The old lie

2016-02-07 13.12.53

I remember reading an anecdote about a meeting between Francis Crick and an eminent biochemist (I’m pretty sure it was Erwin Chargaff). Chargaff came away highly unimpressed by Crick, which seems bizarre nowadays when Crick is revered as a kind of demigod. The reason for Chargaff’s disdain? Crick, he said, seemed to exemplify the worst aspects of the British system, namely “all talk and no action”.

It’s a neat reminder of what we now refer to as “the American work ethic” swept away. High-minded gentlemen scientists sitting around in armchairs in club rooms doing thought experiments, and occasionally deigning to publish their insights. Theorising, theorising, theorising. Very little actual “doing”.

That’s what the work ethic replaced. Why do the thought experiment when you could do the actual experiment? And the powerhouse performance of American academia in the 20th century is all the validation that’s needed of that more practical approach.

But there’s a sense now that the pendulum may have swung too far the other way. Long hours are taken as a benchmark for commitment, and if things are not going well then it’s Boxer’s motto from “Animal Farm” that rules the day – “I must work harder”. And we all know what happened to Boxer when he could no longer work hard and was of no further use to those running the farm…*

If “industry” was the watchword for the 20th century, then “efficiency” should be the one for the 21st. Having a strong work ethic was a competitive advantage when there wasn’t much of a drive to get results, but simply spending many hours at work is a recipe for stress if it’s assumed that input and productivity are the same thing.

They’re not. Let’s be clear: spending long hours at work is not necessarily the same thing as working hard. You can work hard and go home after eight hours; in fact, if you’re working really hard then you probably won’t last much longer than ten. Twelve, fourteen hour days almost always mean a certain level of faffing on the internet, long coffee breaks, and procrastination.

The attitude we should be promoting is one in which we laud those who can be productive while still working within their contracted hours each week, and enjoy a healthy social and extra-curricular working life outside of it. A productive work ethic is one where you’re saying “I can do in 7-8 hours what you need 9-10 to do”. People who need to work long hours in order to be productive should be regarded as inefficient.

It’s the old lie, and one that should not be told with such high zest to young scientists ardent for desperate glory. Input does not equal productivity.

*He gets taken to the knacker’s yard and turned into glue.

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