In Defense of Laziness

Lazy people make the best leaders.

That was the belief of Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, a famous German general known for his opposition to the Nazi regime.

A quote, from The Silences of Hammerstein:

“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”

For Hammerstein, it was better for a leader to be clever and lazy than clever and hard working.

We’ll look at why later.

First, though, let’s think about stupid people.

Run Away From Your Doctor

Years ago, as a student in Japan, I fell sick.

My host mother — or granny, rather, as she was well into her seventies — offered me her best medical remedy.

She disappeared into the kitchen and, a short while later, returned with a long green onion, known in Japan as negi.

“What’s that for?” I asked, in broken Japanese.

“It’s for your cold,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Are you going to make a soup?”

“No.” She smiled. “I’m going to wrap it around your neck.”

I blinked. I was a guest and there was no way I was going to voice my skepticism. So I shut up, let her wrap the foul-smelling vegetable around my neck. A few days later, my cold went away.

Aha! Proof that neck-vegetables cure the common cold!

Skeptics like to criticize these folk remedies as irrational, voodoo-like rituals used by old grannies and other fools who don’t understand science.

But I think they miss something.

First off, my simple belief in the cure boosts immune function, improving my recovery in ways that modern medicine does not. In fact, such placebos seem to work even if I know the vegetable will do me no good — even the skeptics benefit.

Secondly, and more interestingly, the home remedy keeps me away from the doctor.

To see a doctor in Japan, I have to wait for hours while surrounded by phlegmy, virus-carrying elderly. When I do see my doctor, he (it’s always a he) nods absentmindedly for two minutes, scribbles something on a pad of paper, and waves me off with a prescription for a sack of pills.

The pills may relieve my symptoms, but it also may have invisible downsides that are difficult to detect.

Take antibiotics, for example. A teenager that takes them to get rid of acne may be cursed with gut problems for the rest of her life.

This is not naive skepticism but an appreciation of the unintended consequences of fudging with a complex system: medication brings immediate and visible benefits but may come with delayed and invisible risks.

Sometimes, the fastest way to recover is to do nothing.

This is an example of what the philosopher Nassim Taleb calls iatrogenics — when we do more harm than good with our interventions.

As the lazy guy says, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

In a similar manner, von Hammerstein understood that the worst thing you can have is a hardworking idiot that goes around creating more work for everyone else.

In Japan, employees tend to be hired for life. When a smart manager discovers that you are an utter failure in the workplace — despite your degree from the University of Tokyo and your top-tier test scores — you are immediately transferred to the countryside (away from your wife and kids) to minimize the damage that you do to the company.

But let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

You’re smart, hardworking and beautiful. Is there a reason to be smart, lazy, and beautiful instead?

The Upside of Laziness

In his excellent book The Wiki Man Rory Sutherland — vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK — argues that those of us who are obsessed with productivity and efficiency misunderstand a crucial point:

“If you dedicate your life to eliminating waste, you will undoubtedly succeed in a grubby kind of way. But, along with waste, you will be eliminating perhaps 90% of something far more important — your chances of getting really lucky. If you clamp down on frog-kissing, you don’t have much chance of finding a prince. This may explain why actuaries very rarely become rock stars.”

We want to believe that great things come from hard work, from careful planning, from directed action. But this, in part, makes us underestimate how much of life is driven by luck:

“The point is simple. If you look at all the really important breakthroughs made in any field, what you will find is that the unplanned, unintended or fortuitous connection plays just as great a role as the planned, the processed and the organised. This is why, fairly early on, Microsoft placed whiteboards along the corridors on the Redmond campus; for they found that the accidental meetings which took place in hallways were in fact more productive than the scheduled ones which happened in meeting rooms.”

In The Black Swan, the philosopher Nassim Taleb presents an example (among many others in the book) of such a serendipitous discovery — the laser:

“The laser is a prime illustration of a tool made for a given purpose (actually no real purpose) that then found applications that were not even dreamed of at the time. It was a typical “solution looking for a problem.” Among the early applications was the surgical stitching of detached retinas. Half a century later, The Economist asked Charles Townes, the alleged inventor of the laser, if he had had retinas on his mind. He had not. He was satisfying his desire to split light beams, and that was that. In fact, Townes’s colleagues teased him quite a bit about the irrelevance of his discovery. Yet just consider the effects of the laser in the world around you: compact disks, eyesight corrections, microsurgery, data storage and retrieval — all unforeseen applications of the technology. We build toys. Some of those toys change the world.

The Takeaway

One last point on laziness.

Some people say, “Don’t just stand there, do something!”

But it’s not clear to me whether action without prudence — mindless effort by idiots with good intentions — is the way to make the world a better place.

Perhaps it also makes sense to say, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

If you’re hardworking and smart, perhaps there’s a reason to steer clear of all the hullabaloo about productivity, efficiency, hard work, constant action, etc. and instead stay home on Fridays, argue with friends over dinner, and free up more time to simply do what interests you.

And if you’re hardworking and stupid, well, you could always work less and then ask your boss to give you a raise ;’)