December 15

Delegation Dilemma: What to Keep Close and What to Hand Over to Other People (or Robots)

"Don't let the title mislead you," Arlbeth told her. "The king is simply the visible one. I'm so visible, in fact, that most of the important work has to be done by other people."
"Nonsense," said Tor.
Arlbeth chuckled. "Your loyalty does you honor, but you're in the process of becoming too visible to be effective yourself, so what do you know about it?"

Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown

“Delegate more” is often the advice we get, especially at this time of the year when most of us are harried and crunched for time. We often have to keep track of and pay attention to more responsibilities than we typically shoulder. The advice to delegate is perennially relevant, particularly for those of us who can be described as passionately detail-oriented or, if you’d prefer less PC terms, control freaks!

In an ideal life, we’d have the time to dot every i and cross every t, binge-watch Stranger Things, and raise well-adjusted kids who don’t risk turning into sociopaths. IRL, though, we can’t do it all and face the daunting challenge of finding the right balance between work, family, and personal time.

There is no dearth of material on how to delegate in a professional setting. But mastering the art of delegation in our personal lives is a mission that’s a bit more nuanced.

The key to effective delegation is to do it before we’re overwhelmed by the number of things we feel we “have to do,” recognizing that the act of delegation is not a sign of weakness but a proactive choice for a more balanced and fulfilling existence. The point of delegation is to allow ourselves time to focus on what matters by entrusting others with tasks or responsibilities that don’t require our unique skills or experience.

But in understanding that time is the most precious resource, we can overdo the productivity exercise and swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Especially now, with AI and smart technology, Roombas can clean our homes, robo-advisors can manage our investments, Alexa can control our environments, and virtual assistants and the gig economy can take care of our errands. Wouldn’t it just be easier to delegate everything and make time for endless <insert your favorite streaming service here> binges and live a sloth-like existence?

To answer this question, we must get to the root of the discussion on humans vs. machines.

According to the Infinite Monkey Theorem, a monkey randomly hitting keys on a keyboard over an infinite period will produce Hamlet and other works of Shakespeare. The theorem is a mathematical concept about probability and how, over time and with enough iterations, noise can turn into a signal, and randomness can result in clarity.

So, the question posits itself: If a monkey can produce Shakespeare-like plays, why should we bother with work, especially creative work? Isn’t it just easier to lead a life of leisure and not bother? It is a valid question to ask. But, the answer, disappointingly for some of us, is an emphatic “No.”

The Infinite Monkey Theorem does not imply that creative or skilled work is pointless or that we shouldn't bother engaging in it. For one, the theorem is a theoretical construct that relies on infinite time, something that doesn’t even fit within the constraints of our universe, let alone our limited lifetimes.

But, more importantly, creative or skilled work involves human agency, intent, and purpose. It's driven by conscious thought, emotions, and the desire to express ideas, emotions, and experiences.

Let’s take Shakespeare himself as an example: It’s a well-known fact that, for the most part, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of all of his plays. He relied on other stories and books for inspiration. What he did, though, was use his prodigious talent to dramatize and, in turn, help connect stories that otherwise would have been consigned to history to generations of literature readers and theater lovers.

The reason we love reading Romeo and Juliet or visiting art galleries is that behind most of the work we appreciate are two qualities that make it appealing to us: intent and purpose. One of the foremost questions we ask of any art is this: “What was the artist trying to express?” Now, that’s a question no randomly typing monkeys can ever answer.

So, given this context and the inherent limitations of AI, let’s go back to the delegation dilemma: What to keep and what to outsource?

Activities such as household chores, home repairs and maintenance, event planning, financial management, etc., are the kind that lend themselves well to delegation. For the most part, these are logical, with clear guidelines on right and wrong. But any activity that requires your unique skill, touch, or presence and has meaning qualifies as a likely candidate for the “Stay put” bucket.

In the age of AI when machines plot novels and write op-eds, author Frank Bruni’s opinion piece in the NY Times is worth reading. He says:

I suspect that we’d miss the same feeling — the same fulfillment — that I forfeit when I receive and incorporate more assistance than I went looking for. Pride of ownership would cease to exist. Sense of purpose would vanish with it.
Is ChatGPT a sorcerer or an assassin? It and its kin promise to save us time, sweat, and error, but potentially at a price. It’s called pointlessness.

So, let’s pause and ponder before we attempt to become super-efficient by outsourcing everything: we may soon have no meaning left in our lives. If we don’t stop ourselves to ask the question, “what are we freeing up our time for?” we may end up indeed leading sloth-like lives. Where’s the fun in that?



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