Worth the diversion on social media: a recent essay by Bethany McLean ’92, author of “The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “All the Devils are Here,” on LinkedIn. She writes “In Praise of Being Unproductive.”

A subject after EphBlog’s own heart!

Whenever I read something about the glories of productivity, I wince.

I am not productive. In fact, sometimes I waste entire days. I talk to people for hours, and not one thing from that conversation makes it into anything I am writing now — or will ever write in the future. I expend tons of emotional energy mustering up the nerve to call people who do not call me back. I work on stories that die a deserved death. Sometimes — may the gods of productivity forgive me — I even take an extended online shopping break because I’ve decided that my attempts to make sense of something are resulting in nonsense. I read things that have nothing to do with my work. I daydream. A lot.

Never afraid to tell the truth, McLean uses this opening to rail on journalism’s business pretensions and the idea that writing is an industry in which productivity can be measured:

I’m not sure journalism is meant to be quantifiably productive. You need to call everyone … need to spend hours talking to people because it’s as important to understand what you don’t use and why you don’t use it as it is to understand what you do use… [and] be able to chase a story and be honest about the fact that it isn’t working… The best story is not necessarily the one that gets the most bang for the buck, at least if you think that “best” means something other than cheap click bait.

I read McLean’s essay as somewhat tongue in cheek: even if the activity inputs she describes may not be directly productive, that doesn’t mean a writer’s output can’t be measured in some way.

But it’s a good reminder: in the ideas business, the work of producing ideas is often orthogonal to the objective rather than linear. If you’ve never gone back to read your James Webb Young, put it on your reading list.

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