The following is a good summary of Aristotle’s notion of the ultimate good of happiness:
“The god” or best good is that which is desired for its own sake and for the sake which we desire all other ends or goods. For human beings, eudaemonia is activity of the soul in accordance with arete(excellence, virtue, or what something is good for”). Eudaemonia is characterized by living well and doing well in the affairs of the world.
In my last post, I talked about seeking happiness when it is not found in a job. In that post, I accept the notion of happiness being a goal but that demands a definition of happiness. Aristotle defined happiness around the notion of arete that may translate to “what something is good for”. It seems he would be satisfied with the modern employment practice of finding round pegs to fit round holes. Everything will be fine if we can find the right person for the job, or the right job for the person. It may be true that people have some rigidity in what they can do well. A person is good for something. The task is to evaluate the contents and then place him in the right aisle in the hardware store. This is our approach for job recruiting. We want to find the person who has shown interest by independently investing in the skills in the area that matches the job opening. Ideally, we’d hire that the right person for the job, and that person would have the arete for what we most want from that position.
In my post, I defined happiness differently in that it may be pursuing something that may not match my arete whether that is excellence, virtue, what I am good at. Happiness can be the fruitless following the guidance of the muses. This can lead to the contradictory notion of finding happiness in frustration. Happiness may be found in being frustrated or even being clumsy. I enjoy writing for this blog despite the realization that my writing is far from excellent. I publish posts despite the fact that I realize I could do much better as a writer. In this blog, I’m neither exhibiting nor seeking excellence, and yet it remains key part of how I voluntarily spend my day.
It is hard to argue with Aristotle’s definition, though. In a management role, I experienced the frustration of matching a task with specific person. There seems to be limits to training or development in certain people. I also experienced my own short-comings for certain tasks, especially in terms leadership skills.
Even with that experience, I complain that we readily grasp at the easy excuse of this concept of an individual being best for some particular thing. We invest in training or exercise but accept that sometimes the best solution to frustration is to give up trying. Managers are humans too. They too may be good at a particular type of management that may be incompatible with certain types of individuals. Aristotle gives us an excuse for giving up because individuals have some rigidity in terms of what they are good at.
There is the related concept of Flow as discussed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book. Flow describes the experience during period when one is absorbed in an activity but also where there is both confidence and objective competence. This an activity that is making progress toward some goal. Flow is different because it involves the exercise of already acquired skills. Flow is not concerned about how the skills or aptitudes were selected or developed. Instead Flow results from whatever skills are present at the time. Flow is an appealing concept at a personal level. As described in the book, during Flow a person experiences a unique kind of happiness.
I haven’t read that book in a long time, but my recollection is that the book had many examples involving some form of Aristotelian excellence. People were most happy when absorbed doing something that they were good at doing. I don’t recall any examples of people experiencing flow when they were frustrated with an unsolvable problem. Certainly, they must be in the book in order to include the scientists and mathematicians trying to solve problems that remain unsolved for generations. These examples don’t stick in my mind as well as the examples where people are on top of their game making steady and confident progress at some task.
In my last post, I gave a reason to opt out of the workforce in favor of the opportunity to live life guided by the muses. I presented this idea as an alternative interpretation of the advice of follow one’s passion. The ancient concept of the muses is different from the modern meaning of passion. One can follow the muses without passion for doing so. One can follow the muses reluctantly or even indifferently. There is no need for passion. There is only the need for accepting their guidance.
The modern concepts of work are incompatible with being led by the muses. A way to describe this conflict is that modern work emphasizes the goals of Aristotelian Eudaemonia or Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. Following the muses interferes with those goals. The muses guide us outside of our areas of competence into areas of our unproven capabilities or even into areas of complete incompetence. That is the point of allowing the muses be a guide. They are the ones in control. They are not limited by the individual’s strengths. They point the way, and it is up to the individual to attempt to follow along as best as he can.
Following the muses can be frustrating and it risks failure. However, following the muse can also be an absorbing activity that can deliver a satisfying form of happiness. Some people may find happiness in being lost. Others may even find happiness in defeat in the attempt to follow the muses.
Modern concepts of jobs have very little tolerance for defeat or becoming lost. We specifically carve out from a larger task individual jobs that we fill will be easy to fill with specific individuals who are well qualified to to that job. We don’t create jobs around muses. We create jobs around certainty or predictability. We convince ourselves that we know what we want when we create a job opening. We want someone who can do a certain type of task very well. We imagine that if we had a team with all of the possible job descriptions filled, then we will be able to succeed with our project. We demand that teams can be so precisely defined into job descriptions so that we can readily replace any losses in staff.
One aspect of the work force is its emphasis on the team work. Work places value teamwork and invest much time on team-building and assuring complete inclusiveness so that no one is left out. Modern work prizes diversity for diversity’s sake and demands that everyone have a role in whatever activity is involved. In many office environments, there is a substantial part of the day devoted to activities that build better inter-personal bonds within the teams. Team work is very much a social activity.
I find merit in team approaches instead of secluded independent contributions. That value is to avoid the trap of certain people becoming indispensable and then facing the loss of that person. Teams have cross-training or at least awareness of the contributions so that they can reconstitute the team when there is a loss. Team approaches are good management strategies, particularly for essential business processes.
Team approaches that make sense for the business or collective can simultaneously be unrewarding to individuals. Some people are not good at being on teams. The answer to this is to exclude those individuals from the teams. Management builds teams by selecting people who are good at working in teams. The excluded people are those who are not good at being on a team.
Many technology fields are adopting the agile approaches that were developed for software projects. An agile approach defines some simple goal (sometimes described as a minimally viable product) that can be accomplished in a short period of time called a sprint where that time limit is just a few weeks. Agile approaches involves a team that works very well together to maintain a high intensity of labor to make steady progress to the goal. That intensity a healthy team of individually competent people. Certainly, the sprint objective may be challenging and may even be outside of what they can accomplish. However, the agile approach involves an initial planning stage to select goals that everyone feels confident they can meet. Ideally in agile approaches, any challenges encountered will be a surprise.
This pattern occurs in many team-oriented jobs. The emphasis is on building a team of experts or mentors who can give the team a collective confidence that they can get some task done. While they may recognize a future task will require a lot of work, they accept the task with an expectation that failure will not be an option. They accept the task with confidence they will not fail although avoiding that failure may require intense effort.
In government we increasingly approach difficult problems following the team model that looks a lot like agile approaches. The federal government addresses certain issues by tasking some agency to create a minimum viable product of a new regulation. We address terrorism by tasking NSA to build minimum viable products of data systems for personal communication meta-data. Each problem has a solution and that solution is a product that some team has the confidence to produce. Bureaucracies are good at making regulations. NSA is good at working with meta data. The police forces are good at apprehending individuals. Each time, we define the job in terms of what the group is capable of performing. This is similar to the agile process of having a team offer an acceptable product based on their capabilities.
There may be some value to introducing new products such as regulations, or secretive data mining. The products are attempts to answer some larger need or some larger issue. As in the commercial market place, some products will not succeed and the need will remain unfilled. The agile approach is to attempt to direct a team’s capability into something that they can build in the time available. The agile approach makes an assertion that that the proposed product will be built. The agile approach makes no promise that the product will actually solve the broader problem or resolve the larger issue.
The EPA regulations on greenhouse gases will be regulations but may not have any impact on the effects of greenhouse gases. NSA’s meta-data data centers will be large scale data centers able to continuously accept massive amounts of meta-data but this may not have any impact on preventing terrorist acts. We are content with the fact that we have assembled teams capable of producing products and the teams will deliver those products. This contentedness ignores the question of whether these products actually resolve an issue.
An example occurred last week where the DC area experienced a snowfall that caught the urban managers by surprise and resulted in a major traffic problem. The government invests in weather forecasting in order to provide adequate warning so that the urban managers to make good decisions such as preparing to clear roads or to shut down or delay businesses and schools to keep traffic low. The forecasters did succeed in delivering their product of a forecast of snow during the morning. The forecast suggested that the amounts would be small enough not to present a big problem. They were correct in the fact that the amounts were relatively small, but they failed to anticipate the nature of the snowfall to be particularly treacherous on untreated roads. The snow that fell was very effective for making the roads slick so that vehicles would not be able to move. The point of this story is that the successfully delivered product failed the objective of the investment: to provide adequate warning for planners of the bad conditions of the roads while the storm was active. The product was delivered: a generally accurate forecast of a small amount of snow. But the forecast failed to prevent major gridlock in the morning rush hour — one of the goals for investing in weather forecasting in the first place.
Modern government and business alike are very focused on producing products that existing teams are well skilled at producing. We have invested in building those teams and selecting highly qualified people to fill the openings in those teams. The teams are able to make products. We then use those teams to deliver their products with the expectation that that is the best we can do.
This is the model built around the notions of Aristotelian excellence. The right people are on the right teams. The right products are assigned to the right teams. Despite our perfection of these teams, we are not making much progress in solving the big issues. A minor snowfall still catches us by surprise, greenhouse gases will not decline, and terrorists will continue to strike. We are not getting what we need for the money we spend on our teams of excellence.
There is alternative approach to addressing big issues. Instead of assigning teams of excellence certain sprints to build minimally viable products, we could be employing individuals to freely explore the issue with independent determination. This determination and independence is characteristic of following the muses where the muses will lead a path into areas of incompetence or uncertain capabilities. The potential benefit of following the muses is that we may make discoveries that we could not anticipate. Those discoveries offer new opportunities to solve the big problems we face within government and in business. These discoveries are the antithesis of the minimally viable product that can be selected in advance. Pursuit of discovery by following the muses means we can’t anticipate what we will discover. The results may involve new skills we did not bring to the project. The results may involve something incompatible with any existing team of excellence.
In this discussion, I am suggesting a value for allowing for the free and unbounded investigation of individuals. Such individuals will take their direction from the muses instead of from human managers or product-owners. I think we can find real solutions to vexing problem by allowing for some freedom for individuals with determination to pursue some problem. These are approaches that our ancestors used (as characterized by the ancient muses) with benefits to society. This is still a part of human nature so that some fraction of people are well suited for this type of independent pursuit of the muses.
I think it is a recent development that we have shut out the opportunities for these individuals to participate outside of teams. In order for modern individuals to follow the muses like their ancestors did, they may have no other choice but to drop out of the labor market consisting entirely of teams of proven capabilities. Some tasks are not suitable for minimally viable products.