When Efficiency Isn’t Efficient: The Shortest Path Isn’t Always Best

Taking time to think

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

“The shortest path between two points is a straight line.” That comes straight out of my eighth grade geometry textbook and if you can’t trust math, what can you trust?

That pronouncement rang my chime. It put words to an unspoken feeling I had had for a long time. What could be better, truer, or more perfect than the shortest path?

Kids Do the Darnedest Things

As a teenager, I started putting in place “straight lines” in my life everywhere I could impose them. I got out of bed at the exact moment that would allow me to get cleaned up, dressed, fed, and off to class in the least amount of time necessary. It annoyed me to be even a few minutes early and terrified me to be late.

I scheduled every moment of every day. I couldn’t stand an unplanned minute; I had to predetermine it all in advance.

Now you might be thinking that I must have been one of those overly serious, driven, humorless kids. Not so. I partied with the best of them. But even that partying was all on schedule.

I started going to college when I was just sixteen years old and still in high school. I had college in the morning and high school in the afternoon. No problem, I had it all mapped out.

Of course that was just school. I worked too. I had a job after school part-time as a computer programmer. After that, I worked at a McDonald’s, closing five nights a week.

Then I went out with my friends, then I came home and studied, then I slept for three or four hours. And then I did it all over again the next day.

You probably see where this is headed. I thought I was being efficient and mature. After all, I worked hard and studied hard. I was reliable and diligent. I was the life of the party and seemed to have boundless energy.

But one day, I just couldn’t muster the will go to work after school. I asked my mom to call in sick for me and I went to bed at 3:00 in the afternoon. I woke up 26 hours later, the next day at 5:00 in the afternoon.

How to Learn Nothing from Experience

You could chalk this all up to the inexperience of a teenager. I was in denial about the amount of sleep a young man requires until reality clubbed me with a board.

My mom, bless her heart, never came in to wake me up. I suppose she checked to see if I was still breathing a few times, but she let me encounter the ramifications of my own decisions.

Having been so wizened, I straightened right up and stopped to smell the roses regularly from there on out. Do you believe me?

Then this article would be finished, but we are far from done. No, I learned the wrong lesson. It wasn’t my efficient ways that were the problem; it was that I wasn’t being efficient enough! (Or so I thought.)

So I spent years in this pattern of striving for the perfect efficiency, driving my parents crazy, and then my wife, and then my kids.

The Right Goal, The Wrong Approach

You may be waiting to hear about the “big event” that finally opened my eyes, but I’m afraid I have disappointing news about that. It has been more of a gradual realization. After all, if a 26-hour coma didn’t get the message across, what else would have worked?

Life and nature have their own paths. From our viewpoint they might be taking the long way, but we don’t see everything. It’s a serious error to think that our perspective is “the truth.”

At the end of the day the universe itself is profoundly efficient. Nothing is ever lost, not one atom, not one photon. Is our pride so inflated that we think that we can improve upon this perfection?

You could be thinking that while the universe may be perfectly efficient, your life isn’t meeting that standard. Or you could be thinking that the universe’s version of efficiency isn’t for your own personal greatest good and that you ought to get in there and makes some changes.

You have volition and you possess power. It is your birthright. So it is granted to you to have an influence, both on the world and on yourself.

But when efficiency becomes your master, you give up your choice and your strength. The things you cannot see and cannot know get blocked from assisting you as you try to wrestle full control to yourself in a situation where partial control is natural and in your best interest.

But It’s Different at Work, Right?

The final place I let go of efficiency was in my business. That sounds like the direct path to bankruptcy, right? Actually, it is the opposite.

You cannot control the marketplace. You cannot control your competition. You cannot control your customers or your suppliers or government regulations or popular trends or the weather or, or, or. Stop trying now, while you still can.

This is the lay of the land—fluid, moving, changing. Stop trying to dam the river when you could use its tremendous power to deliver you downstream.

So these days, I schedule a lot less. I let things be a little messier and bit more spontaneous.

No, I haven’t turned into some flower child hippie or a monastic penitent, not that there is anything wrong with either of those paths. It’s just that the path for me involves a love for the micro as well as the macro.

Perfect efficiency isn’t about wrestling the world to its knees by domination and control; it is about being exactly, precisely who you are. The straightest paths will then arise. You won’t have to choose them for they will choose you.

So these days, I sleep nine hours every night. I still have a full life but I am not driven to “do” all the time. I have found that it is more efficient just to be myself.

Photo by flickrPrince

About Kenneth Vogt

You know how many small business owners have lots of ambitions but can’t seem to get clear about how to turn them into reality? Kenneth teaches them how to make their ambitions real at

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