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Condemned to be competent July 16, 2006

Posted by John M McKee in Business.

The title of this blog’s notes comes from Carl Jung the famous psychoanalyst and educator.  According to a new book, it was his opinion that many people have lost the ability to have fun, relax, and just enjoy life without treating those things as competitive activities. 

In the book, “The Art of Inquiry” by Joseph Coppin and Elizabeth Nelson, (Spring Publications, 2005) his ideas are used extensively to assess how American business people have become so focused on work that we now take less time for vacations and personal time than pretty well anyone else in the western world.  The authors tell us we are – to a great extent – a product of our Puritan forefathers who valued hard work often at the expense of everything else.  That’s not news, but they believe that we’ve let that competitive approach take over nearly every aspect of our lives.  

The result is we’ve become ‘competitive’ in everything we engage in including leisure activity, love lives, earnings, whatever.  Quoting the book: 

“People expect to dominate every situation or, failing that, to act as if they have everything under control. American culture prizes control in every arena whether or not it is ostensibly professional.  This expectation of competence is so prevalent that it places the harsh demands of competitive successes even on leisure activities.”  

Leisure is not idle.  Leisure is merely another form of activity, and a particularly intense activity at that.  One must not merely play for the sheer fun of trying something new, heedless of the outcome. The ubiquitous Nike advertising campaign of the last decade, for example, may use the words “Just Do It,” but the images that accompany those words convey an entirely different sensibility.   Do it “right” and look “right” doing it.   

In American business and American culture, second place is the first loser (my italics).  The most invidious form that this expectation of competence takes is in the conduct of life itself.  People must know exactly whom they are, what they are doing, and where they are going. Stasis is inexcusable or pathological; so is spontaneity and experimentation unless, of course, they lead to success.  Even the realization that this treadmill existence is self imposed is not always enough to permit stopping. The idea of not doing is nearly inconceivable.  For instance, a friend decided last year that her New Year’s resolution was to accomplish nothing. After the laughter died down – can anyone really resolve to accomplish nothing? – there was a long lingering silence.  In those moments, each of use wondered what our lives would be like if just lived them instead of did them.  Americans are so steeped in the Puritan work ethic that was virtually inconceivable.” 

till next time,




1. Bill Calton - July 19, 2006

I wonder if the puritans would of been so “gung ho” about work if they had to strap a Blackberry on to thier oversized belts. Answering emails or responding to phone calls and pages can put quite a damper on one’s butter churning effectiveness.

I wonder if barn raisings would have so productive and festive if the puritans were forced to meet in cross-fuctional teams to discuss the potential impacts of going with 3 stalls or 4.

I’d guess that they got at least 7 hrs sleep each night (sure they got up at 4:15AM…but that’s not so tough when you hit the hay at 6PM!). Unlike most of us IT types who have had the privilege of enjoying the wonderful experience of talking to a CEO in a half-dream state at 3AM…trying to explian network topology and equipment failures.

My theory is these folks would have been much more inclined to lighten up if they were forced to endure the kaleidoscopic stream of events the average middle manager faces on a daily basis these days!…why do we comtinue to apply thier model?

2. Kirsten Allen - July 21, 2006

Thanks for the Coppin! It was great to see it incorporated.

I’ve also been perplexed by the need for control that permeates American thought, business and foriegn policy. I often wonder why we put so little value on collaboration and equality. Oh, we give those ideas lip service but the lived reality is far from where I’d like it to be. Oddly, it has been my observation that the need to control or the belief that control is important escalates with economic success whether it be personal or in the larger scheme of things. I may be going out on a limb here, but I rarely see the need to control among the less fortunate.

Three images remind me of this observation; first, the insane intensity with which all animals are “regulated” (done away with), down to each periodic chipmunk that sprints across a stone, in the gardens of two affluent bussinessmen with whom I am aquainted. This is juxtaposed with the sense of inclusion, collaboration, and community witnessed amongst the mexican workforce in Los Angeles along with the equality and sense of shared value and living experienced at The Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival in Northern California last month.

I especially was impressed watching the activity of the children who attended the festival with their parents. Cell phones, Nintendos, and Nanos were non-existant! Instead, they were sliding down hay bales on pieces of torn cardboard and swimming in the creek. Even standing in line waiting their turn the kids were full of generousity and willingly let others join them or go in front of them which was no problem and seemed to bring them joy rather than distain.

This brings up another American preoccupation, likely a result of our control or lack of it, obesity. There was not one obese child at the Kate Wolf festival! Not one bag of cheetos or giant snicker bar did I see!The food stands were healthy for the most part, full of veggies and fruit. I was deeply struck but this sense of communal, shared living…It was also appearant one could become lost in it….but why, I ask myself, would that be a bad thing…I guess part of me thinks I’d never get anything accomplished. Ha! I wonder if that is another American myth I have bought into.

Regardless, I reflecting thought, if only we could blend business and folk festivals, taking the best from each, letting go of our need to control. I’d like to see what that world would look like. Perhaps there is truth in the belief that the early, nomadic, tent dwellers; the original inhabitants of our land were the true leisure class. They worked aprox. four hours a day for their sustinance and perhaps lived the rest!

3. Fiona - March 5, 2007

Several of my Australian friends and I have commented that upon re-entering the United States we immediately feel the shift from a life that is balanced between “doing” something (whether it’s work or other activities) and simply hanging out with friends and family to a life where we feel we must hit the ground running, doing things bigger, better, and more often. I miss the days back home when people were welcomed to stop by any time to say hello. I, too, have bought into the American mindset having lived here for decades. I am guilty of planning every minute of my time and then that I stay focused on what I had planned to do instead of, for example, enjoying the company of a friend when she does stop by, even on a Saturday afternoon! Not only did I not get accomplished what I had planned, but I missed out on spending quality time with her, unfettered by the mindset if I’m not doing something, I am falling behind. Sheez! What a waste of a perfectly wonderful time doing nothing but hanging out with a friend!

4. Mark McClure Coaching - November 18, 2008

@Fiona – I’ve been “hanging out” here on John’s blog instead of getting on with other stuff I’d planned earlier – my bad 😉

The more summers I see the truer I believe Harry Chapin’s song title “Let Time Go Lightly” to be. (Check out the lyrics too – you’d pay $1000s for the same wisdom in a 3 day “time management” course haha!)

Maybe we just need to spend more time in “La-La”, as Jill Bolte Taylor so affectionately described her right-brain world view while in the midst of that now famous “stroke of insight”. (Click on my comment link for the story)

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