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Weekends, Sense-Making, and How Much I Hate Sports Analogies

A weekly post in which I share thoughts provoked by (some of) the great content I came across this week(ish).

Greetings and happy Mother’s Day! This week was packed, and I’m really pleased to have crossed off a bunch of to-dos that have been sitting on my list for awhile (triple whammy of passport, driver’s license, and health card renewal being a few of them).

As usual, there was also a glut of a great content out there. Here are a few highlights:

Work/Life

It Took a Century to Create the Weekend and Only a Decade to Undo It – Quartz, Katrina Onstad (book excerpt)

I always try to pack too much into my weekends. Friends, family, workouts, groceries, meal prep, laundry, planning the upcoming week, and finishing this weekly post. This is often at odds with my nature, which frustratingly demands rather a lot of unstructured alone time to reflect on and process all these goings on.
I think that’s one reason I am so fascinated by the way our culture views time, and as an extension busyness and productivity. This article puts the conflicting narratives of ‘productivity hacks’ and ‘TGIF’ into historical context, by tracing the origin of the modern day weekend.
The industrial revolution gave birth to new “workers” (machines) that never needed to sleep, and so their human tenders were often expected to work around the clock also, to avoid expensive and unnecessary ‘downtime’.
The clock became the ubiquitous new boss. Previously, workers tended to complete their work organically, in accordance with natural laws: the sherman’s tasks beholden to the tides; the farmer’s to the seasons. But with industrialization, clocks now determined the task, and the measure of productivity was how much labor could be wrung out of a worker over a period of time. Time had a dollar value, and became a commodity, not to be wasted. “Time is now currency: It is not passed but spent,” wrote historian E. P. Thompson.
But humans are not machines, and as in so many things governed by natural dynamics, equilibrium asserts itself.
“Before the weekend became official, many workers took it anyway. Between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries in England, vast numbers of employees didn’t bother to show up on Monday…”
“Binge work leads to binge play, and many workers were hungover on Mondays, recovering from bar games at alehouses, outdoor dog fights, and boxing matches. They were paid on Saturday, and stuck in church on Sunday, so they stole that Monday to burn through their paychecks and have some fun.”
Organized labour fought for the weekend to be formalized, and fought hard, although as this article points out, that fight was not won because those in power came to see the weekend as a humane respite from the work week, but rather pragmatically recognized the opportunity for workers to consume goods and services when they didn’t have their noses to the grindstone. And yet the weekend is now a cornerstone of our cultural life, for many of us it regulates the rhythm of our weeks.
So, why is it that decades on, we find ourselves obsessed with our own productivity, in some cases exhibiting all the hallmarks of addicts in our pursuit of ‘hacks’ to give us the tiniest edge, as though our inability to be perfect machines were a problem to be solved?
We abuse time, make it our enemy. We try to contain and control it, or, at the very least, outrun it. Your new-model, even faster phone; your finger on the “Close” button in the elevator; your same-day delivery. We shave minutes down to nano-seconds, mechanizing and digitizing our hours and days, paring them toward efficiency, that buzzword of corporate America.
Some people might suggest that we’re trying to pack all that productivity into the week so that we can relax and do nothing on the weekends, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone who actually lives that way. I’m sure there are both cultural and individual reasons for this. Maybe, like this guy, some of us fear our own deaths (who knew a post about weekends was going to get existential, right?). Or maybe as a society we’ve forgotten the benefits of “wasting time’ in unstructured pursuits.
Regardless of the reason, we do seem to be overlooking the value of a well spent weekend (or time away from work generally) in our strategizing about productivity, and our glorifying of happiness at work. Surely it is uncontroversial (obvious even) to realize that our productivity must involve downtime and recharging (to carry on with the machine metaphor), and our happiness at work is not a separate island from our happiness outside of it?

Big Data

Hiedegger, Ford, and the Art of Sensemaking – dscout, Carrie Neill

This fascinating interview with Christian Madsbjerg, about his new book, “Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm” came across my Twitter feed via Maya Droschler (@MayaDroeschler). In it, Madsbjerg covers some wide-ranging ground (the relationship of theory to research, the best definition of a “culture geek” I’ve come across, sensemaking as a practice), but one thing that particularly drew me in were his comments on artificial intelligence and “big data”.

I have nothing against technology in and of itself and I have nothing against A.I. in and of itself. What I do have a problem with is the uncritical stampede into that world without any thought about unintended consequence. With technology, there’s always something just around the corner—right now it’s deep learning—that will solve everything.

As anyone who ventures onto the interwebs can attest, AI and machine learning are being touted as technological imperatives in a wide variety of industries and arenas. Aside from nervous jokes about Skynet, is there a downside?

Right now the best example of deep learning is skin cancer. If you feed a machine with deep learning algorithms, millions of pictures of people’s skin, it can somehow predict whether a mole will be benign or not. And then based off of that prediction and more data, the machine teaches itself when something is benign or when it isn’t. It can make predictions about your skin that are about 10% more accurate than a doctor.

Yet if you think about it for a second, what’s the cost if doctors no longer have any interaction with our skin? If we always left it up to a machine to do the analysis and the diagnosis, how would we ever come up with anything new?

On a related point, Madsbjerg speaks about the need for “thick data” (meaning and context) in addition to “thin data” (facts) alone. I get really excited about this since it speaks to the value of ethnography in a digital world (and maybe I’m still trying to justify my Anthropology degree).
I have nothing against thin data. It’s just a different thing. A description of a human being gleaned from observing and spending time with that person is so different from looking at the statistical data—the clicks and swipes—that a person generates. It’s a rich reality view versus a very flat reality view, and I think the Googles and Facebooks of the world are kidding themselves when they think that they understand people based off of the ads they target them with. Human beings are amazing creatures, deeply interesting creatures. The study of people is so rich. It’s way more complicated than any other object of study in the known universe.

Sports

Please Stop Using Sports Analogies in Your HR Speaking Engagements

There is no article to link to here, because the content that inspired this musing was a presentation I attended this past week. It was on a people and work topic, and it was actually a pretty good presentation. I took a few interesting points from it, and the overall thesis was one that I found generally relevant and compelling. But I’m not writing about those points or that thesis, because the most important thing I took from this event was this:

Please, please, for the love of Michael Phelps, stop using sports teams as analogies for organizations and work teams.

Why, you ask? This is why:

  1. Sports is actually not that much like work. Are there ways this analogy is sometimes useful? Sure. But it’s rarely the best comparison, and in complex and ambiguous environments (which are increasingly the reality for many of us), the idea that we can all just train harder, believe in each other, and be inspired to win by a coach figure (virtually always a white male) is a potentially damaging oversimplification.
  2. How many people in your audience work with teams of genetically-gifted, elite level professionals who have dedicated their entire lives to the narrow specialty they currently excel at? Yeah, probably no one, so please stop it with the Olympics references.
  3. It’s. Just. So. Done. It’s not new, or interesting, or – *Yawn*
  4. It’s lazy, and often a cheap and transparent attempt to create rapport or score emotional points with an audience. “See folks, we’re all just football lovers spinning around on this crazy planet called Earth…now, about my new book”. I want your deepest thinking, not shallow reverence for celebrity athletes.
  5. Know your audience. Are you speaking to HR people? The numbers say that most of them are going to be women. Sports at all levels continue to be hotbeds of sexism, inequity, and objectification for female athletes..so maybe let’s not hold them up as ideal models for our organizations, m’kay?

Do better, please.

Okay, that’s all the musing I have time for this week. Are the dual pursuits of peak productivity and aimless weekends compatible? Do the terms thick and thin data strike you as a relevant or useful distinction? Do you think I just need to focus on getting the ball in the net? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Image credit: Jeshoots via Unsplash.com

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