Essay: Are You Being Productive?

How will you answer when asked “What do you do?” What’s really important?   by Patricia B. Spencer

Are you being productive? 

This question came from my father, a mess hall sergeant–turned–restaurateur, who delivered this “no free lunch” query on a regular basis: Are you being productive? This practical son of Polish immigrants and model of American cultural values was asking me if I was attending to my coursework, paying my utility bill, and saving my money from my part-time job. And, of course, my response was a resounding Yes.

But this question haunts me, and, to my children’s dismay, it’s a generational haunting. What does it mean to be productive? What is my life’s work? Am I choosing how to live and work, or has it chosen me? Is my value measured by my response to professional demands? Beyond my professional role, am I a productive parent, partner, sibling, friend, community member, human?

Is our occupation the source of our happiness? In his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, Bernard Suits speculates that if we “lived in a utopia where no one had to work, we would eventually invent games that resembled work.” We would find a way to be “productive”: the artist would create, the dancer would choreograph, the musician would compose, the teacher would profess, the therapist would heal, and the entrepreneur—well, she would open a creative arts wellness clinic and market the services to the stressed-out inventors.

One of the first things that Americans ask when they meet someone new is, What do you do? Do you extend your hand, your job title, and your business card, as most do? Or do you discuss your service in the community, your time with your family, your hopes for learning and traveling? Are you being productive? Is any purposeful activity “productive”? Beyond your assertive tennis game, what do you want to be remembered for?

In her book The Working Life, Joanne Ciulla examines why so many people have let their jobs take over their lives. Like Socrates, she suggests that “an unexamined work ethic may not be worth having.” As she reports, “meaningful work energizes one’s life, although we must all go out and find it ourselves, since there is a wide variance in the work that people like to do” and in how they determine meaning. Ciulla offers that “the most meaningful jobs are those in which people directly help others or create products that make life better for people.” We may not be able to define meaningful work, but we know it when we see it.

That begs another question: Is productivity only in the doing, or can it be in the quiet observing, in the just being? For Aristotle, our real work in life is that of being human. Taking his lead, I have a fantasy response for the question: “What do you do?” Today, I’m being. Tomorrow, I will do again.

So, are you being productive?

You are the only person with the answer.


Patricia Spencer is an assistant professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Writing in the School of Humanities and Sciences. She specializes in professional and grant writing and service learning. This essay is an excerpt from her remarks to graduating seniors in December 2006.