Monday, February 02, 2015

What's Best Next by Matthew Perman (Book Review #8 of 2015)

What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done
Seems everyone is reading this book, but I honestly didn't find it that well-written. It appears as though books related to Perman's topic were released around the time he was writing it, and some get a cursory mention in his last chapters. For example, Perman claims in the opening chapter that there is not much literature on the "interesting" theology of work. But I have a reading list of about 30 books on the topic, many taken from the bibliography of Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor. Perman quotes from Keller's other works, but Every Good Endeavor only gets a mention as a suggested reading in the last chapter. (I also recommend Hugh Whelchel's How Now Shall We Work and if you want a non-Reformed perspective look at Work by Ben Witherington III, for starters). So, Perman does not seem to be really well-read outside of the management classics. I have not checked his blog to see what's new. This book could have been a lot shorter with better formatting and less repetition ad nauseum from the same sources.

I like Perman's attempt to draw up a Gospel-driven approach to productivity.

"The only way to be productive is to realize that you don’t have to be productive" (loc. 223)
He explains the biblical foundations for productivity and its important in an overall mandate of dominion over the earth (though not as good as Whelchel and others).
"The reason we should seek to be productive is to serve others to the glory of God, and not for the sake of personal peace and affluence" (231).
"productivity is about intangibles — relationships developed, connections made, and things learned."
"God is the ultimate measure and judge of our productivity. Things that do not pass muster at the final judgment are, by definition, not productive in an ultimate sense" (loc. 947).

I liked Perman's recognition that "all areas of our lives are callings from God" (loc. 264). You are called to be a son, a brother, a husband, father, co-worker, manager, servant, neighbor, etc. and we should see our activities in those callings as bringing glory to God.

I've read several books that look at what "vocation" means, basically synonymous with "calling." Perhaps the part I ponder the most is the idea that my "calling" is whatever I would do if money was not a problem and I could go anywhere in the world. I wonder what mine looks like compared to someone else. Perman makes the point that it's pointless to pursue activities that are not getting you closer to fulfilling your calling as described in the previous sentence, which is thought-provoking to say the least.

The second half of the book is a look at various other management guru's productivity hacks through a biblical worldview, and an application based on Perman's personal experiences. I would recommend reading the books Perman suggests before reading this book. I have striven for the same efficiency and productivity described in the book and consider it a constant work in progress.

Most helpful to me was Perman's response to Tim Ferriss' The Four-Hour Workweek (my review). When I reviewed that book I asked if there was a Christian response to it, indeed Perman responds well. While incorporating some of Ferriss' hacks, he notes that Ferriss' goal is to free people up to spend less time dealing with others-- which is really a crucial part of being a Christian. I've often wanted to shut down various aspects of my life to get rid of inefficient meetings, distracting co-workers, and ridiculous emails, but Perman reminds us (with help from C.S. Lewis) that relationships and human interaction are what are important:
"The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination" (loc. 4144). 

His admonition about making weekly plans, daily to-do lists, etc. are helpful but he doesn't step out of his own job experiences to see how unworkable they sometimes can be. Some of us work in jobs where, even if we set aside a block of uninterrupted "productive time," each day we will still be interrupted by tasks that well-meaning people say need to be a done "ASAP" and could take all day or weeks. That disrupts the entire work plan for the day/week/month, and one never knows what days or how often in a day that will occur. Some people work jobs on-call and never know when the call will come or what their schedule will be very far in advance. We may also have corrupt or incompetent superiors who demand the impractical, and that's grating to the spirit in a way that Perman doesn't really address in the book. He does make the comment that suffering in our work may be part of our calling in glorifying God, he just seems to have mostly worked for Christian non-profits and not done much of that himself.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I would recommend it to someone just starting a new job, or their first job, as a way to better frame the work he or she does.

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