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Why The Way We're Working Isn't Working -- A Survival Manual for the Modern Age

The authors of a new book offer an alternative to the dominant idea that human beings operate most productively in the same way computers do.

From Wall Street, to the lagging economy, to Greece and the "euro zone," to our broken regulatory system, to the high-speed computer trading system that might have played a role in last week's mini-meltdown in the stock market, to those two wars we're still in a decade later, it's clear that something is wrong. It's not that our political leaders and economic chieftains aren't, for the most part, smart people -- it's that they're making their decisions without judgment or wisdom. And when so many smart people end up making so many mistakes, clearly the way we're working isn't working.

Figuring out why this is so -- and what we can do about it -- is the animating idea behind The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance by Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes, and Catherine McCarthy, a terrific new book. It is essential reading for anyone who wants a more productive and meaningful life.

The book is a synthesis of Tony Schwartz' thinking over the years and the latest and most rigorous research across a host of disciplines on what makes people most fulfilled -- in their lives and, specifically, in their jobs. It's less a self-help book than a peer-reviewed survival manual for the modern age.

When you read The Way We're Working Isn't Working, you get that satisfying feeling you have when someone intelligently articulates something you feel everyone knows is true, but couldn't explain why. As Schwartz writes, "across disparate cultures and at all levels, people share both a visceral sense that the way they're working isn't working and an intense desire for more satisfying, productive, and sustainable ways to work and live."

In a nutshell, the book's thesis is that a myth has taken hold that "human beings operate most productively in the same one-dimensional way computers do: continuously, at high speeds, for long periods of time, running multiple programs at the same time." This has led to a world in which:

The defining ethic in the modern workplace is more, bigger, faster. More information than ever is available to us, and the speed of every transaction has increased exponentially, prompting a sense of permanent urgency and endless distraction... Left unmanaged and unregulated, these same technologies have the potential to overwhelm us. The relentless urgency that characterizes most corporate cultures undermines creativity, quality, engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and, ultimately, performance.

Thus, "when we fuel ourselves on a diet that lacks essential nutrients, it shouldn't be a surprise that we end up undernourished and unable to operate consistently at our best."

Yet, according to Schwartz, Gomes, and McCarthy, the most basic human survival need is to renew our energy. We're great at spending it, not so great at renewing it. The costs are "less capacity for focused attention, less time for any given task, and less opportunity to think reflectively and long term." The inevitable result: diminished judgment and wisdom -- and a world on the brink of collapse. "More and more," writes Schwartz, "paradoxically, leads to less and less."

For instance, the authors cite a study of 90,000 workers from 18 countries. Only 20 percent said they were fully engaged, defined as willing to "go above and beyond what's required of them because they have a sense of purpose and passion about what they're doing." Companies with the highest share of engaged employees had a 19 percent increase in operating income and an almost 30 percent increase in earnings per share.

But the book isn't just about how companies can get the most out of their employees; it's about how people can get the most out of their lives. Schwartz has broken down the book into the four energy needs that he has identified as those we all require to live productive, meaningful, and happy lives. They are:

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