Bullish: How To Be A Productivity Unicorn

Apparently, being a productivity ninja is a thing. Google it. No, don’t.

Well, I mean, obviously, you should make your own decisions, but if you do Google it, prepare to get a bunch of “life hacking” websites offering you some kind of self-improvement-profitmaking program that is ONLY ON SALE FOR THE NEXT 24 HOURS and that someone with a funny-sounding and therefore very realistic name used to make a very specific amount of money, like $28,756.47.

Here is an article on being an email ninja. But do you really want to be any kind of business ninja? (It involves learning keyboard shortcuts). Why a ninja?

Honestly, I’m not sure ninjas are all that efficient — yes, a ninja’s throwing star will cleanly sever your trachea before you even knew that a black-clad assassin had you in his death sights.

But you know what the movies don’t show? The two hours the ninja had to spend hanging upside down from your ceiling before you got home. You know what ninjas can’t do? Know ahead of time how long you were going to spend at happy hour before coming home to be assassinated. This is not efficient.

Instead, be a productivity unicorn.

According to Wikipedia’s fascinating entry on unicorns (Dear Marco Polo: that “unicorn” you saw was a rhinoceros), Marianna Mayer, author of children’s book The Unicorn and the Lake, has observed:

“The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison.”

Are you fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful? Can you only be captured by unfair means? (Aren’t all means of capture rather unfair? Then yes!) Were you not conceived from human fears? (Don’t ask your mother this.) You can be a productivity unicorn, you fabulous beast!

What does it mean to be a productivity unicorn?

Unicorns do not care if their inboxes reach zero.

Unicorns have better things to do than label emails with special codes and colors. Unicorns do not require to-do list software. Emails and to- do lists can be like a rushing river from which you grab only that which you actually want.

I have a to-do list. It’s currently three legal pads and five file folders full of scraps of paper pulled from the legal pads. Sometimes,the same item is listed a dozen times. It’s always been like this: 800 items in four Word documents, or a whiteboard plus a day planner plus a stack of index cards. None of these things, technically, is a “list,” or even a “system.”

I used to beat myself up over this. I will never finish this list! And I was right: I haven’t and won’t. Does that stop me from making six figures while matching my high heels to my glasses? Um, no. People who finish everything on their to-do lists have … empty to-do lists. So what? Plenty of people are efficient … but not successful.

At a certain point, I realized: if I do 1% of what I’ve written down here, I’ll be doing more than most people. (I do have a calendar. The paper kind. It contains appointments and really important deadlines.) More importantly, though, I have the benefit of winnowing. People who do everything on their lists suffer from a lack of critical thinking. In John Stuart Mill’s famed marketplace of ideas, all doctrines must do argumentative battle so their weaknesses can be exposed and only the best ideas remain.

My to-do list is an amazing, repetitive, interconnected, scribbly mess of paper. When I say “interconnected,” I mean that the same item might be written in five places as part of five different sub-lists of things of steps needed to accomplish certain goals. Is my to-do list … wrong? Hardly. If I put an item on a traditional list, I suppose I could put a star next to it, label it #1, or — as in some popular systems — rate that task an “A” and others “B” or “C” in order to indicate that the item is very important. But you know what’s not exciting? Items on lists with stars next to them. You know what is exciting? When you look at a stack of three legal pads and five file folders full of scraps of paper, and you already know which thing you’ve scribbled down the most; the thing that whenever you think about anything, ends up on the list; the thing that you can’t not write. The thing that always rises to the top.

Because that web is how brains work. Your brain does not function in a linear format. Lists are unbrainlike. The brain is full of all kinds of different chunks and networks of information, cross-referenced thousands upon thousands of ways, and when something is linked to enough other things, it rises, all the time, unstoppably.

Penelope Trunk wrote memorably about declaring to-do list bankruptcy. She’s a unicorn.

Unicorns are entrancing.

People want to be around them just because they are unicorns. Ninjas have no charm whatsoever. When dignitaries need assassinated in the middle of fancy parties, ninja sneak in back doors to those parties because no one sent them invitations.

I definitely didn’t grow up with a naturally magnetic personality (I was truly a child Richard Nixon: Why should I have to be likeable when I’m RIGHT?!), but I do now help people for a living, and it’s gratifying. My secret? I wrote in a column about aging that my “inner age” is 42 (I’m 32). Which makes it easier to imagine that some difficult, irascible student or client is in fact my very own wayward adult child, for whom I have been overflowing with goodwill since even before his birth. And when that angry twenty-eight-year-old lashes out, I imagine what he was like as an adorable chubby infant, so full of promise, and suddenly even the most furrowed unibrow becomes endearing; who would not give her own kidney to help her son succeed? In real life, my stores of patience and empathy do have limits, and I do not always succeed at this exercise, as I am not a real unicorn. But an “exercise” it is — one emotional exercise of many. Just as actors have various methods of calling on real emotions to be used for artificial but worthwhile purposes, so too can we.

You don’t have to be pretty or young to be charismatic. In fact, being a little too pretty or too young can cause resentment or jealousy. People are attracted to happiness and health, and to consistent, undeniable competence. These qualities motivate others to help achieve the aims you set. This is worth many keyboard shortcuts. See last week’s Bullish: F*ck Corporate Personality Tests and Take Control of Your Personality, as well as Bullish: Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume and Personality Qualities Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume (Part II).

Unicorns do whatever they want, but what they want is beautiful and perfect.

I’m not actually suggesting that you only do what you want; that could put you in jail. I think everyone is obligated to lay off the drugs and read a newspaper for at least several days before any election. I dislike lazy people; I am here to assure you that you are not crazy or paranoid when you strive with a sense of urgency that many nice-seeming people around you mysteriously lack.

My view is more Aristotelian: the key to happiness is building an excellent character. If you have built an excellent character, then you naturally want to do what is good.

In What I Learned About Success in a Korean Cram School, I quoted author Amy Chua as saying, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.” You know what’s fun right now? Jewelry making. You know what very few people (who aren’t married to celebrities) make any money at? Um, jewelry making. Things that are fun right away are often terrible ways to make money; the barrier to entry is too low and the competition too omnipresent. Things that are only fun when you are at the top of your game are more lucrative: customers turn to you to alleviate their own fear and insecurity, or because they know it would take them ten years to do on their own something you could help them with right now.

Unicorns do what comes naturally, and sparkles fly everywhere. But what unicorns naturally enjoy is helping the wronged, punishing evildoers, and purifying mountain streams with the life-force of their horns.

I will help you pick a new business right now. Take something exciting that you do actually like, and that many other people also like. Now think of something very scary, difficult, or boring. Merge those things; make your enthusiasm for the fun thing bleed into the scary, difficult, or boring thing; help scared, frustrated, and bored people; become a millionaire.

What we like is going to change over time anyway; you might as well pragmatically nudge those preferences towards things that make your life better.

In sum, a productivity ninja may have zero items in his inbox, which I suppose is a pleasure for some people. (Why? If I come over to your house and throw away all your DVDs, are you going to be sooo fucking excited to look at the empty shelf?) But what’s the goddamn point?

It is true that ninjas can walk very silently. It is also true that unicorns can (allegedly) tell who’s a virgin with their minds. That one’s kind of a toss-up. You know what people say when they see a ninja? Nothing, because ninjas are never seen. You know what people say when they see a unicorn? They say “Ohmygod, a unicorn!” just before they go blind from all the gloriousness.

I mean, given the choice between being a regular person or a ninja, sure, I pick ninja. But being a productivity unicorn is fucking epic.

(And now, please enjoy Adult Swim’s amazing Robot Unicorn Attack video game. Thank you.)

originally published on The Gloss