IN PRAISE OF LAZINESS
What is the greatest human trait? Judging by the way it gets praised so often, one might assume that to be a ‘hard worker’ would be an obvious candidate. By general agreement, it is those who ‘work hard’ who should be rewarded the most. And whenever a politician speaks about wanting to represent the interests of his or her constituency, you can be sure that it will be ‘hard working folk’ who he or she intends to help.
In contrast, to be lazy is not worthy of praise. Indeed, it is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins. Lazy characters in stories tend to be there so as to serve as some kind of morality tale encouraging us to abandon such ways. “Don’t be like this character, look where you will end up”.
Yes, hard work is good and therefore something to be encouraged, while laziness is just wrong and to be disapproved of. At least, that seems to be the attitude society wants to encourage.
But is it correct? Is laziness really all bad? Are we we really right in holding up hard work as the ultimate virtue?
I don’t think we are. I think laziness is part of the reason why progress is made; why the future can turn out better than the past.
A major reason why the future can seem brighter is because of technological development. It is thanks to new technological capabilities that we can reduce or eliminate problems that were hitherto intractable. It can aspire to more than was previously obtainable. Now, obviously, work has to be done or else technological progress would grind to a halt. I don’t intend to try and show we should be against hard work. But it does seem to me that ‘lazy’ intentions are, to some extent, the driving force behind a lot of what we invent. After all, a lot of what we invent are ‘labour-saving’ devices. We invent something often because there is a task we can’t really be bothered with and would rather get away with doing it less or not at all.
Imagine that our ancient ancestors, with their primitive stone tools, only wanted to ‘work hard’. If that were so, then I would argue that they would have shown a great deal less interest in improving their tools. “This tree I am attempting to chop down with my flint knife, it’s going to take an enormous amount of effort. Great! I love hard work, me. Who would want an axe or, heaven forfend a chainsaw? That would get the work done in half the time, and I am not at all interested in anything but hard work”.
In reality, we couldn’t be bothered to work quite so hard at whatever we were doing, and so we looked for ways to reduce the amount of effort needed to reach our goals. Did our cavemen ancestors progress from stone tools to iron ones out of a desire to work hard in solving the various problems such an evolution requires, or because they were kind of lazy and therefore wanted better tools and less work? In our modern age do people start businesses because they crave the hard work one must undertake to succeed in such endeavours, or because they look forward to one day earning so much profit they can afford to hire staff to do all the work for them (and have you ever noticed how the most vocal proponents of ‘hard work’ tend to be those with enough capital to pay others to do all the work?).
The answer is that both play a part. Human nature is not one hundred percent committed to hard work nor totally in favour of being lazy. If were were content to just be lazy, our world would look as radically different today as the hypothetical ‘world of hard workers’ just imagined. If we were content to just live as lazy folk, then we would be satisfied with merely meeting our most basic survival needs. So long as we had a quenched thirst, a full stomach and protection from harsh environments we would have all we could ever want. There would be no desire to make music or play sports or make scientific discoveries. We went on to do all those things because we are lazy being with the capacity to work hard and strive for more.
We are lazy beings because it makes evolutionary sense to be that way. Energy should not be wasted unnecessarily and natural selection harshly punishes those that do. The successful hunter is the one evolved to catch prey with minimal effort, not the ones who prefer the long, arduous chase even when a shorter, easier catch is an option. And prey likewise evolve herd behaviour, camouflage and defences like armour and poisons in order to make it easier to defend themselves against predation. They too get punished if they waste unnecessary energy in thwarting a predator’s intention to make a meal of them. In nature, winners are the ones who work hard only when they have to.
Given that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, the sensible would have been to permit relaxation during slack periods in order for there to be plenty of energy when the time came to put it to good use. You can imagine how there would have been seasons in which there was plenty of fruit to gather, or moments when everyone should mobilise to bring home game. But afterwards, when the fruit was picked and the hog roasting on the spit, the time left was better spent playing, socialising, or resting.
This is, in fact, how we evolved to work. We are designed for occasional bursts of intense energy, which is then followed by relaxation as we slowly build up for the next short period of high activity.
This work pattern could hardly have changed much when human societies transitioned to farming and were able to develop into chieftains and larger hierarchical societies. After all, farming is also very seasonal work, so here too it would have made much more sense to adopt work attitudes that encouraged intense activity when necessary (such as when the harvest was ready to be gathered) but at other times to just leave the peasants alone to potter about minding and maintaining things or relaxing.
Now, it’s true that the evolution of human societies into hierarchical structures not only entailed the emergence of a ruling ‘upper class’ but also a lower caste of slaves and serfs. But, although we commonly conceive of such lower caste people as being worked to death by brutal task-masters, in actual fact early upper classes were nowhere near as obsessed with time-management as is the modern boss and didn’t care what people were up to so long as the necessary work was accomplished. As Graeber explained, “the typical medieval serf, male or female, probably worked from dawn to dusk for twenty to thirty days out of any year, but just a few hours a day otherwise, and on feast days, not at all. And feast days were not infrequent”.
Part two of this essay still to come.
“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber
“Why We Work” by Barry Schwartz