Atlas Shrugged is a novel by Ayn Rand that tells a story about a world, not dissimilar to our own, on the edge of dystopia. As with most stories, there is a deeper message behind it, and in the case of Atlas Shrugged, the novel is about Rand’s ideas about the human condition and human greatness.
Before you start asking why we’re discussing a work of fiction on a blog about productivity, let me tell you why: borrowing frameworks and mindsets from one discipline and applying them to another is one of the best ways to increase your productivity in that area. In the case of Rand, the story within Atlas Shrugged may be a railroad company set in a dystopian United States, but the lessons are applicable for everyone in different parts of their lives.
Whether you love/hate Ayn Rand, her writing often makes good points about how we should live our lives. We’ve talked about some of them before here.
Here are my personal takeaways from the book – please don’t use these as a substitute for reading the novel, and if you’re tempted to just watch the film adaptation, I would suggest doing so after you’ve read the book. You’ll notice that I haven’t really given plot examples below – I don’t really want to spoil the story for you.
Working with Inefficient or Incompetent People
Atlas Shrugged definitely doesn’t pull any punches – it pretty much outright separates humanity into two classes of people: people who get things done, and people who don’t.
If you examine the interactions of the main two characters of the book (Dagny and Hank), you can take away a number of lessons for what to do when you encounter obstacles, roadblocks, red tape and inefficiency in your daily life.
The thing above all that is emphasized (in my opinion) in the book is that effectiveness is more important than efficiency. Sometimes, inefficiency is caused by others, not you, and in cases like that, it is best to work around them to get things done – even if it takes longer.
Here’s the toolbox that Rand endows her characters with to deal with difficult people and situations:
- Calling them out. A lot of the time, both Dagny and Hank simply point out what is wrong with another character’s argument or logic. This also happens to work in real life too.
- Answer with action. This is huge, and if there’s one takeaway from the book I’d recommend, it would be this one. One of the best ways to overcome an obstacle created by someone else, is to take action either to go around it, or simply to ignore it and do what needs to be done. Common real life examples would be creating a mini-system (e.g., I have a bright pink post-it note to remind my roommates to dry dishes in the rack before washing new ones), or to use your own effort to get things done (e.g., instead of waiting for X to pull you data for a certain report, just go ahead and do it yourself).
- Reframing. This is a conversational art form by which you take someone’s objection, and spin it in such a way that it becomes something they want to act upon.
- Social Anxiety. Essentially not being afraid to escalate a situation verbally. Similar to calling them out.
- Smile and play nice. Sometimes, telling people what they want to hear and accepting that it will just take them a little longer to get it done can work. As before: effectiveness before efficiency.
Rand really presents all the obstacles and challenges of book as simple “red tape” – a “cost of doing business” that her main characters have to endure to achieve their goals. She also provides insight into how each character represents these challenges internally:
- Action resolves inaction.
- There is no need for others to share your values to get things done with/for you. See this TED talk by Paddy Ashdown for more.
- Believe in yourself, and others tend to fall in line.
- Be aware of Schadenfreude. Some people see effective people as a threat – it’s handy to be aware of this and when someone confronts you about something, to know the difference between when you’re doing something wrong (almost never) and when other people are just advancing their own agenda (most of the time).
Lessons for Doing Business… and Everything Else
Atlas Shrugged also provides some simple lessons on business, drawn from the decisions that the main characters make throughout the book. You can apply this either to your work, or pretty much to any other goal or outcome you’re pursuing as well:
- People will rarely oppose what you do, but don’t expect them to stand up and approve either. Basically, when you’re advancing towards a goal, you need to use your own measurements as a compass for where you’re going – don’t rely on others to tell you that you’re making progress.
- There are certain things that you need to do in your daily work/life that may be unpleasant, but they are necessary. c.f., the “cost of doing business”.
- Simplicity is best when focusing on a goal. This is the idea of making life uncomplicated, and stripping it back to the bare essentials for achieving a particular goal. You can (and should) apply this to your own life immediately – find all the extraneous things that aren’t necessary (television, 2 hours of facebook etc) and cut back on them.
- Personal need and personal feelings have no place in the business world. Depending on your goals, this may or may not apply.
- It’s lonely at the top.
- You can hate what you do, but know that if you have to do it, you will do it.
- Always know when you’ll finish something by. This is the idea of having a benchmark for your goals – and knowing when it’s done.
- The more productive people you surround yourself with, the more productive you become. This is the infamous mastermind.
Rand paints two very clear images in the book, one of a productive individual who betters society, and one of an unproductive individual who relies on charity, theft and mooching to get by. Here are some character traits she highlights about unproductive people:
- Not wanting to add value to the world.
- Putting up real or imaginary obstacles. Everyone (including us) is guilty of this from time-to-time. We often make things harder than they need to be.
- Living without purpose. This is easily solved. Grab The Power of Story, read it, and implement it.
- Thinking that life is an extension of our archaic education system. This is related to living without purpose, though in this case, it’s about living life in line with a social script that starts with kindergarten through school and college and into the workplace. It’s basically having no goals and letting other people set your life direction for you.
- Over-theorizing without action.
- More concern for political correctness, popularity and falling in line than being responsible and accountable.
- Seeking validation from others. Most people do this.
- Resenting the achievements of others, rather than being inspired by them.
If you relate to any of these, it might be time for some personal reflection and change!
Towards Human Greatness
Rand also give us an image of what she sees as a productive individual, in the form of character traits, behaviors, values and beliefs.
The two main character traits she highlights are:
- Not needing to impose your own standards upon others. See the TED talk linked above for more.
- Having “savagely, overabundant vitality”. This is what happens if you have a purpose or mission in life, and you have your physical energy sorted.
She also suggests some behaviors that her main characters exhibit:
- Being motivated by curiosity and action.
- Being able to switch between handling people and working on something. Or, creating conditions where you don’t have to handle people – i.e., working in a distraction-free environment.
- Knowing when to go into isolation to get things done.
- Making decisions then getting on with them. Not having to revisit your decisions again and again.
- Moving towards goals and cutting away things that don’t take you closer.
- Recognizing that you have more than enough time to do everything you want. You may have to give up certain things that society tells you that you want, but that you don’t actually want.
She also talks about “values”, or guideposts for our behavior. Values essentially reflect what we consider right or wrong, and determine how we act. Rand suggests:
- Skill. Value people who can do, rather than simply say they can do.
- Responsibility. Taking responsibility for actions under your control is the fastest way to become productive.
- Perfection. Demanding perfection of yourself and striving for it.
- Happiness. Goals + Action = Happiness.
- Good Will. Bear good will towards others.
- Results. Show and prove, don’t claim and tell.
- Productivity. You essentially control your existence and life through your productivity. The more productive you are, the more value you add to the world and the people around you.
Rand also provides some beliefs that her characters hold:
- No one has the right to stop you.
- You aren’t born anything – but you can become anything you want.
- Think “I can do it” not “I can do it better than you”.
- How others feel about you is their concern, not yours.
- “I swear by my life and my love of that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
- All work is creating and comes from the capacity to see and connect what was not there before.
- You don’t have a duty to anyone but yourself.
- You can choose to be rational being, or a suicidal animal.
- The removal of a threat is not a payment or a favor. Don’t allow others to hold you emotionally hostage. Use boundaries.
- Price is not an object to getting things done. There is always a way to get things done.
I’ll be the first to admit – Atlas Shrugged isn’t the most accessible book in the world. It’s long, it’s layered in meaning, and even the film adaptation leaves a lot to be desired.
If some of what we’ve summarized resonates with you, I suggest starting by grabbing a copy and reading it for enjoyment first. Then have a think about the message, and what you agree or disagree with. Then pick a few things, and begin to implement them into your own life.
Remember that fiction is often written with a basis of reality, and to inspire people to a better state of being – in the case of Atlas Shrugged, it was written exactly to do that. Grab your own copy on Amazon here.
I recommend the book “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand” by Leonard Peikoff, or “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist” by Tara Smith, for Ayn Rand’s conceptions of the character traits that are required for a successful and happy life. Note that both books have sections on productivity. The former book discusses her philosophy as a whole including epistemology (thinking methods) whereas the latter discusses only the virtues (character traits or habits) needed to act successfully, in much greater detail.
The book “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand is all about integrity with regard to your work, and independence in your thinking.
You guys should stick to your strengths on efficiency. This one over-stretches.
On the point of perfection, my favorite takeaway from Shrugged is that each man is his own hero. You decide the values you uphold, the work you do, the goals you achieve. Other people will try to force themselves on you; allowing this leads to unhappiness and failure.
Dagny knew this since she was a child (as do D’Anconia and Galt, and Hank learns this along the way.)
Couldn’t have said it better myself!
One tiny line with huge impact here is that borrowing from other disciplines can be effective. Actually it can be VERY effective because using what is already common in your own field probably leads to mediocre results. The NFL is known as a “copy cat” league and most teams are boring and predictable because of it. Innovation comes from applying existing ideas in other fields to our own problems. Oh yeah, I liked the rest of the article too.
I do this all the time in my own life – learn a new discipline that makes me uncomfortable or uneasy at first, and work out how to apply it to what I have going on. e.g., this month I’m learning about art direction and graphic composition, next month I’m planning to tackle statistical analysis.