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Defining Productivity

Greater Than Financial | By Wakefield Hare | Sat Oct 15 2022

My grandfather, Bill Hare, was the County Collector in my county for 32 years and there are a couple things I know for certain about my Grandpa Bill. 

First, he was incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to work and serve the people in my community. 

Second, although he was thankful for his work at the Courthouse, his heart was most satisfied when he could be on his farm. Something about the open pastures and the livestock created a deep satisfaction within him. “Why?” I would ask him and my dad, who also enjoyed raising cattle.

He basically said cattle production is rewarding in a way that is difficult to describe in words. There’s a feeling of productivity that is extremely satisfying. 

So, which is more valuable? Grandpa’s work raising cattle to supply beef to American households? Or his work administering tax collections? Both were productive, but was one more productive than the other?

Let’s fast forward two generations and here I sit in my office across the street from where he used to work, tapping away on a keyboard, reminiscing about my dad and grandfather, and the countless hours they put in to productively pursue their values. 

I’d love to tell you I’ve learned to cherish farming cattle as my father and grandfather did. But I don’t enjoy farming. I value agriculture, but don’t want to work within ag. I respect you, farmers, but don’t envy you.

A large part of why I lost any potential affinity for farming had to do with cattle. Well, in reality, it had to do with being a lazy kid, and cattle have the ability to quickly assess your diligence. Fixing fence and working cattle, which we always seemed to do on the very hottest days of the year, were some of the worst memories of my childhood. But they knew I could and should help. I was productive, at times, but not nearly as much as I could have been.

The only way Grandpa and Dad are still working and caring for cattle now is if there’s livestock in heaven. But thankfully their pastures still have animals using them thanks to my step-father, Bob Gay.  Cattle farming for my grandpa, dad, and step-dad has been very productive. They’ve made some money at it, but even more so, the work satisfied something deeper within. But not so for me. So did my laziness as a kid make me an unproductive adult? Are cattle farmers more satisfied than the rest of us because they value labor more? The short answer? No, because there are many other ways to be productive.

In my family, I spend a large chunk of my time and attention performing investment advisory and financial planning services. My wife, Sara, spends a large chunk of her time caring for our children. Which of us earns more money? Ok, that’s easy to guess. But which of us is more productive? Now we’re getting real!

If you begin to research productivity, nearly all results you’ll find measure it in monetary terms. That makes sense because when we talk about something having value, we’ll often ask ourselves “how much is it worth?” And when we ask that, we are asking about money.

However, is money the best way to measure if value is being created or how much? How much more productive I am than my wife, Sara, considering she is primarily caring for our kids while I work as a financial planner? 

According to traditional definitions of productivity, I am exponentially more productive than she is, but in real human terms, we know that is ridiculous. I value the development of my kids as highly as anything in this world. My care and concern for them is beyond the value of money: it is priceless. 

And yet we will always try to convert even the care for and the joy of our children into dollar terms. 

It’s incredible to live in a way that leads us to financial independence. But independence alone does not equal enduring satisfaction. To get that, we sometimes must choose to give ourselves in ways that make us no money at all, or even costs us significantly.

This could include accepting a lower paying job that doesn’t involve as much stress. It may be turning down a side job to spend more time with a grandparent in the last season of their life. It may be taking the leap to be the volunteer soccer coach even though you know nothing about soccer. It might mean selling a mutual fund for the sake of crossing off the bucket list item. 

Or (trigger alert!) choosing to be a stay at home parent while the kids are young. I’ve yet to meet a family that this was “impossible” to pull off. Instead, families simply choose to prioritize their finances in a way that doesn’t make it possible. No judgment here, but too many families have been told or claimed it’s not possible when that’s not true. It would be really hard, yes, and I understand why many choose not to take that route.

But what happens if the kids you invested all those hours into don’t develop to be productive themselves? Or you’re accused of fraud in the Collector’s office when in reality it was a computer malfunction? Or hog prices crash, as they did in the 90s, causing your Dad’s full time farming dream to evaporate? Or on a more raw note, you feel like the freedoms and way of life you created, or was created for you by ancestors, was being taken from you?

All the work and all the sacrifices….lost. No longer worth anything. Even worse than losing their value is the feeling it was wasted. It leads to an outcome worse than death: being alive but having all purpose stripped away. Completely unproductive….if we stay stuck in the classic definitions of productivity.

This scenario is much like the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The book is infamous for being a downer. It gives a view of God and this world that makes many uncomfortable. It states often that no matter how you try to live, or how you try to produce, it all turns to dust. Your striving for production goes And when we read the news, and look around us, we come to the realization that….Ecclesiastes is right.

So why try if all my efforts to be productive could disappear as a vapor? Well, it surprisingly gets even worse than that. 

It would certainly hurt to have to live through any of the experiences mentioned above. But there is something worse. What if in all your efforts and striving to have the spouse of your dreams, to have the perfect family, to land that dream job, to buy that property, to win the championship….actually pay off? Amazing, right? Not so much. In fact, many will say that achieving their goals actually made life worse!

In a 2005 interview after Tom Brady won his 3rd Super Bowl, he said this: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there is something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what it is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think, ‘God, it’s got to be more than this. I mean this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.'”

What’s worse than having all your effort to produce something valuable fall short? Having all your efforts actually get you the thing you value….and realize it’s not valuable at all.

So who is the most productive person in your life? Which person pops into your mind when you hear “productivity?” Was it a cattle farmer? Or a stay at home parent? Or a tradesman or woman? Or a neurosurgeon? Go ahead, write it down. Because when you do, you’ll reveal your own definition of productivity. 

Why is a clear definition of productivity so important? Because what you believe is productive is what you’ll pursue. For example, if you, like most of the world, measure productivity by money, you’ll pour all your work into tasks that produce money. You’ll be joyful when you get money, and frustrated when you lose it or fail to get it. Perhaps you’ll even become desperate. Desperation is a volatile and terrifying state.

And what if you’ve done everything you can to get money? You’ve studied smart, you’ve worked hard, you’ve sacrificed much, only to still come up short? Recall what we talked about earlier. What’s the point of it all if even the hearty end up broken hearted because they can’t have what their heart desires?

Money is not what our hearts are after. It’s only a tool to help. Education is only a tool to get us our heart’s true desires. Cattle is only a tool.  Competition is only a tool. Finally, we cut straight to the heart of productivity. There is only one enduring definition of true productivity: any pursuit which causes us to understand our created value as a human. 

But that definition leaves us wondering about which pursuits actually do that? What kind of activities, work, people, experiences would actually help us understand our created value as humans? There’s only one pursuit I know of. 

Serve others by loving others.

We will only begin to see our own value when we actively seek to love others. And the most effective way to love others is to serve others. 

It is tempting to merely think of the things we can do to serve ourselves. I am personally very successful at serving myself. But leads us to the same place: feeling empty. It’s unproductive, even if it creates a substantial net worth.

With a new definition of productivity (serving others), even the smallest “tasks” take on a new life. All can discover ways to serve others somehow. From the oldest to the youngest (of course a baby serves, look at the faces of those holding that child!). 

Think the elderly’s productive days are behind them? Dead wrong. If you have a senior citizen in your life, your message to them should be clear: we need you now more than ever to serve others. Your service as an elder was designed to give perspective to younger generations. There are young people who feel all alone who need your wisdom and companionship. 

This type of service can pull us all out of the apathy that keeps us from the productivity we were created for. But it gets even better. A new view of productivity through the lens of service to others helps us face even our greatest fears.

I challenge you to start to define productivity based on impact and service to other humans. Loving and serving others is what matters, and money does not fully capture that true value. 

Not only will a new definition of productivity give us a new excitement for what we give our attention to, but it can also help relieve our fears about the fragility of the systems around us. The US and Global economies are extremely complex because they are made up of trillions of independent parts, from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve trying to decide on the target interest rate, to the CEO in Tokyo trying to figure out if her company should overhaul their mobile app, to the father in Oklahoma trying to decide on whether or not to raise chickens. 

The United States certainly has a great short term track record of financial productivity, but remember, it is, in fact, very short term. There are NO guarantees in this world, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that man-made systems are fragile and vulnerable. So from an historical perspective, you are right to be nervous about the failure of our political and economic systems. But that doesn’t mean you should fear. Why?

Because if you have a singular focus on creating value for other humans, on serving them and loving them, there are countless ways to continue to live a rich life even if there is less financial stability in your life. As you reflect on your own family heritage, you only have to go back 1-3 generations when your family was dependent on sustenance living (having only enough). They had no concept of retirement, 401ks, emergency funds, large insurance policies or disability insurance. Those financial innovations are incredible, but they do not define what makes our lives rich. Americans are richer than ever, but think about this….are they happier?

True production isn’t about money, nor investments. It’s not about cattle or school. True production has as its object the most precious, valuable object in all of creation: people. The clients I see with the richest lives have figured that out.