The Russell Max Simon Production Function

And the importance of finding your own model for achievement

In 2016, I took a solo trip to a tiny island in Belize, Caye Caulker. It was a stretch of sand with some tiki bars and sailboats. There were no cars, and one dirt road. I flew in on a 4-seater operated by Tropic Air.

For the next 12 days I had only two goals: kitesurf when windy, and write a feature-length screenplay. As it turned out, I finished the screenplay in eight days.

I also didn’t write another script for more than a year.

Working in spurts

I’ve always worked well in spurts.

Research papers in College took me one, long 36-hour stretch, when I would go to the library, put my head down and get it done. The writing itself rarely took me more than a few hours. When I became a reporter the lifestyle fit me well: wait, wait, wait, NEWS! Now write the piece on deadline! Now! And then go back to waiting.

(I never miss deadlines, incidentally)

Make your living as a writer for long enough and you’ll come to understand that writing fits this style naturally. You think, you ponder, you procrastinate — and then you WRITE.

For several years I made independent films, and being a filmmaker has a similar workflow: lots of waiting and planning, waiting and planning, followed by an intense few days or weeks of PRODUCTION.

The script I wrote in Belize was 85 pages. A few months later, I shot it over the course of seven days. A couple weeks later I had a finished feature film. And then, I didn’t make another movie for more than a year.

31 Days to Climb 5.12

The point is, I’ve found a mode of production that works for me.

Last week, I started a new experiment: I would give myself one month to reach a goal of climbing 5.12. It’s a hard grade that many climbers never break in to. I’ve been climbing roughly 15 years, but it’s only in the past year, after moving to Rumney and having the cliffs so close by, that climbing 5.12 has felt achievable to me.

The question was, how would I actually get there? What strategy would I use? I came up with a plan, one that I felt might match well my penchant for periods of calm, rest, and idleness, followed by intense stretches of work.

I’ve written about the plan on a separate Substack. There, I track daily about progress, and the content is heavily focused on climbing and a related goal of eating uber-local, so if you’re interested in those subjects do check it out.

Whether I achieve it or not (so far a shoulder injury is threatening to derail the entire thing), I have fortunately earned enough self-knowledge at the ripe age of 38 to know the limits of my discipline. I know that a month-long project of intense work is appropriate for me, although it may not be appropriate for everyone.

Other models (For ex., “Write every day”)

There are some people who I admire greatly, but who are likely terrible models for me to emulate. Take the economist Tyler Cowen. I honestly can’t understand how he writes so much, so consistently, day in and day out, on his Marginal Revolution blog, weekends included, plus manages to publish so many books of material not on the blog, plus manages a full course load of teaching. Not to mention all the other non-work activities which make up a life.

Cowen has a podcast where he often asks guests about their “production function.” That is, how they get stuff done. For Cowen himself, he writes every day. Writer David Perell had Cowen on his own podcast to do an entire episode about Tyler’s production function, and I must confess I haven’t yet listened. Because I just don’t think Cowen is a good model for me.

He writes every day. I write in spurts. He gets far more writing done than me. I do other things. That’s just the way it is, and I try not to beat myself up about it.

(Incidentally, Cowen has also said he believes that he is preternaturally even-keeled. Never too excited, never too depressed, Cowen simply works through news & events which would probably throw most other people off their game).

Society is terrible at this

The thing is, society is absolutely terrible about matching people to their proper production function, much less encouraging them to find it for themselves.

Take the 9 to 5 work day, which is more or less a historical accident — the result of a compromise between management and labor over the latter’s previously bone-crushing factory hours. Working 9 to 5 doesn’t have any relevance, as far as I can tell, to getting anything done in a setting where the main work is office work.

Nor, as far as I can tell, does it have any relevance to hourly wage labor. If I were digging ditches for a living, I may just decide it made more sense for me to work 12 hours a day for 4 days a week. Or, if I didn’t need that much money, only 2 days a week. Or perhaps I would take advantage of long daylight hours in the Summer to work 7 days a week, then work not at all from November through March, when the ground here in New Hampshire is too frozen to dig anyway. If I’m getting paid by the hour, what does it matter which hours? The employer of ditch diggers could hire as many as he or she wishes, entirely on their own schedules, so long as ditches get dug.

In office settings, it’s been clear for years, decades perhaps, that most of the actual important work, or production, gets done in a small amount of time. Thus we “discover” things like the Pareto Principle, in which 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. If you want something to get done, so the office saying goes, give it to the busiest person.

Old models made new

I’ve been thinking a lot about a long piece by writer Aaron Jacob, published in July in Palladium Magazine: “How work became a job.” Jacob traces some of the history of wage labor, which is more or less a post-industrial invention (I highly recommend it as a long read on a lazy Sunday).

The gist is that prior to the industrial revolution, most workers were artisans, which is to say they made things, then sold the things for money. But the rise of big factories required a lot of workers to operate the new machinery. None of these workers owned the factory, so the owners began paying wages. You give me your time, I give you money.

As Jacob recounts:

As the late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch notes in The True and Only Heaven, opposition to wage labor was widespread in the first half of the 19th century: “the general uneasiness about the new economic order found its most striking expression in the nearly universal condemnation of wage labor.” Lasch recounts how prominent American voices explicitly linked wage labor to the institution of slavery.

Catch that? Wage labor was considered akin to slavery.

Oh, how far we’ve come. Or, maybe not so far at all.

One proposal at reform was that workers had to at some point gain ownership over the means of production. I get that this sounds Marxist with our 20/20 hindsight, but the reality is that workers who worked to produce things for other people — workers who didn’t own their own tools, their own means — was a totally alien concept. It was more appropriate to think of factory work as being like serfdom than as being an indication of a modern economy.

With this perspective, the way our modern economy functions simply feels asinine. Don’t we have anything better to offer?

The future of work

There are far better prognosticators on what the future of work might hold than me. I recommend checking out some of Paul Millerd’s writing, to start (he’s the one that led me to discover the Jacob piece).

But it does seem to me that a two things are clear:

  1. Finding your own production function is about more than personal goals or achievement; it’s about recapturing a very human, indeed ancient, relationship to work.

  2. Any way we can recapture personal ownership over one’s time and labor, and ideally real artisanship, wherein we make something people need and then sell it, is something I’d be interested in supporting. It’s not some nostalgic pining for the past which makes me say that, but rather a new and deeper understanding of the course of human history.

Finally: if the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic upheaval have any positive follow-on effects, I hope one of them is that we may begin to move toward a healthier relationship with work, labor, and the oh-so-capitalistic term, productivity.

And maybe, just maybe, we realize that the way we’ve been doing things just isn’t working any more.