I know many young, childless people who, outside of their jobs, don’t really produce any works. They may spend portions of their non-work time watching TV, going out with friends, reading, doing chores, with their partner, etc., but no “deliverables” come of this. Unlike me, they have no blog and produce no cynical, pedantic essays. Many fill their leisure time with low cognitive-load activities, but others engage in high cognitive-load activities like reading complicated novels or playing Pokémon, yet these activities still produce nothing of note.
Producing permanent works, including essays, photographs, compositions, speeches, and courses, is an integral part of my identity. However, this is simple not true for a majority of people—or at least, is not evident in their actions.
One could characterize the drive to produce permanent works as a personal shortcoming, particularly when seeking notoriety and building self-esteem are primary goals. Too much focus on producing works might cause one to not make meaningful contributions if these contributions are not recorded. Obviously, one can live a very happy life without caring about producing permanent works. Being a practitioner and helping others does not produce works, per se, but may be just as valuable. There is also a palpable narcissistic element to producing works.
On the other hand, I would argue that not producing works is a personal shortcoming. It is definitely something that becomes a habit, particularly if you don’t own the tools needed to produce the works. It is pretty hard to write a long blog post from a smartphone, for example. More importantly, not producing any works may be a huge missed opportunity, particularly when producing works would hone your skills. It takes many years of practice and experimentation to build a portfolio and get good at an art or trade. If you are just working 40 hours a week and spending your other 72 waking hours on trivial pursuits, are you wasting your life? When are you going to stop wasting your life on crap? Obviously, the longer you wait, the more degrees of freedom are irrevocably squandered.
What is “trivial”? How should we judge whether someone is “wasting” their time?
One approach is to consider alignment with one’s internal and espoused priorities. Internal priorities are what someone truly values. Espoused priorities are plainly visible, because they are shared with others. If a person’s actions do not line up with their espoused priorities, they may or may not be wasting their time—their actions may still be in line with their internal priorities if their internal priorities diverge from the priorities they publicly share. For example, someone may talk a good game about how they love travel, yet not actually go anywhere. However, if travel is not actually an internal priority for them, they may be correctly aligned.
Discerning internal priorities is something that you alone are in the best position for. The workaholic who claims to prioritize family time may just be espousing this priority because it is culturally acceptable. If, he or she internally values career over family, he or she may be well aligned. However, if he or she wants to prioritize family time yet fails to do so, then we could say he or she is misaligned.
This perspective may help you discern whether you are squandering time by not producing works. It can also be useful for many other purposes. If writing is important to you, yet you spend your free time watching TV, what does this say about your priorities? Are you really “unwinding” by watching TV, or have you just developed a bad habit? Your works are not going to magically appear.
Aligning your behaviors and cognitive routines with your internal priorities is an iterative process. If you start this process at 25, you might be at a clear disadvantage against someone who started at 15. However, for those who aspire to personal excellence, never starting is not a viable alternative to starting late.
How do these iterations look? Like developing any skill, there are good days and bad days. For example, my piano skills have regressed due to not playing much in the spring 2016 semester. Playing piano has become less important to me—I no longer feel my day is incomplete if I haven’t touched my keyboard. While it is easy to classify this as an unfortunate incident, it would be foolish to argue that your priorities should remain fixed. In the next iteration, if piano remains a priority for me, then playing more would be an improvement. However, if piano is de-emphasized as a priority, then not playing is actually the optimal, aligned outcome. I think music is more important than a lot of things I waste my time on, so I’m planning to get back into music soon.
How can we apply the question: “Where are your works?” Bullshit detection is one obvious application. For example, if someone claims to value volunteering, and yet has nothing to speak of on his or her CV, then he or she is bullshitting you. If you encounter a poet with no poems, a painter with no paintings, a programmer with no programs, … then you are being bullshitted. Via inductive reasoning, we may conclude that such people aren’t exactly truthful, nor is their “word” worth much, in general.
Bad advice can be very toxic—even worse than no advice. Asking “where are your works?” can prevent you from being poorly advised. If someone is telling you how to get your house in order, yet their house is a mess, then you should probably send their advice to /dev/null. You would be better off seeking advice from a turtle or pulsar. For example, it is probably not a good idea to get business advice from a 22-year-old moron with a degree, an iPhone, and zero net worth.
Ask—where is the evidence? Producing works allows you to assemble or aggregate evidence, or at least provide a persuasive logical argument. If you have no works, you probably haven’t found your voice. It is hard to take someone seriously who has no voice.
Finally, cultural expectations may influence—but should not define—your priorities. I do not advocate the unrealistic ideal that they should have no bearing. For example, I would be lying if I said prestige was not a factor in my college career; higher education is extremely valued in Western culture, perhaps overly so (particularly among women, who receive a super-majority of degrees). However, selecting a path primarily based on extrinsic factors is usually a bad decision. While it is a huge pain in the ass to go against the flow, it is often the only good option.
Culturally, “judging” others seems like a no-no. However, judging is essential to avoiding the garden path. When directed toward others, asking “where are your works?” helps you judge whether you are being offered useful input or bullshit. When directed inwardly, this question challenges you to be productive. The cost of entertaining bad ideas is far larger than generally known. Do not let your time and energy be squandered.