Someone once told me that he was such an efficient teacher that he usually spent less than 10 minutes preparing to give an hour-long lecture to his college class. Sometimes he said he even did it in real time when he was at the front of the classroom -- he just opened up his folder to see what the topic was for that day and started talking. He was an efficient, but not engaged teacher. He also didn’t enjoy teaching, and saw it as an interruption in other things he’d rather be doing.
“Mailing it in” became a popular phrase at about the same time “I’m working at home” became popular. It means being efficient, but it also seems to mean doing something with the minimal amount of work that is acceptable. Being efficient without being engaged.
I saw the exact opposite of this through a fog of pot smoke this past weekend.
Every May, one of the great parks in Rochester, NY holds a 10-day party in the park called the Lilac Festival. They ship in tons of fried dough and dinosaur-sized turkey legs. They also book really cool bands to play every evening until the police close them down at 8:30.
Last Friday they had booked a great concept called something like Classic Album Concerts. They would pick a classic album and then assemble top-rate musicians who could play the album note-by-note and word-by-word perfect. It would be the perfect live recreation of the album, but with musicians who aren’t dead or in heroin rehab. The first of these was going to be a recreation of the classic Led Zepplin album – “Led Zepplin II.” Since Led Zepplin was my very favorite, most ultimate, highly awesomest band when I was in high school, I rescheduled my Friday afternoon meetings so I could be smunched into the front row. The plan was to drive up to Rochester and sing along with the band for 41:38 minutes while my wife and visiting sister-in-law looked at their watches and occasionally tapped them to see if they were still running.
The band hit every single note and every nuance. Even the spacing between the songs seemed the same length as between the tracks on the album or 8-track. But after we had burrowed through the crowd and pot smoke to get to the front, there was something a little weird happening on the side of the stage. There was a woman with huge head phones who looked like she had jumped on the stage was going to wave and gesture at the crowd until the security guards tackled her to the ground. Then I realized that she was using sign language – she was a sign language translator for people who were deaf or otherwise hearing impaired. This would include people who had stood too close to Led Zepplin amplifiers in the 1970s.
I went back to singing along with the music until there was a 10-minute drum solo. At that point, I started spacing out and again noticed the sign language translating woman. Although there were no words to sign, she was air drumming. Instead of waiting around until the band started singing again, she got so much into the song that she was using her down time to flail around like she was playing Rock Band on the PS4. When they did start singing again, I noticed she then had the same idea during guitar solos. Any time there was a guitar solo, she would switch instruments and play a Guitar Hero solo for the hearing impaired.
From a “Mail it in” perspective, she was ridiculously inefficient. You don’t play have to play your interpretation of the air drums when the real drummer is right next to you. You don’t have to play air guitar for hearing impaired people when you could instead just back up a little bit so that they could better watch the real deal themselves. She didn’t have to do it. She would have been paid the same amount if she had spent the drum solo in the Beer Here Tent.
But from a “Be Engaged” perspective, this is brilliant. She was doing it all: the hair tossing, the tortured face gestures, the sweating . . . everything. I started watching her every time they stopped singing because she would again start playing Guitar Hero. Again, she could have spent the guitar solos tweeting a selfie or buying a Led Zepplin 8-track online, but she instead spent every minute being fully engaged in that minute. Mindlessly mindful. Electric Zen.
If someone told her she was being inefficient, she could have said, “Yeah, but I feel totally alive.”
That might be one big trade-off between focusing on being efficient at a task or being engaged with it. If you’re efficient, you have the satisfaction of saying, “I’m done.” If you’re engaged, you have the satisfaction of saying, “I feel totally alive.”
There’s a place for both. With some tasks, you just want to get them done. If you don’t like cleaning, grading, answering email, or doing your receipts, it makes sense to be more efficient. All of these things can take a variable amount of time, and you want that to be short.
Other tasks, take a fixed amount of time. You have to be in class for 50 minutes, you have to be in a 60-minute meeting, you have to watch a 2-hour dance recital for your third grade daughter, or you have to be a sign language interpreter for a 41:38 minute concert. It’s hard to make these efficient because you have to be there for the entire duration. So you might as well consider being engaged while you’re there. It’s going to take a more effort, but the worse that can happen is that you like it more and that you "feel totally alive."
By the way, if you decide to go on stage and play the air guitar at your daughter’s third grade dance recital, make sure to get a video of it.
Party on, Wayne.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
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