Useful Things are not Always Important
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
As a strategy scholar, two by two's are always close to my heart. Eisenhower's and Rumsfeld's matrices are of great use to me. But I find the distinction between usefulness and importance the most actionable.
The distinction between usefulness and importance is both --useful and important-- to me because it helps cut across the bogged complexities of life. See for example. Money, power, deadlines, status, profit are all clearly useful things that help us achieve what is important for us. Health, education, freedom, feminism, love are unerringly important. I want to be healthy, educated, free. I want to live in a feminist society and I want to love. I want all this independent of their usefulness.
Yet, useful things can be important. My education allowed me to vote with my feet and move to a country where feminism is more loudly expressed. My freedom allowed me to choose who I love and through my partner, I discovered new ways of loving myself, and my mental health. All allowed me to accrue higher salaries, gain status, and even some menial power within my roles. I am sure I have profited from the things in life I find important.
What I find impressive though. Is that if an alien economist were to be looking at my behavior, my behavior would baffle them. Economics is a field of study that governs our governments' policies. Yet, the goals of economics are all broadly define as important. Profit, power, returns on assets, growth, are all useful metrics but none is important.
This focus on usefulness makes economists over eager to accept what I call the "Manifest Destiny" assumption: i.e., similar to Americans in the 1800s, economists tend to assume that people have an unquenchable drive for conquering whatever they can. That is ludicrous. But deep down within the basket of assumptions that make the Homo Economics mind, lies the unerring drive for growing its span of control, accruing power, and dominating others. All very useful but not really important.
The focus on useful metrics has spilled over to psychology and cognitive science. With disastrous effects. Sure, in psychology there is a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. But as Hume explained is does not mean ought. And in no way the motivation discourse addresses our complete disavow of the importance of importance in our psyche, our lives, our organizations, and our society. It is important that this changes. Useful is not enough.