The Uncomfortable Distinction That Is Destroying My Generation
If you live in the West, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing.
One utters “I’m fine” in a neutral tone, then slightly raises one’s chin, puts forward one’s chest and self-assuredly voices the magic word: “Busy!”
Being busy is a social norm — the response is a boast disguised as discontent.
Interestingly, this complaint is made exclusively by people whose dreaded busyness is self-imposed: caused by obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily. The single parent working three jobs doesn’t complain about being busy. Only people like me — PhD-candidates with a blog and a podcast — do.
There are many justified criticisms of today’s culture of “performative workaholism”. These often portray busy people as addicted to hustle because they dread the existential emptiness they will face in its absence. Running away from silence and confrontation with ourselves, we fill our days as a ‘reassurance of usefulness’. People do so much is because they need the toil to feel worthy of love and belonging. Hence, they feel guilty when not working.
While legit, this discussion overlooks a crucial element that makes all the difference.
I present my best drawing ever:
The argument of this essay is that today, we forget about the mattering dimension (the vertical axis) and mix up the two different kinds of laziness and business.
Two kinds of laziness and two kinds of business
There are two kinds of laziness: the laziness that comes from strategic prioritizing and the laziness that comes from being afraid of your dreams.
We see laziness as a sin, but what’s so bad about refusing to invest time in things that don’t deserve it? This is healthy prioritizing. Not something to be frowned upon. If we lose sight of the mattering-dimension, it seems as if all lazy people in fact lack the self-confidence or whatever to work on something that actually means something to them. That’s not true.
Moving to the other side of the business-line (the horizontal axis), if we don’t appreciate the reasons why people do what they do, we lump together two kinds of business that should be separated: the work that comes from pointless toil glamour, and the effort that comes from trying to achieve a worthwhile goal.
This distinction is hardly noticed today. Our culture values effort and personal sacrifice, but that something takes up a lot of time, does not automatically make it worthwhile. Chasing productivity for its own sake isn’t worth it: it doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a pointless direction.
These distinctions might be awkward to admit, but that doesn’t make the differences they get at less real.
The logical endpoint of excessively avid and meaningless work, of course, is breakdown.
In light of that, perhaps it’s not laziness, but ‘Work4Work’ that should be considered sinful.
It’s the worst quadrant to be in. You’re sacrificing your life for something you don’t care about.
Perhaps today’s one-dimensional focus on struggle, rather than meaningfulness, explains why many people spend too much time on optimizing their workflow, and not enough on questioning if they’re working on the right problems.
Yes, I know you’re all busy, but what exactly is getting done and why does that matter?
In the upper half of the diagram we find the people who know what they care about. Many of them work a lot — want to work a lot — simply because there are many things they are eager about. That’s all there is to it. No running away from yourself or some such psychoanalytic explanation applies.
For example, in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Louis and Regina Borgenicht, Eastern-European immigrants who tried to make in the US in the 1890s on a leap of faith, looking for a way make a stable income. Louis’ ‘market research’ revealed that no one was producing children’s aprons, and people would probably buy them. After the Borgenichts sewed day and night, Louis sold their first batch in half a day. They found their way to survive.
““Ma, we’ve got our business,” he shouted out to Regina, after running all the way home from Hester Street. He grabbed her by the waist and began swinging her around and around. “You’ve got to help me,” he cried out. “We’ll work together! Ma, this is our business”” — Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Louis was still penniless and knew this line of work would mean a future of backbreaking labor. But he was ecstatic, because the foresight of those endless years of hard labor did not seem like a burden to him. The point:
“Bill Gates had that same feeling when he first sat down at the keyboard at Lakeside. And the Beatles didn’t recoil in horror when they were told they had to play eight hours a night, seven days a week [in Hamburg]. They jumped at the chance. Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.” — Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
When we lose sight of the mattering-dimension it seems as if everyone is a victim of Work4Work, but those who have a meaningful goal in mind aren’t.
And what about the final quadrant, habited by those who are not sprinting towards burn-out, but also sidetrack their dreams somewhat?
On first glance, not acting on your wishes is a cruel version of ‘use it or lose it.’ When you ignore your dreams, your heart stops caring. Your goals shouldn’t be all that matter to you, but out of self-respect, you should try your hardest to achieve them anyway. This is what I believe. This is also a bad quadrant o be in.
On the other hand, that conviction might be due to idiosyncrasies of my personality. If someone is fine with spending 20 hours a week on goal-achievement, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
It means she has probably worked on her output-per-hour ratio and priorities, deciding to invest a less-than-maximal amount of effort and time in chasing her dreams and hustling and being perfect because there are other things that matter to her too.
This might be in direct confrontation with the ethics most Millennials were brought up to have, and therefore awkward to realize, but that doesn’t make it less true.
The important thing here is not that you work as hard as possible, but that you make a conscious decision about how to spend your days. As Greg McKeown often says, “if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will”.
The laziest ambitious person I know
Laziness has a bad rep. Like you’re evading tasks you ought to do. Today, however, that’s not a productive way to think about laziness anymore, as many people spend their time on pointless work, stress out and break down.
Avoiding that is not careless, but wise.
My new goal is to be the laziest ambitious person I know.
I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder, write more, and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more long late-night talk with Kaspar, one more work out with Patrick, one more beer with Marieke, one more walk in my forest, one more sleepover at Pimms, one more dinner with dad, one last hard laugh with the boys.
There’s more to that
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