Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Lazy is one of the most pernicious words in the English language. Often the most devoted, hard-working people are labeled "lazy" on those occasions when they are not actively trying to accomplish ever more. It's an odd and vicious cycle, where those hard workers learn to call themselves "lazy," even when they are most definitely not. I've certainly had a number of friends - and I'm sure you have to - who call themselves lazy despite generally getting work done on time or early and taking on more projects than is required.

It would be easy to chalk this up to the centuries old Protestant Work Ethic, which accounts for the general tendency for Americans (and Europeans) to work exceptionally hard because, ironically, that would demonstrate their worthiness for Heaven. That is, everyone's spot in Heaven or Hell was predetermined, but you could tell based on a person's earthly success, and so Protestants - despite determinism - worked really hard to prove that they were predetermined.

It's a little lazy (see what I did there?) to attribute the modern distrust of laziness to Luther and Calvin, however. Surely there's some influence, but fewer and fewer people are being brought up in Protestant households, and the iron grip of dogmatic determinism has significantly loosened over the last hundred or so years.

No, I think that our revulsion for laziness - and yet our willingness to call ourselves, or friends, and people we've never met lazy - must come from something more immediate. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that is, and I don't believe I can tease it out just by speculating, but I have a couple ideas which are probably not totally true. More importantly, however, I want to defend laziness, not as a way of life, but in the kind of moderation that should accompany most of what we deem vices and virtues.

As a starting point, I think we do have an extremely strong cultural stage set up for hard work. Watching the news, or any television show, or even browsing the Internet, it's hard not to find examples of hard work, not as exceptional, but as an expectation that simply cannot help but be met. Hard work is the status quo, everything else is an incredible, unbelievable, awful, society-ruining vice. That watching TV or browsing the Internet is usually not work only drives the point home: look at how much other people do.

Ultimately this account of laziness is highly personal, because we cannot help but compare the vastness of the work everyone else does compared to the extremely limited amount of work we individually do. That there's something of a fallacy here doesn't affect us overmuch because, frankly, we're mostly a bunch of egomaniacs who believe that we should be able to do more than not just anyone else, but everyone else. How disappointing to see that that's not true, and how much easier to our self-love to attribute it to laziness than to lack of ability. I could ____ if I wanted.

More than that, however, I think our notions of hard work and laziness come from the extreme competitiveness of our educational, economic, and political models. Even though cooperation and collaboration have become more and more prominent buzzwords in recent years, we remain an inherently competitive society. Consider that standardized tests are scored by percentile. Consider that we class people primarily by socio-economic status, and apply a kind of innate superiority to people who have more money. Consider that the almost universal organizational structure in the business world is hierarchical.

Competition, of course, has its virtues, but so does cooperation. To use a trivially simple example, if four people on an island each try to horde the limited available food, they won't last long. If they instead divide their efforts, so that one person builds fishing nets while another plants and tends crops while yet another does the fishing and the last does the cooking, well, then they're getting somewhere. Of course, cooperation is, as I said, smiled upon in the modern world to a point, and no one would deny that small groups of people ought to cooperate. The problem is at a larger scale, where the narrative of human-beings-as-innately-greedy has led to the notion that, ultimately, you simply have to build a competitive system.* It's not a matter of morality or effectiveness, it's simply a natural outgrowth of human nature. Laziness, in that account, becomes a deadly disease that will not harm you as such, but rather will put you so far behind all of the non-lazy people that you're liable to suffer and die. No wonder "lazy" is such a bugbear.

* There's a little ironic laziness in the competitive model of capitalist economics, which is that, at its core, it says that the less we mess with competition the better off everyone will be. It's so much work to try to influence the actions of large groups of people anyway that we might as well just let it be. In practice, of course, this never happens; the primary function of most companies, governments, and schools is to try to influence large groups of people. But apparently that influence should never, ever happen in certain, particular ways; namely, in the form of the government influencing business. I guess I just don't get it. Anyway, since we're obviously not better off in a competitive system at a small enough scale, there must be some kind of point at which cooperation stops paying off and competition starts working. Perhaps we need just a couple more billion people, and then we'll be there...

I would argue, on the other hand, that entirely too much work gets done in the world, and we would be a lot better off if there was more laziness to go around. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that we need a whole class of people who sit around doing nothing all day.* Rather, it makes much more sense to me to structure a society - or, at a smaller scale, a company, an organization, a school, or a life - such that there is ample opportunity for laziness to go along with hard work. It turns out that free time, during which we have the chance to be lazy, can be incredibly important to our emotional and spiritual well-being, and that we might work more effectively when we do work if we're not working 12 hours a day.

* One of the fundamental (and most hilarious) disagreements in our political spectrum is over who is lazier, the poor or the rich. Broadly speaking, left-wingers think that rich people are lazy, while right-wingers think that poor people are lazy. Never in question is how incredibly irresponsible and unethical it is to be lazy. The question might as well be: who is moral, the rich or the poor? Show me someone's villain, and I'll show you their political leanings.

I know, I'm expressing things that we started to figure out a hundred years ago, but it strikes me that we forget easily, or that we forget to apply that lesson widely enough. For example, when we hear a story about a young student working a full time job in addition to going to school so he can pay his own way through college, we are filled with admiration for his virtue, but for some reason we don't find fault with a social, economic, and political structure that makes such fundamentally needless hard work necessary and expedient. And you will not convince me that said student will be better off in life by virtue of his job at a 7-11. The laziness he was robbed of cost him how many books, how many love letters, how much time listening to or writing music?

You see, the problem is that we tend to equate free time with accomplishing nothing. On the one hand, it would be good if we accomplished less, as a society, because then perhaps we would use fewer resources, stop having so many kids, and generally do a better job not of saving the planet (because the planet is fine), but of saving ourselves (because we're in a lot of trouble). We've always been a hard-working, competitive, quickly-expanding kind of species, and like Douglas Adams's favorite bird, the Kakapo,* now that we've got global environmental, economic, and social crises, we're just doing the stuff we've always been good at - which is the stuff that got us in trouble in the first place - with even more fervor.

* The Kakapo is a flightless bird from New Zealand that, finding itself suddenly in danger of being eaten by rats, dogs, and other carnivorous animals after the arrival of Europeans on their island, promptly died off because they were really only good at mating slowly and being completely unafraid of other species. Suffice to say, mating slowly in the face of rapid predation hasn't worked out, nor has sitting around and waiting to be eaten.

On the other hand, terms like "accomplishment" are a bit loaded. For my own part, some of my favorite accomplishments have nothing to do with work that was assigned to me, or things that I had to do in order to forward my career or life goals. And I don't just mean things like keeping a blog, being married, or reading good books, which we grudgingly tend to admit are worthwhile pursuits. No, I mean lazy stuff like sleeping in, watching every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and beating Knights of the Old Republic as both a light side and a dark side Jedi. Even though I acknowledge that I'm generally intellectually involved in those pursuits, I also know that, by almost any measure, they're a complete waste of time. Supremely lazy, you might say.

Except that the whole point is for those things to be a waste of time. What I have "accomplished," in each of those cases, is having fun. Some people have fun by working and then working some more, I'm told, but I don't totally buy it. Hard work for the sake of hard work may be rewarding and therefore fun in a certain way, but most meaningful work is also draining. Interacting with people all the time is hard, and solving problems that effect other people puts you in a precarious emotional position. Without a chance to sit down and turn your attention to something other than all the work you have to do - without a chance to be lazy - there is no subconscious processing, no emotional, physical, and spiritual recharge, and no chance to find those little nuggets (because even Star Trek has its moments) of wisdom, humor, or information that can completely transform the way you approach a sticky problem.

Lazy is not a way of life, as I said, but it is much more useful than it seems. As John Dewey says, the point of education is not to prepare people for jobs, but to prepare them for free time. Likewise, Bertrand Russell would say that the point of society is not to ensure that work gets done, but rather to ensure that everyone has a chance to not work sometimes. If we get into the way-back machine, Aristotle says that the point of philosophy is not to make laws, but to make laws unnecessary. Idealistic? Perhaps, but it sounds a whole lot better to me than feeling guilty for living a balanced, sustainable, and enjoyable life.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! gotta love posts with Kakapo references