David Elkind writes in his book “The Hurried Child” that society is increasingly rushing children and students through life in the name of achievement and efficiency. Pushing oneself beyond what’s comfortable to grow physically, emotionally and spiritually is valuable. But we’re seeing signs of what happens when a healthy pursuit becomes an obsession.
“I’ve inflicted more damage than I could’ve ever imagined,” said actress Felicity Huffman in early September as a judge prepared to sentence her to federal prison for paying $15,000 to have SAT scores corrected for her 19-year-old daughter. The conviction is the first of what will likely be more such decisions in the college admissions scandal. There’s no way to know for sure what motivated Huffman. But there’s an argument to be made that greed and impatience played a starring role. Perhaps with a warped sense of efficiency in mind, Huffman was too impatient to let her daughter find her own way. So she took the reins and bought the score she decided her daughter deserved, maybe thinking it would ultimately bring happiness.
In our tap-an-app society, efficiency is creating more impatience and less happiness. According to a report published this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide in the United States in 2017 was 33 percent higher than in 1999. The American College Health Association reported that from 2011 to 2016 there was a 12 percent rise in students stating they feel “overwhelming anxiety.” The American Psychological Foundation states the most common stress reported by young people is what they’ll do after high school or college.
Efficiency isn’t bad, but it isn’t always good. Some people, schools and companies know how to balance efficiency and quality. They strive to serve others instead of self-interests. Businesses, however, are about making money. But there are successful businesses with a mission and vision that include quality, ethics and generosity.
For example, the grocery store Wegmans is routinely named among America’s top five best companies to work for. Wegmans’ mission is: Every day you get our best. Wegmans still believes in efficiency. In fact, a Wegmans cashier is coached to scan a customer’s groceries at a designated “items per minute,” or IPM. But there is a team of people behind that cashier who genuinely want them to be happy on the job, learn new skills and develop a relationship with the team. Imagine what that same cashier’s work-life would be if they were only rewarded for their IPMs.
In the 1980s, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote “In Search of Excellence,” wherein they chronicled the benefits of management by walking around, or up-close management. In their observations of companies, they learned spending even a minute or two with an employee face to face brought outsized returns. With that research in mind, isn’t it possible today to balance quality and efficiency? I personally have a sticky note on my monitor that reads “Five minutes a day.” This is to remind me to walk around our offices and listen to what’s going on in people’s lives for at least five minutes each day.
An employer could invest the time to develop a groundbreaking product or deliver extraordinary customer service while employing, say, the Toyota Production System. Instead of emailing a newly hired marketing specialist a chunk of attachments to use in learning about a new product, a sales manager could invite the specialist into the field for a few hours to see the product in action. Instead of diving into a lecture, a professor might start class by asking students what they thought of the previous class assignment; by risking some efficiency in slowing down class, a learning opportunity or quality discussion might happen.
What are we giving up at home, in education and on the job because we’re slavishly seeking efficiency? Is an email really better than a five-minute, face-to-face conversation with a student? What do we sacrifice as hiring managers or admissions officers if we rely on AI to winnow down a pool of candidates or applicants? What damage are we doing as parents by running our children’s lives because there isn’t time for them to learn to do it themselves?