We live in a world that defines "more, bigger faster" as invariably better.
It's an ethic that places the greatest value on companies that offer ever more products and services, and generate ever higher profits.
It's an ethic that rewards and prizes people who work the longest hours, move at the highest speeds, take the least downtime, and juggle the most tasks at the same time.
But it's also an ethic that can survive and prosper only so long as capacity — the planet's resources and our own — exceeds the demand we make on it.
For generations, we've acted on the belief that we can consume as many of the earth's resources as we want, blithely confident that there will always be more where they came from. We've done much the same with our internal resources. We spend our own energy at more and more furious rates, on the assumption that our capacity naturally expands to meet rising demand.
The jig is nearly up.
The problem with "more bigger faster" is that it generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short term — diminishing returns until there are ultimately no returns at all.
Was the BP disaster an anomalous event, for example, or an inevitable outcome of the world's unquenchable thirst for more and more oil, and a big public company's hunger for higher profit, more and more quickly?
Was the sub-prime debacle a surprising development, or the inescapable outgrowth of a race among large financial institutions to run up profits by creating and selling a product — deceptively packaged mortgages — to customers who couldn't reasonably afford them?
Were the flaws in recent cars produced by Toyota — a company that built its brand on reliability — anything more than a predictable consequence of ramping up production to manufacture more cars, more quickly to earn more money, faster?
The complexity of the problems we're facing is growing, but our capacity to meet them is diminishing, precisely because we're moving so fast. We feel compelled to push ourselves harder and more continuously, so we're sleeping less, resting less, sitting at our desks for longer, moving and exercising less, eating fast foods faster, and becoming fatter and less healthy.
In the face of relentlessly rising demand, we feel constant pressure to get more done. Seduced by the new technologies, we juggle multiple activities to try to keep up. We're partially engaged in many things, but rarely fully engaged in anything. By splitting our attention, we sacrifice the qualities we need most: absorbed focus, reflectiveness, creativity and the capacity to think big picture.
Calmness is critical to being able to think clearly and deeply. Instead, feeling stretched and stressed and pushed, we increasingly fuel ourselves with adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol. These "fight or flight" hormones not only wreak havoc on our bodies, but also progressively shut down our prefrontal cortex so we're more reactive, impulsive and focused on our immediate survival rather than thinking long-term.
The way we're working — and living — is unsustainable.
We're in a shared conspiracy of denial because we don't want to face the sacrifice, pain, and change that recognizing our limits would require. We can't remain numb to the consequences of the way we're living indefinitely, but we also can't change what we don't notice.
So what has to change to make us wake up? What will it take for us and our employers to connect the dots between the way we're working, and the accidents, breakdowns, and destructive business decisions that occur with increasing frequency?
Sadly, I suspect the answer is pain. Change rarely occurs until the pain of our current behaviors exceeds our fear of doing something new and different. My own bet is that another severe downturn in the stock market, and the economy, is the most likely trigger.
But why wait?
What if you set aside a specific time every week to get off the treadmill you're on? What if you stopped moving, quieted down, put away your technology, and took some time to reflect on the consequences of the choices you're making? What would it look like to move from "more, bigger, faster" to "richer, deeper and more satisfying?"
Try our energy audit for starters. (Click on the link.) It will tell you a lot about whether you're building your capacity, or draining it.
This article was originally posted on HBR.org.
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