Sunday, February 5, 2012

Working Hard Isn’t Enough:


Hard work is necessary in life and in many employment sectors in order to stay afloat.  The scientific red queen hypothesis in which ecosystems keep each component in check via an evolutionary arms race is a case in point. This idea, stolen from Lewis Carroll’s fantastic satire Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice must run as fast as she can just to stay in one place, is the classic illustration of hard work not paying off.  Indeed, when someone posted a picture of women in Africa carrying bundles with the caption that quoted George Monbiot which said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire,” my first cynical thought was, Of course not, you need to work smart not just hard.  (see Women andGirls Lead, a non-profit who promotes networking and education for women).  Given that the adage ‘Work smart not hard’ is one I follow, I thought I would delineate how this adage really works by discussing three principles that allow for working smart.  The principles I will discuss are novel discovery, bolus energy expenditure, and specialization. 
One principle played out by the evolutionary march is that de novo enhancements can increase the survival fitness of the organisms that possess them.  Like the red queen hypothesis, first posited by Leigh Van Valen in 1973 and popularized by Matt Ridley in his book The Red Queen, most such experiments of evolution lead to improvements of necessity only; the evolutionary correlate of working hard to stay in one place.  Plant toxins, turtle shells, and skunk spray are all examples of adaptations by organisms in an evolutionary arms race that while aiding there survival fitness, probably just keep them on track with their natural predators as the predators in turn figure out how to bypass these adaptations.  In order to really get ahead, one must leap frog the competition.   An example from the evolution literature is the Foxp2 gene found in humans and in some hominid ancestors but not in other apes theorized to increase speech and vocalization ability; a mutation of this gene leads to reduced language articulation (See the work of Svante Pääbo).  The advantage of such a gene may have revolutionized human communication and provided a decidedly selective advantage to our survival fitness as a species.  This advantageous change suggests that one way to work smart is by obtaining and recognizing improvements around us that may lead to reduced energy consumption on any given task and thereby improving our productivity.  The ability to articulate thoughts and ideas was so revolutionary it may have single handedly lead us out of the evolutionary arms race and left us only with our competitors in the rat race; fellow humans.
Like the evolutionary arms race that I focused on in the previous example the rat race is composed of groups and individuals all trying to get ahead. When large groups compete with one another for dominance, it is often necessary to extend ourselves by the expense of a bolus amount of energy in order to make significant advancements that take us out of the realm of hard work and into the realm of smart work.  In 2003 a roughly 10 year push to finish the human genome project came to a close.  The work of two teams pushed technology to reach the goal of mapping the entire human genome and paved the way for the decoding of numerous genomes since.  Furthermore, the recent announcement of a $1000 personal genome sequencer; the holy grail of genome sequencing was a direct result of this work.  In 2011 the NASA space shuttle took its final flight.  This marked the end of 40 years of energy expenditure by NASA and the US government that should have ended decades before and at a substantial reduction in cost to society.  What should have been a push for ‘smart’ advancement got bogged down by a bureaucratic system unwilling to maximize its time efficiently.  The major difference between the two energy expenditures was the duration and endpoint.  The money for genome science was goal oriented with a specific endpoint and the NASA shuttle missions was goal-less with no specific endpoint.  These examples makes two points; one that a bolus of energy can provide a ‘smart’ advantage to a group if goals and endpoints are delineated and two, that the bolus of energy is only ‘smart’ if it is truly only a bolus of energy directed at a specific goal, not a never ending drain on society.  Once completed the advantages to society are two fold; i.e. the goal itself and the technology needed to achieve it.  To re-emphasize, ‘smart’ work leads to reduced energy expenditure on any given tasks in the future.
A final strategy to working smart also involves the reduction of energy expenditure.  It is impossible to know all things well and harder still to know many things well.  So a sensible third key to working smart is to specialize.  The human race in general has learned this well.  Different groups are good at different things and people within these groups are sub-specialists as well.  Any well oiled machine consists of various components selected and specialized to perform a specific function. Likewise, a close look at any large-scale successful company will show you that while many of their employees may have had the same training coming in, they are divided into work units in which training is specialized to the function of the work unit. At the large reference laboratories where I once worked, there were multiple floors of laboratories, i.e. transfusion medicine, cytogenetics, or drug metabolism, and in each of these labs were managers, supervisors and technicians who may have had similar scholastic training but had now focused on one set of skills most important for their function in a work unit.  This type of structuring is not just important for a successful business but also for tailoring your individual training.  Specialization allows one to focus on a key set of skills and therefore reduce energy expenditure in areas not within those key function sets.   
I have limited this article to three strategies to working smart, which in general center on reducing energy expenditure in the long term, and I have used a broad spectrum of examples from outside the realm of on the job interactions to make my points.  While these strategies work in the specific cases of evolution, large groups and industry, do they apply generally and how do they relate to the specific case of women living in Africa?  While case by case these women will have to make decisions based on information that I do not have, in general I can suggest that they can follow the three rules I have discussed to procure more success from their work.  Observations made within their day to day duties might lead to some novel discovery that could be applied to performance of these duties in the future; indeed a systematic addition of small changes to the daily routine may yield a process improvement to better perform the task at hand.  A bolus of energy provided by the pooled resources of the tribe could be expended to complete a city improvement which will make life easier for everyone, and finally each woman might specialize in some part of the enterprise of running the community to ensure continued success and greatly improve the skill in which individual tasks are performed.  In this way their hard work may actually pay off, thanks in part to also working smart.

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