Franz Kafka is a famed writer from the early 20th century as famed for his transcendent stories of isolation and absurdity as he is for the lack of fame he achieved during his lifetime. He died at the age of 40, virtually unknown. He instructed his best friend to destroy his manuscripts, but the friend ignored the request and had them published. In the wake of that decision, Kafka posthumously became a godfather of absurdity and, to some, science fiction.
He was a prolific writer despite his lack of fame and despite the fact that he had a demanding 9-5 job for all of his adult life. His (alleged) quote about productivity is as follows:
“Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.“
Question 1: What is the original context?
The context for this quote is actually difficult to identify. In fact, I’ve yet to find definitive evidence that Kafka uttered these words at all. He wrote extensively to his family, and many of those letters have survived, so if it is indeed real, it likely came from a letter.
This is one of the most well-used quotes about productivity on the internet; however, Wikiquote is in the process of removing it from their site due to a lack of citation.
However, individuals have a habit of attributing quotes to Kafka that are actually lines uttered by characters in his stories, even if those characters’ beliefs are fundamentally different than his own.
I have my own skepticism about the veracity of this quote because, though Kafka was a very hard worker, the pursuit of productivity is fairly antithetical to the themes of his stories. He’s noted for pre-science fiction stories about despair, loneliness, anguish, and existential dread. So, an upbeat quote about the joys of productivity just doesn’t sound like him to me.
Question 2: Is this quote meant to be taken literally?
I would say so. Of the quotes we’ve examined, this may be the most straight forward and free of metaphor. It’s simply the author’s personal definition of productivity.
What is meant specifically by “thing that you were never able to do before” is a bit subjective, and the language is vague, but it’s still as close to literal as you’ll see in a popular quote.
Question 3: What is really being said, and do I agree?
This quote serves as a more upbeat, inspirational version of what productivity can mean. Most people associate productivity with output. Being more productive means getting more done. But, this quote argues that getting more done while not pursuing a new goal, new skill, or new result isn’t productive. It’s just more output or work without soul.
In terms of my agreement with this quote, I’d say I disagree fairly strongly. I think you can be extremely productive without doing something you’ve never been able to do before. Productivity, to me, can mean getting better at a skill you already have. Improving the quality of your output or the quality of your life. New isn’t always better, and you often get more out of refining your skills than gaining new ones.
This quote also doesn’t leave much room for failure to be productive, which I believe it certainly is. The pursuit of productivity can end in failure, but that failure in and of itself can be a huge blessing in many different ways.
Someone may argue that a failure could be something you were never able to do before. That failing in a new way actually reinforces the quote. But I would say that if “things that you were never able to do before” can include failure or refinement of existing skills, then you’ve stretched the words in this quote beyond having a specific meaning — making it a bad quote.
If I were to make a single edit to the quote, it would be replacing “Productivity” with “Progress.” I still don’t agree with it completely, but the definition of progress being the ability to do something you’ve never been able to do before makes infinitely more sense to me.
Question 4: How does this quote apply to the advertising/creative industry?
This quote is most useful to creative professionals as a reminder to never stop learning. Especially those working predominantly in the digital space, to stop learning and growing is to become instantly obsolete.
Learning new skills, hearing new perspectives, and elevating existing skillsets are all vital machinations of productivity that will keep us employed and keep our clients happy.
I don’t think it’s the only way in which creatives can be productive, but it is vital to staying relevant. And if creative work isn’t relevant, it isn’t effective.
Question 5: Has anyone said it better?
It’s not a one-for-one replacement for the alleged Kafka quote, but Stephen King’s quote about the difference between an amateur and a professional tells the story of productivity more effectively.
Stephen King, who has been an open critic of blind productivity for its own sake, said this about getting work done:
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
In essence, he’s saying that if you want to execute at a high level, be extremely productive, and grow personally & professionally, you need to start working. In the creative field, it’s easy to treat our jobs as hobbies or use a lack of inspiration as an excuse for procrastination. But, as many of us know, if we just sit down and treat the work as work, we’ll produce more, produce better, and end up happier.
It’s a healthy reminder. My personal brand of procrastination is centered less on blaming inspiration and more on blaming a lack of deadline pressure, but the message is the same. Do the work. Treat it like work. That’s the definition of productivity.