Humor me for a moment by answering this question: When approached with the option of taking an escalator vs. stairs, which do you prefer? And, if you happen to choose the escalator, do you ride it, as it was presumably designed for, or do you walk up it, as you would regular stairs?
Bear with me as I share my own odd observational thoughts on this subject, because, as I’ll get to in a second, I think the behaviors people choose when faced with these options are a reflection of business culture today.
On a given day, I’m probably more likely to take the active route and use the stairs. However, on days when I’m feeling a bit lazier and I choose to ride the escalator, I’m almost always guaranteed to stand still and ride it as intended. In fact, I often find myself getting angry with the people who choose to take the escalator, only to walk up them as if they’re stationary stairs. “The stairs are over there, buddy,” I’ll think to myself as some pushy businessman or businesswoman rushes up the escalator to my left.
These people likely do this because walking up an escalator, just like walking on a moving walkway at an airport, is far more efficient and productive. This is precisely why I often find myself annoyed at the people who take the opportunity to maximize their transportation efficiency in this otherwise unmemorable moment of their day. Like, give it a rest.
You see, in my mind (and this isn’t based on any sort of scientific evidence) people who choose to actively walk up or down an escalator — especially in large, busybody metropolitan cities — symbolize a recent trend in business and society in general that I think requires reexamination.
Being busy has become a status symbol — one that is often defined by individuals who are able to maximize human performance and productivity through their use of the vast array of technology, apps and other “hacks” marketed to use by self-help gurus, leadership experts and, seemingly, anyone with an internet connection and a Medium account. As The Guardian writes, society’s wealthy are no longer empowered just by spending gigantic amounts of money on needless luxuries but now gain their sense of power by projecting how long and hard they work.
“In the new Gilded Age,” The Guardian writes, “identifying oneself as a member of the ruling class doesn’t just require conspicuous consumption. It requires conspicuous production.” It isn’t how much you spend. It’s how hard you work
Need evidence? Look no further than our country’s top business leaders. Tim Cook, Apple’s boss, a man with generational wealth who could retire today and live a life of luxury, prides himself on waking up at 3:45 a.m. to start his workday. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, The Guardian points out, has worked 100-plus hour weeks for nearly 20 years and counting. For those of you doing the math, that’s roughly 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
The examples are endless. In America, people work hard, and then they work harder, and then they work some more — and, if someone else is watching, they work some more, and then more.
Why? Don’t get me wrong: I personally value hard work. I, too, am an early riser and complete work early in the mornings before I commute in and start the official workday. There are some nights I do more work, too. I’m mildly interested in improving my productivity methods, as others are, and I pride myself on having a fulfilling workday. Others should too. However, I do not work 100-hour weeks. Am I free on Saturday? Yes — always. Call me and we’ll sit on my porch and do … nothing.
The notion that individual productivity is somehow the new symbol of power and status? Yuck. And, for whatever reason, I can’t help using the escalator example as something that reflects this, no matter how small or stupid the example might seem to everyone else.
You may think I’m crazy, and you wouldn’t be the first. For many morning commuters, the fact that I’m the only one standing still on the escalator in Chicago’s subway should tell you I’m completely comfortable being a contrarian on this subject.
Yes, working hard is important. But at what point does it become unproductive to constantly seek to be the most productive? Take a second and reread that sentence.
No wonder executive burnout has become such a problem. When you’ve got the most prominent examples of success in business proudly projecting their insane and, perhaps, unhealthy work habits, anyone who has ever aspired to a fraction of their success is going to want to replicate it.
Most people think they can’t afford to stand still on the escalator. That would be unproductive. They need to get on to the next thing as fast as possible.
Do me a favor. Give it a freaking rest, business world; you too, wealthy people. Find a moment to Zen out — or a day, week or month. We get it: you’ve got a lot to do, you’re really, really important, have a demanding job and feel like there’s not enough time to do it all. But, I promise you, there’s a threshold with being too busy that just isn’t productive, or healthy, or — dare I say it — fun.
And whatever you do, if you find yourself with the option of taking the stairs or the escalator, and you choose the escalator, don’t move. It does all the work for you — so you don’t have to.
Now that’s a luxury we all can afford.
Frank Kalman is the managing editor of Talent Economy. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.