Friday, August 12, 2011

Blue Collar, White Collar, and No Collar Productivity (Response to Henry Abbott's Essay on Keith Richards)

A few weeks ago Henry Abbott wrote an essay on Keith Richards and public relations. He noted that Keith Richards did a lot of crazy things and is praised for it. However, NBA players tend to keep their struggles, partying, and addictions hidden, or are judged for it by fans. He hinted that perhaps there are also racial components to this dilemma.

Blue Collar Productivity

As I read the essay, I felt strongly that perhaps another perspective other than race might fit better. That perspective is blue collar productivity as advanced by Frederick Taylor and other management gurus at the turn of the century. Essentially, it is easy to break down many types of manual labor into steps. If I am tightening the lug nuts on car wheels for an assembly line, an analyst can come by and measure how long each step (reach for the screwdriver, twist each lug nut about 5 times, etc.) should take in seconds. It's then relatively easy to calculate how many lug nuts I should be able to tighten in one hour. Under this type of measurement, any breaks I take or any experimentation I do to try to change the way I work is lost time, and thus lost productivity. It's rather Puritanical in its strong belief that any idle time accrues to the devil's workshop rather than Factory, Inc., if you will.

Most NBA fans tend to see their stars in such a light. Consider the harsh condemnation of Vince Carter when he chose to attend his graduation rather than sit in his hotel room before the Sixers-Raptors game about a decade ago. Any time not spent practicing or preparing is lost time. If you're not in the gym, someone else is, and that player will be outdoing you in Game 7 when it matters. We also see this in how players such as Marcus Banks get attacked for having interests other than sports. But this is wildly unrealistic because it assumes that players are robots for whom more is better.

The process is not the results.

If I get a 30 minute lunch break instead of 15, I might be much more able to work hard for the last 4 hours at work. That extra 15 minutes is not wasted time. And maybe that harsh, malnourished upbringing an NBA player had is the fuel that leads him to have a greater desire to win, or that DUI was the wake-up call he needed rather than a sign of future disaster.

White Collar Productivity

However, I believe Henry went too far in portraying the Keith Richards story positively, because the other extreme is how white-collar productivity is measured. We still do a terrible job of assessing the productivity of engineers, sales people, and executives. I have spoken to experts in the field who merely shrug their shoulders and say it's not possible to assess it. We often only judge white-collar productivity on results, not process. But there is definitely a difference between the salesperson who goofs off most of the time and yet lands one 3 million dollar sale in the month compared to the salesperson who works hard and gets lots of little deals that add up to 3 million.

Bad process usually leads to bad results.

For every Keith Richards who makes it, there are 100 Amy Winehouses who don't. I suggest you look at Russell Brand's letter to Amy as an example of how easy it is for talent to nearly be lost due to bad life choices. We celebrate Keith because he metaphorically went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. But that's not to say that Keith needed the drugs and partying to become a great musician. The white-collar productivity legend that "I need my strippers on Sunday night to make the big stock market trades on Monday morning" can't stand up to any sort of real analysis. While I reject the Puritanical blue-collar productivity measures with no flexibility for individual style or breaks, I also think we must reject the hedonistic white-collar productivity measures that say "If her results turned out well, everything she did must have been right."

No Collar Productivity

At times, it bothers me that there is little analysis of the NBA by class or labor. I credit Tommy Craggs at Deadspin as one of the few to notice the labor-management struggles inherent within pro sports. And as such, I believe we need a new paradigm (buzz word alert!) to view our pro athletes. The narrative is part of the story, and we should respect the journey, but not idolize it. Perhaps one day fans, management, and players alike will properly respect both the process and the results. It's ok to say that maybe Keith Richards could have been an even better musician without the drugs, right? But it's also ok to say that if, say, Tracy McGrady decides to go to Africa with Dikembe Mutombo instead of working on his game all summer, he still respects the game, right?

In time, I hope more fans will see NBA players as artists and creative talents more than mere physical day laborers who must be shackled to their stations 24-7 in order to produce. But I also appreciate the tradition of sports as a field where hard work and dedication matters, and practice does make the perfect more perfect, if you will. The mingling of hard work and creative genius is what makes sports such a fascinating field to follow.