Sharpening the Saw: The Best Path to Freedom?
An essay in 3 parts questioning the fruits of optimisation
Part 1: counting the costs, asking the important questions.
Adrian Petrice (PhD), Benjamin Sager (MA), Samuel Johns (MA)
Picture the scene, nestled deep in the Austrian Alps. The autumn sun is glowing on the horizon, and the pine trees are piercing high into a deep blue sky. Leaves rustle and susurrate. The tweet of birds beckon in the nearing dusk. Evening is coming. Faint sounds of sawing are heard in the valley floor.
A woodcutter strains to cut down one of the tall pine trees. Nearby, somebody watching asks the worker,
“You look exhausted, why don’t you take a break and sharpen your saw?”
The woodcutter explains that the sawing work has taken all day, almost ten hours, and that there is still much left to do. There is no time to take a break, no time to sharpen the saw.
Stephen Covey picks this image as one of his seven ‘habits’ of highly successful people – distinguishing between those who are simply working to meet deadlines, and those who are working smart. The well-cited story answers the question of how we should all approach work; namely, work smarter, not necessarily harder. And yet the underlying question of why one should strive to optimise is left unanswered.
The goal of optimisation
To slightly mix our metaphors, imagine a local car garage in the base of the valley of the Austrian Alps. The mechanics there are working night and day, to ensure tyres are replaced, catalytic converters are roadworthy, and cars pass their MOT tests. They can fix almost any Fiat, Ford, Toyota, or Honda, but not the likes of a track-driven Mercedes driven by Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Räikkönen.
Consider the design of a Formula One car. Engineers drop every ounce of unnecessary weight and aerodynamic drag to pack in all the power they can. Red Bull, Mercedes, BMW, and the like – all are innovating to produce the most highly optimised engine. These machines are built for maximum power, maximum performance. Yet sometimes these very cars barely last a race of 40 or 50 laps. The cars must run at optimal parameters for the duration of the race, to optimise for speed. Every aspect of the machine must operate at (or slightly below) the fragility threshold— including the driver, with hydration, attentiveness, and performance.
Weather conditions may play havoc with the race. Other times, the pilot may burn the tyres too fast, wearing through the heated rubber in a matter of laps. Sometimes the braking system is exhausted and sub-optimal with laps remaining in the race. There are multiple decisions to be made on how much fuel should be carried. Teams operate with thin margins, precisely because the margins for success are so slim. A hundredth of a second, or even a thousandth of a second, in the qualifying lap could separate pole position on the starting grid from second or third. Every team is assessing the context and climate of the race with a clear-minded goal: to win, and to win at all costs.
At this level of maximal performance, almost every decision is a trade-off.
When you are constantly choosing between trade-offs, with the room for error shrinking to smaller and smaller margins, you know you’re operating at maximum performance. Everything in the car—the body, frame, engine, tyres, transmission, and braking system— is made for speed, at the expense of comfort and safety. To be clear, Formula One cars are not safe cars. They are fast cars, designed for speed and designed for success. These cars are not made to be long-lasting – they have a lifecycle which is short, sharp, effective, productive – and hopefully successful.
The problem with optimisation
When we transpose the metaphor of the Formula One car to the general areas of our lives—from work and career to leisure, wellbeing, health, nutrition, even love—we quickly run into the dark side of optimisation. Like a two-sided coin, optimisation may have a shiny façade but it has another side too.
We live in a materialistic society where the good life has often been defined for us – earn lots, accumulate lots, and you’ll be happy (*see endnote 1). As a society, perhaps one of the only axioms we agree on is that more of everything is the way to go. With this idea in mind, life becomes focused on increasing efficiency. In some cases, efficiency is a smart and timely move; for example, efficient engines reducing CO2 emissions or electric transportation powered by renewable sources. Yet optimising a human life—or even aspects of it—can result in an acceleration of everyday life, in pursuit of the “good life” dangling before our eyes.
"The good life is defined for us – earn lots, accumulate lots, you’ll be happy."
Better defining the problem
Perhaps we should start with some questions to unpick the essence of optimisation.
When we optimise, what are we aiming for? Why do we prefer it when everything runs faster?
How do we define the good life? Do we get to define this, or is it already defined for us?
What do we live for? What is the aim of our affections and our pursuits?
It is easy for us to forget, but we should remember that efficiency and resilience are at odds. We live in a society that encourages us all—whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female—to optimise. We are to ‘Carpe Diem’ (seize the day) and constantly remind ourselves that ‘YOLO’ (you only live once). Systems for work, for leisure, for travel, and for business are all optimised, in the pursuit of faster, better, quicker, cleaner transactions and transfers. Even systems for love and romance (think: Tinder, Bumble, Salt) reproduce those of Apple Maps or Google Waze – smooth access, playful swipes, easy interactions. The list could go on – from love and leisure to diet, health, wellbeing, and more.
When we speak of optimisation, we generally assume that we’re referring to maximum efficiency. Clearly, optimisation can pursue a variety of goals in a variety of settings. Broadly speaking though, when setting goals we specify the conditions for success and failure. More specifically, when speaking of optimisation and efficiency, we are implicitly considering some parameters for what we could call the ‘optimum’. In real life, however, we are often so focused on efficiency, that we lose sight of the goal. Yes, we sleep 8 hours per night, yes, we work 9 hours per day, yes, we stay hydrated, yes, we visit the gym daily – and yet the hollowness gnaws away at us. Were we not promised more than this?
When we value precision over clarity and lose sight of the fundamental, underlying goals, we can easily end up being very precise, and yet being precisely wrong. Form takes over substance, and the whole quest for optimisation becomes hollow. If we truly care about ourselves and about others, we need to admit that
it’s always better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.
Optimisation is great, but the question remains: optimisation for what? What is the optimum? Who or how are we defining this?
The costs we often forget to account for
In a system that is optimised for maximum performance over a short period of time, sacrifices will be made. This is an inevitable trade-off. In defining ‘performance’, usually we focus on a few parameters, treating the rest of reality as if it’s not relevant. Hence, we sleep with our Apple watch or Oura ring to track the quality of our sleep. Alexa informs us of the weather outside before we can even open our curtains in the morning. Our Fitbit informs us if we have not walked our daily 10,000 steps – and so on.
Speed is not the ‘natural’ condition for human life. We need to bear in mind that life is a journey, not a sprint. Yet in our late-modern society, we increasingly design our lives around achievement and in ways that favour speed. Often these are at the expense of intervals of rest and contemplation. Pause for just a moment. Consider the watercress on your kitchen sink, or the squirrel at your window, or the weeds overtaking your garden.
“In our late-modern society, we increasingly design our lives around achievement and in ways that favour speed.”
Nature is often the best example of a system which is ‘optimised for life’. We all know that ‘life is fragile’, yet biological life is abundant on planet earth.
Life relies on redundancy, abundance, and buffer. In the complex ecosystems of the natural world, everything is important and has a place. Even things that escape our attention, things we might deem under the threshold for relevance, impact the ecosystem in productive, unexpected ways. Biological life itself escapes our capacity to define and control it. We cannot know everything about all things, but we can grow in awareness and appreciation. Paying more attention to the natural world helps us better appreciate the value of resilience based on redundancy.
Part 2 following soon
Note: *1: Oliver James (2007) writes convincingly on this topic in his book ‘Affluenza’. A commentator of the book remarks; “never have I read a book that so precisely captures the way we are being emotionally snookered by the demands of 21st Century living” (Jeremy Vine, p.i)
Written in the summer of 2021, during long, non-optimised days of work and study
Adrian Petrice (PhD) holds a doctorate in Political Science. Adi is the European Co-ordinator for Cross-Current, a network of young Christian professionals integrating their faith and work, to benefit all.
Benjamin Sager (MA) holds a master’s in Psychology from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Ben works with young professionals within the VBG network of IFES.
Samuel Johns (MA) studied Human Geography and Philosophy at UBC, Vancouver. Samuel writes on identity and immediacy in the (post)modern world, and works with the Cross-Current network.