these are horrible pieces of advice, and only serves to undermine one’s career. In other words, for one engaged in a job that requires a focus on the life of the mind and on relational value, the advice the author provides are actually impractical.
For the lecturer, writer, or professor, or pastor, it is absolutely key to have meetings – words shape the life of the mind and therefore shape one’s worldview – words are not abstract and meaningless but are tethered to the way in which human beings view reality. Like it or not, the worldviews propelled by the University lecturers (or church pulpits) in one generation become the commonsense intuitions of the next generation. There is nothing abstract here – how one defines seemingly “abstract” concepts like love, life, and meaning determine the most practical day to day activities.
Imagine, also, giving the advice to the graduate student (or post-graduate) that the most important thing is to get your product out there as soon as possible. Well, our product is the craftsmanship and distillation of ideas in the form of books, journal articles, and lectures – to throw our product as soon as it reaches an essential bare minimum is really to throw our careers out the window. In fact, sometimes for us the best advice is the one that says: Wait a few weeks, don’t read your paper, come back to it after you’ve read more, or take your mind off the subject completely, and then come back to it, edit it again, and think about it some more. A paper may be written in January, edited until March, left until July, and then re-read and re-edited again. And perhaps only to be sent a year (or two, or three!) after its “bare essentials” were there. The best papers are never written in a week, and the best papers reflect weeks, months, or years of research and reflection. This would be the practical thing to do. The “quality” of the writer (or lecturer’s, or teacher’s, or researcher’s) task is judged by the content of their essays – and deep content is not something we churn out like any other business product.
All these things, of course, indicate why post-grads, pastors, professors, all need to spend much time in reading seminars and other academic meetings – because the task there is not to immediately make a decision, but to shape the life of the mind even further, to pursue wisdom, and then to produce the relevant literature in our respective fields.
Another point, then, is this. I have met many folks who say that teachers, or professors are not real careers, nor are they real jobs. The real jobs are done by businessmen. Why do they say this? Typically, it is because the money, perhaps, is less quantifiable, and the product of educators and writers are less tangible. This is certainly an odd way of thinking: really all it is is imposing the (whether right, or wrong) standards of what makes a business successful to another field. If it is improper to judge a cook by the standards of architecture, and improper to judge the standards of architecture by the standards of literary artistry, then why deem other fields not our own inferior to us just because they go by different norms, rules, and measures of success?
Hidden in our culture (especially in Indonesian-Chinese culture) is a serious reductionism. “Everything is business and whatever is not business, isn’t real.” Much like the psychologist who thinks that everything one writes about are really about their parents, the businessman is the measure of all things. One can say there is a business aspect (an important aspect, of course!) to everything, but certainly everything is non-reducible to business.
So, “Let’s get practical here” needs to be really defined. If one judges the academic/educator as being impractical for failing to follow the rules of business pragmatism, then one is really failing to see beyond one’s own glasses.