It’ll Be Perfect – The Perils of Productivity

“If only…”

I’m old.  At least I suppose so.  I spend a little time every week looking back on what I consider to be a long life, and I wonder about what more things I could have done.  Not that the things I’ve done are less that satisfactory to me.  I have had a wonderful life.  I’ve had a life that most men would consider full.  Complete.  Productive.

But on bad days I wonder about the days I’ve wasted.  I worry about the days I spent doing nothing.  I worry I spent too much time on doing things the hard way.  My bad days are filled with thoughts of the most productive man I’ve ever known, Mike.  Without a shadow of a doubt, Mike is the hardest working, most capable guy I’ve come across.

We met as young men.  I was a few years out of college and starting my first salaried position.  Mike had a bit more experience than I, though he was younger, and he’d earned a couple devotees.  You see, Mike was smart, but more than that he was obsessed with the way things are done.  He cared more about process than anything else.  Have you ever tried to learn something and thought, “Hey, there’s gotta be a better way to learn this.  There has to be a better way to absorb and retain information.”  Mike spent most of his time on making processes run smoother.  I’ve never met someone who thought they could make things better the way he did.  You name it, he’d have a way to do it better.

We worked in the marketing department for an ecommerce business, selling stereo equipment through social media and search engines.

Mike was a hotshot when it came to internet marketing.  In college, he told me, he’d tried to figure out all the ways people were getting rich online, and he copied their methods.  He built a whole hell of a lot of websites, put ads on them, and marketed the hell out of them until they turned a profit.  It didn’t matter what the website was about.  He wasn’t passionate about the content of the sites.  He looked for niches that were underexploited but had high advertising rates, and built sites around those topics.  He struggled at first, since his competitors were bloggers who were genuine with their interest in the topics.  Search engines, and readers, rewarded those sites for their authority and passion.  But Mike pushed forward, finding ways to outperform even the most respected writers for a particular hobby.  He found ways to optimize every little aspect of a site, tested new ads and layouts all the time, and figured ways around actually caring about a topic.

Mike didn’t write content.  One of the first things he figured out about working online is that you can always hire “some Indian or Pakistani to do the menial work.  Hire them to write some bullshit for pennies on the dollar.  They’re poor, but I won’t be.”  The content was never of any value to visitors, but at the time if you built a website and had any old content on it you could make money.  Over the years that became less true, but he made a bunch of money off it at first.

Outsourcing was a big part of Mike’s “productive life.”  He outsourced all sorts of things, from writing and web development to curating his email.  I never understood how he could train someone to read and evaluate his email, but he did.  He said it saved him three hours a week.  “Worth every penny.”

The sites he created were profitable, but the profits were minimal.  Mike took a full time job so he could support himself until his websites took off and started generating enough to live off.  I didn’t think it would work at first, but over time he was able to scale up the number of websites, making a small amount on each but enough off the total to support himself.  The day he’d been waiting for, the day he could quit and live off passive income, came, and he moved on to other pursuits.

I took part in many of those other pursuits.  They defined much of our late twenties and early thirties.  We had some common interests, and took up hobbies together.  We played basketball in a few local leagues.  Mike was decent at first, but clearly not the best player on our team.  He practiced a lot, and kept improving his training methods.

The basic breakdown of how Mike learned to do things faster than other people was as follows: First, take a hard look at the activity and break it down into its component parts.  Basketball has shooting, dribbling, layups, passing, court awareness, rebounding, and defense.  But those are actually pretty broad categories.  You can shoot from a number of spots on the court, and dribble with one hand or the other.  So he figured out what the most effective use of his time would be.  Mike wanted to be the big scorer, so he spent a lot of time on shooting practice.  But though there were a number of places to shoot from on the court, he figured he could practice a few key spots until he had them down, and only shoot in those general areas.  The final step was consistent evaluation of his improving skills.  If one area was lagging behind, he would hammer away at that until he had it down.  These steps were effective for any skill he wanted to learn.

Mike got in great shape, using training techniques that Olympians regularly practice, but that was taking too long.  “The Olympians work hard, but they’re all genetics and dedication.  They train hard, not smart.”  He read an article touting the muscle-building benefits of drinking a gallon of whole milk a day.  He certainly gained weight, though I can’t say it was all muscle.  He got stronger and rounder.

But basketball and bodybuilding were just the start.  Waking up early is a great way to improve productivity.  Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.  So he would get up early and work on learning a new skill.  I always admired that about Mike.  He found new ways of learning that minimized study time and maximized benefit.  He always had new tips and tricks, and at a certain point he claimed to be able to master any skill in under nine months.  He’d start with lessons from others who had mastered the skill, but shortly would reduce the system to a set of steps and say, “Now, if I can just make this part more effecient, it’ll be perfect.”  He’d improve the little things he felt were holding him back from truly optimized learning and be off to the races.

I remember him sitting down with a guitar and showing me he’d mastered the instrument in just over seven months.  I never had rhythm, so my childhood piano lessons failed to teach me music, though they did teach me the difficulty of learning to play.  I was less than trusting that he’d mastered the guitar so quickly, but he sat down and flawlessly performed Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile.  Well, he only played about half before giving me a sly smile and asking me what I thought.  It took me a long time to recognize that his techniques often involved concentrating on only those aspects of a hobby that were showiest, and, well, showing them.  He’d master a skill in no time, but only to the point that he could do something that everyone knew was challenging, but little to nothing else.  He didn’t know any scales.  He knew only the handful of chords in a song or two, but he could nail those particular songs.  He defined that as mastery.  And he’d mastered it in “in no time flat.”

But even with the admiration of a great number of people for his many talents, happiness didn’t come to Mike.  We grew older, and I got married.  I grew less interested in taking on a volume of hobbies, and wanted to go deeper into those things I was most interested in.  Mike and I disagreed over this.  He wanted to do everything.  He wanted to master the universe.  No skill was beyond him.  He could do anything he wished.  No one was special.  No one was born with a gift he couldn’t recreate through productive use of time.

Of course, jumping from one thing to another, one place to another, and one woman to another prevented him from setting down roots.  Being a nomad seemed like fun to me at times.  I was often jealous, but I think that reversed at a certain point, because after I got engaged he started looking for a serious girlfriend.  He found one, got married, and very quickly was optimizing the best ways to keep her happy.  Or at least keeping her satisfied while he enjoyed other women on the side.  He thought he could juggle everything, making the very most of every day, but he mostly found himself divorced and starting over again every couple years.  I don’t think he cared about his wives.  He never kept loyal long enough to make them truly happy.  He made them smile, laugh and sing the joys during their high times together, but none ever felt comfortable with Mike, because he was never content with anything, and they knew it.

He did have children, which filled me with hope for his future.  I always thought he would get his obsession with perfection out of his system.  But he could never find his way.  Being a father didn’t teach him patience.  He never stopped looking for a better way to do things.  When his son, Adam, was a toddler, he spent so much time trying to instill his son with a relentless approach to learning that the boy couldn’t relate to other kids.  Mike had to loosen his grip and let his boy be happy.  Adam was happier when Mike stepped back, and eventually made friends, but Mike was no longer invested in him.  He was there for Adam’s birthdays, gave him advice on occasion, and provided for him, but it seemed he knew there was no way to make his son live up to his expectations.  I’m not sure who that hurt more.  Adam certainly struggled because of it, but I believe Mike was aware of his failure.  He threw himself into his other optimizations.

Mike woke earlier than ever to accomplish new goals.  He ran a marathon and completed two triathlons in the same year, all three with above average times, and he didn’t train as many hours as others had to for the same results.  He trained smarter.  His first month of marathon training was performed to a schedule adapted from an Olympic trainer’s book, but he didn’t see enough immediate improvement, and felt he could take the training to another level.  He studied the human body’s ability to heal after training, and the best ways to speed foot and knee recovery post-run.  Compression pants helped, as did ice baths.  As he recovered faster, he needed to train more frequently. He ran more miles per week, raised and lowered his distance and intensity to perfect levels, and developed what he thought was the most efficient method of training for a long run.  He never won a race because he “wasn’t born with the genetics” and he was “running against lifelong runners.”  He felt if he’d been running against those with his same level of experience he’d be miles and miles ahead.  But he never kept at it long enough to compete with those with decades of experience.  That wasn’t the point.  He only had to prove he was capable of achieving the same as others.  He didn’t care if he actually achieved the same level as others.

When he tired of marathons and triathlons, Mike worked at painting, carpentry, and architecture.  Every pursuit received his full attention for a time.  Every activity was different, and required tweaking his learning methods.

“If I can just improve this one part, it’ll be perfect.”

So it went.  Years like this passed.  We grew older and I saw him on occasion.  He’d regale me with tales of his many accomplishments, and I’d give him the kind of rapt attention he craved.  I never achieved his monetary success, though I was steady, stayed married to the same beautiful woman for thirty-two years, and fathered three beautiful daughters.  He sailed the world, lived in more countries than most people can name, and finally came home for his twilight years.  His return, and the stories he told, made me worry I hadn’t done enough, but my beautiful simple life was, and is, enough for me.

We met for lunch about a week after he returned, and I asked him if he felt he’d done enough.  If he’d achieved enough.  He said he’d done too much.  He worried he’d missed things.  He worked so hard for so many years, but he wasn’t really invested in anything.  He didn’t care about any particular thing.  He was so focused on getting everything done so that by the time he became and old man he wouldn’t regret a thing.  His dad told him, when he was a young man, that a good life was a life full of achievement.  He felt all his achievements were hollow.  He had enough money to do as he pleased, and he’d been doing as he pleased for years and years.  Now he wanted to settle down.

I smiled to hear him talk about a simple life.  He had a new wife, Sally, who was young and beautiful, but had an old soul, being generous, patient and understanding conversations and life.  She had a good influence on him.  She calmed him down.

Mike took up gardening.  Old-fashioned, no frills, no tricks.  He grew all sorts of flowers.  He wanted to grow a pretty garden for Sally.  He planted it next to his house.  It was very simple the first year.  Just a few small bunches of flowers.  I’d visit and we’d sit in some lawn chairs set up in a clear area in the center of the garden.  We’d reminisce about the good old days and smell the beautiful flowers.  Every time the wind changed directions we’d get a new scent.  Each year he planted a few more types of flowers and let the garden take over the entire side of the yard.  Nothing fancy though.  Just a few rows, and no real tricks.  Good soil, fertilizer and quality seeds.  He liked spending time in his flower garden, listening to the wind and talking to the plants.

In the fifth year after he returned, I stopped by for our weekly chat.  We usually started out slow, listening to the silence for a time before telling stories or catching up on the news.  That morning was beautiful.  Sunlight glittered off the freshly watered plants.  Mike looked at the flower bunches closest to the house.  He was frustrated by their lack of sunlight.  They were well lit during the second half of the day, but in the morning they sat in the house’s shadow.  They didn’t grow to the same size as those farther from the house.  Their petals weren’t as bright and they weren’t as fragrant.  I thought they smelled nice, but he didn’t think they smelled as sweet as the others.

But he had a solution.  He planned to set up a mirror outside the house’s shadow and angle it so the sunlight would reflect on those flowers that needed the extra attention.

“If I can just get those flowers right, it’ll be perfect.”

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