The Sacred Inefficiencies of a Very Human Life

Thursday, January 1, 2015 - 6:49am
Photo by Andrea

The Sacred Inefficiencies of a Very Human Life

I was ambling past an airport bookstore, my sweaty babe squirming in the ergo, the flight delayed, the holiday anxiety palpable, the smell of McDonalds potent, when I spotted the cover of Fast Company magazine. The dominant headline read: “Secrets of the Most Productive People.”

I wanted it. I wanted it so bad. I wanted to know what magical things I could do better so that my life would instantly transform from the totally amazing, completely messy affair that it was in 2014 into this streamlined, sports car of a well-oiled machine in 2015.

I imagined logging onto where I would have finally uploaded all kinds of minutiae and have a crystal clear picture of my family’s financial life. I’d catch all those hidden fees before we got taken and would instead funnel that money into my daughter’s college account, which I’d obviously opened, along with creating all the other super official documents that responsible parents do. I imagined my iPhone, synching with my wireless speaker and my laptop and whatever else this so-called “internet of things” lets us do. If my iPhone wants to floss my teeth while playing the new D’Angelo album, sweet. Let’s do this.

In 2014, I got more than my fair share of those pop-up windows about a lack of storage; in 2015, my pop-up windows would say things like, “Congrats on having your shit together.” I imagined exercising regularly like those super productive people in the magazine. I imagined having fresh produce in the house at all times and not eating chocolate every single night. I imagined wearing clothes without weird baby food splotches on them. I imagined meditating every morning for 30 minutes and getting up from my computer intermittently throughout the day to do yoga positions and recite my centering mantras.

And then I came to.

The sober truth is, when I look back at 2014, the things I am most proud of have nothing to do with my productivity and everything to do with my presence.

I sprawled on floors with other Moms and babes and talked about the hard days and the frequent miracles. I tried to cook grilled cheese and tomato soup for 30 people in my co-housing community; it was an awesome failure. I spent hours on the phone with mentees who are making lives of such beautiful meaning even though the 20s are strange and fierce. I navigated the first year of co-parenting with courage and serenity and so much gratitude; I walked around the block when I was going to say mean things because I was so tired. I went swimming in the neighborhood pool in the sunshine a few times. I learned how to marinate salmon so it tastes really delicious. I mourned a friendship with genuine sadness, but also a critical amount of self-protection. I flew across the country to surprise another friend at his blow out party, pumping milk in the upstairs bathroom to the sounds of 90s hip-hop.

I said no far more often, far earlier, with more grace; I began to see more and more beauty in my own limitations, to honor as Carrie Newcomer says, “The curious promise of limited time.”

And this last point is the one that feels so critical to me. I have to put that knowing “in conversation” with the part of me that craves the kind of productivity that Fast Company promises. It’s not that I shouldn’t, or won’t, open that college savings account for Maya this year. It’s not that setting the intention of meditating is an unwise thing to do. It’s just that the version of myself that does all of these things — that is better and healthier and more efficient, that is surrounded by systems that work perfectly and stuff that never breaks — that woman isn’t as invested in the sacred inefficiencies of the very human life.

She doesn’t stay at the party longer than she thought she would because she gets engrossed in a great conversation. She doesn’t have as much empathy for her dysfunctional friends or badly behaving strangers. She doesn’t lose track of time listening to her daughter speak a special language to the rubber dinosaurs in the bathtub. She doesn’t banter with Brian, who owns Golden Gate Donuts on the corner, or notice the way that little garden of succulents is going gangbusters on Rich Street. She simply doesn’t witness as much or love as deeply.

So, I guess I’ll spend another year chipping away at various monstrous inefficiencies in my life and knowing that I’ll never be on par with Fast Company’s productive juggernauts. I’d rather be a messy, awed human than a well-oiled machine anyway.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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Thank you, thank you, thank you.

love the realness of this. the media makes most of us feel we are falling short. but falling short of what? someone else's standard? as a single mom of 2 small kids, my life is in constant motion and striving for some version of balance. it is so refreshing to hear people own their "messy humanness". i wish more people would.

I absolutely adored and kept saying "me too" to this beautiful post. Thank you for writing what I needed to read.

I'm surprised that meditation is considered something that 'efficient' people do. (There's a great deal of doing 'nothing' involved.) It's actally an excellent way to train in slowing down and seeing things as they really are. To me, meditation is the practice that allows me to be present and notice the world around me.

What a beautiful article to read for this 57 year old gal who is transitioning into a new and wondrous version of herself! Thank you for the gift of your insight!

Lovely post. I am grateful to have learned that living effectively trumps living efficiently. Yes, embrace those moments, lean into them - those moments are my life. Without them there would be no splashes of color - my existence would just be a harsh B&W image instead of a color-splashed Impressionistic canvas. Ginn, In Sunny SC

Thank You so much for this article! I commend you on having the courage to put effort into those parts of your life which are important to you regardless of what "the world" may say should be your priorities. I am so thankful that I DID NOT have the distractions of internet, cell phones, etc. when my children were small. I was able to enjoy them and have memories of moments, days and events, some of which are recorded in (paper) journals and some are just in my memories. As a fifty something it is easier for me to make the decision to not get a smart phone. I have no desire to be "wired" 24/7. If I want to be on-line I turn on my computer. No electronics while hiking with my dog, shopping with my daughter or visiting with friends. After working 55-60 hours per week for the past several years, I found a job I love which only requires 40. I have time to spend time with my husband, my son who has moved back with us to try his hand at writing, I garden, hike, bike, do yoga, read more, and commune with God while doing many of the above. This is not a productive life but some standards but much more fulfilling!

Beautiful post for me as I am contemplating goals and plans for 2015. Staying present, flawed, and human is goal enough!

Well said! REAL life is inefficient, messy, tiring,& challenging at best....& often downright debilitating or depressing at its worst. That said, it can also be wonderfully sacred & mysterious & beautifully awe-inspiring. To be able to experience the highs, we often must understand.... & stop fighting...the lows.
Life is full of both.

What good news at the turn of the year! Thank you!
Yes, where could our hearts lead us?!

Lovely thoughts.

Gosh, I love this.

It is amazing how more time to meditate etc naturally comes into our lives when the children are grown. However, listening toa young daughter speaking dinosaur is a form of meditation... Certainly it is being present in the moment. Beautiful season of life.

I loved this piece and would love to hear more about this delicious salmon marinade of yours too.

Thanks, Courtney! I always love your work but this piece especially makes my whole body smile with a big YES. Grateful.

I have spent the new year reading books, watching movies and sharing time with friends. And that in itself has been the greatest gift. I figure that out of chaos will come beauty, our of pain will come healing. May our lives be filled with richer relationships and love, may efficiency and productivity be moved on the importance scale. When asked to "describe yourself in a few words" in an interview, may I have the courage to use the words "kind" and "empathetic" and "explorer" rather than "detail oriented" , "highly qualified",and "efficient" etc. Thank you for this beautiful article.

Thank you for informing my perspective as one that "dances to a different drummer" and who has for a long time questioned whether I should be more efficient either because I would be "rewarded" with a new position, higher pay, etc. Or because I read those Fast Company type articles and started thinking maybe, just maybe... Now I'm feeling a sense of liberation to keep my dancing on the rhythm, that sacred rhythm that works for me. I'm now okay with the rewards of that messy sacred life you've described. It confirms the notion my teachers have often articulated, "you are perfect just as you are". Thank you!

Beautifully written. We need to-do lists that feed our bodies and souls!

Beautiful. Thank you

Beautifully said, particularly as we think about intentionally being present. Happy New Year and congratulations on being you. It is incredibly productive for so many of us.

I'm 64. I have lived an amazing life. I evolved quite early into an "organicist", accepting fickleness and serendipity and letting life play me. Of course I strived. Had to. And succeeded. Once I heard (French) words like "laissez faire" and "blase" as a teenager, I suspected there was a way to de-stress "normal life. If motivated, I would seek accomplishment. The rest of my time was my choice to play in. I dove deep into every realm of human existence I could discover (mine and others), however limited that might seem to others. Just for fun and enlightenment. I pleased myself and occasionally others. I gave. I got. I don't subscribe to a Perfect Life. I accept the one I got. At-One-ment (atonement) was a concept I heard early. It has pretty much defined me ever since. I don't want to be (like) anyone else. Can't. I be me. That's okay. Thanks.

Just discovered that the opposite of perfection is not imperfection but humanity. But still hard to practice. Thank you for these "perfectly humane" thoughts.

Just discovered that the opposite of perfection is not imperfection but humanity. But still hard to practice. Thank you for these "perfectly humane" thoughts.

Lovely and refreshing read especially at a time (of year particularly) where all we seem to read is about making new year resolutions that promise to be better versions of ourselves as if the simple (often messy and unplanned) pleasures of life weren't enough. Wishing you a joyful year ahead!

I love your line: The sacred inefficiencies of a very human life. Sacred they are. As a mother of two, social entrepreneur, and recovering ambition-addict, your message is taken in like a slow-sipped cup of jasmine tea. I truly enjoyed it! Thanks for the inspiration.

Yes. So very lovely. Thank you!

What a breath of fresh air! My greatest "achievements" are those moments when I savor life; listen deeply to self/others/life; feed the squirrels; dance wildly; and buy more kale than I actually eat.

As I step into this oddly still and reflective moment, just two blocks off of Times Square, this piece speaks heaped over amounts of truth. Thank you.

As I am writing this and not doing my "work", I realized that we tend to think of this productivity vs fulfillment argument in black-and-white term.

"I’d rather be a messy, awed human than a well-oiled machine anyway." That is also my choice, but why not both? Yes, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can tell myself to do some work today in 2 hours, which forces me to be more effective. Then I will be messy :D

Once we learn to go beyond the mind we will learn who we really are:perfect in essence. The key is to connect with our inner being- our authentic being which is love thud perfect. We see ourselves imperfect because we live in the mind not in our being

You've laid it out exactly how it is - thank you for writing what so many of us feel but haven't known how to put into words!