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Is inefficiency actually valuable?

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

A little over a year has passed since I left Ghana and returned to Japan. Sometimes I feel nostalgic about my time there. One thing I miss is the "wasted time" in Ghana.

When I was in Ghana, I was often frustrated by the hours I spent waiting for a shared bus with no set arrival time, lazy meetings with no direction, and parties that never started on time. "Why can't we just stick to what we've decided?” "Why don't we talk about a specific topic? "Wouldn't it be more efficient to make a timetable? You should make a timetable!”

On the contrary, in Japan, everything is on time, both in private and public life. There is no useless chatter at work (although this may also be because of COVID-19), and there are plenty of apps and tools to increase efficiency. I've been thinking a great deal about why I miss "inefficiency" or wasted time so much now.

Is the "100% elimination of inefficiency" counterproductive?

I had a chance to read an interview, not with Masayoshi Son of Softbank, but his younger brother, Taizo Son. He said that when he was running a company, he tried to be as efficient as possible and became a "meeting machine," attending meetings from morning to night, minute by minute, only being asked to make decisions. He lost sight of what he was working for and eventually wanted to drop everything and run away.

In the same article, Taizo proposed that the "division of labor in factories" was the reason behind modern efficiency. In other words, his feelings of suffocation as a "meeting machine" came from his realization that he was merely a cog in a huge system.

Indeed, if we try to eliminate inefficiency, we run the risk of denying our own preferences and feelings. Ultimately, people's value will be measured by whether or not they are useful to society, and if they are not, they may see their own existence as "useless.” That's too much, no matter how you look at it.

Now that I am working as a freelancer, I think I am in a position where I am allowed to be more inefficient than those who work in a traditional company. However, that does not mean that I cannot continue to insist on my right to do inefficient things when I want. Striking a balance between "inefficiency" and "efficiency" seems really difficult.

What Tamori says about people who enjoy inefficiency

Based on my personal preference, I often listen to jazz music. One of the best things about jazz is that musicians can freely explore possibilities within a certain set of rules, such as chord progression.

Kazuyoshi Morita, a.k.a. Tamori, a TV personality with a deep knowledge of jazz, often uses the term "jazz person" and defines it as something like this:

“What is a jazz person? A jazz person is someone who has no ambition. People without ambition are what today is all about.”

In order to avoid misunderstanding, I would like to add that what Tamori calls "ambition" in fact refers to "distracting thoughts.” He says that jazz people do not have such a way of thinking, so they see what's in front of them as interesting and fun and can live intensely in the present moment.

Many things come from inefficiency

The aforementioned Mr. Son also said something interesting: "Wanting to advance in life efficiently results in a poor quality of life. In other words, "efficiency = wanting to have fun and earn money" may be what Tamori-san calls a "distracting thought.” The more you try to be efficient, the more you eliminate inefficiency, the more you worry about the organization as a whole and the future, the less you enjoy chatting and working with the people in front of you.

In Ghana, jazz is jazz, but it is a kind of free form jazz that destroys even chord progressions. In Japan, society is too strict about rules and regulations, and there is a sense of stagnation that leaves no room for improvisation. Hopefully, the ideal situation would be somewhere in between, i.e., "Let's at least decide on chords so that the members can improvise without worry.”

Chatting with random people while you wait for the bus, making new friends in a long meeting, discovering local delicacies during an unplanned stop at a restaurant, feeling the light and wind that only comes from that moment... If we can value such “inefficiencies” in our daily lives, we can see the relevance of each and every thing and live a more fulfilling life.

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Born in Japan, Kawai moved to China in 2008 to study the Chinese language in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Later, he deepened his learning in Hunan and Jiangsu provinces through close interaction with locals. He then spent a year and a half in Ghana, Africa, working to master English and the local language, Tui. Forced to return to Japan due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he now lives in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan.

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Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance editor and copywriter, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.

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