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There is a question that triggers me:
“What are you up to nowadays?”
This question is as innocent as the time I thought all cigarettes were made of chocolate (I was a “smoker” in my childhood). It’s the logical question. After all, if you leave corporate life for a sabbatical, you must be doing something, right?
But it sends me down a spiral that I manage to hold inside, while I tell people my perfectly rehearsed answer:
“I’m doing creative experiments to nurture my artistic side, and other experiments to figure out how to make money independently. If I fail, I’ll just get a corporate job and that will be that.”
In the background, there is a part of me that takes that question, hops on top of it, and rides it like a wild stallion inside my mind attempting to break the serenity I am nurturing.
Let’s call this part of me Camelo1
Camelo takes this question and goes to town on my confidence. “You got to do more. Why aren’t you doing more? You took a big risk, what do you have to show for it?”
“You know what? You are not going to do anything. You are just lazy.”
That word hurts. It sears like when you touch a stovetop, or walk on stinging sand.
It hurts because it’s part of our discourse (I’ve internalized it). How often have you heard someone flippantly say: “People are just lazy.” It is said without without the faintest hint of irony or self-awareness. Declared as an observable fact. Accepted as common truth.
It’s used as a blanket explanation for all that’s wrong in the world. Bad grades, quiet quitting, childless marriages, poverty…it’s all laziness.
Yet, attributing everything to laziness has become a lazy explanation in itself.
As I was thinking about the why behind laziness and what bothered me about the current discourse on it, two things emerged that I need to challenge:
1) The idea that inaction inherently means laziness
2) Laziness as an immutable character trait
Inaction ≠ Laziness
Perhaps inaction is not the right word, but I’m writing this on a deadline (sue me). The broader point is that we have this poorly developed benchmark whereby if we don’t do 20+ things a day, meet all our deadlines, and hit inbox zero, then we weren’t productive. And if we weren’t productive, it was because somewhere down the line we strayed from the path of righteous productivity and indulged in the sin of laziness.
But what if we have a warped idea of what productivity looks like? Today’s world is hyperactive. That’s why rest has become ritualized, otherwise it gets drowned in the sea of all we have to do. But what if that’s not natural nor useful? What if instead of laziness, we thought about rest, moments of pause, or slow-burn efforts, as part of the process for making truly great things?
I was listening to this episode of the Ezra Klein show on the importance of play and the beginner’s mind, and how kids essentially have a different conscience that is optimized for learning. This conscience looks very different than the conscience we engage with when we are working. We NEED different states of consciousness to learn, to observe the world. Being fully task-oriented deprives us of a bunch of other magical and useful experiences.
So taking our time with things, doing what looks like meandering, or even doing something unrelated to the tasks at hand is not laziness, but alternative consciousness that is necessary for humans to experience.
I like this quote from poet David Whyte, where he talks about procrastination, but I think it fits well with the idea of laziness:
Procrastination “helps us to apprentice ourselves to our own reluctance, to understand the hidden darker side of the first enthusiastic idea, to learn what we are afraid of in the endeavor itself; to put an underbelly into the work so that it becomes a living, satisfying whole, not a surface trying to manipulate us in the moment.”2
Laziness is not an immutable character trait, but a defense mechanism
Whenever you hear “people are lazy,” it is said is if it was an irremediable condition, a life-long disease. But laziness is not the disease, it’s the symptom.
Laziness is a defense mechanism that protects from fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not being wanted, fear of not being able to enjoy success. All the fears.
Laziness is the manifestation of inaction triggered by our fears. We don’t write that book, not because we are lazy, but because we are afraid of being ignored or ridiculed. We don’t give 100% to our job not because we are lazy, but because we fear being taken advantage of, we fear our efforts not being seen and rewarded. We don’t escape poverty, not because we are lazy, but because we fear losing it all afterwards; we fear even things we can’t name because our minds are trained for scarcity.
I’ve certainly felt this. There’s been one-too-many parties I didn’t attend, not because I was lazy, but because I had social anxiety. There are one-too-many projects sitting as a Google Doc in my computer, not because I was lazy, but because I was afraid of failing, afraid of the ridicule of being the person that tried and did not succeed. I’ve come a long way (otherwise, this newsletter wouldn’t exist), but it’s a work in progress.
So if we think as laziness not as something as permanent as the stench of a Durian, but as something addressable, malleable, and dependent on our negotiations with fear, then it’s a great opportunity to move past the reductive discourse that rules today.
It is a chance to focus on figuring out how we diminish fear in people and instill them with a sense of purpose and conviction so strong, that it fosters action past fear and/or discomfort. That’s the conversation we should be having.
My Lazy Ending
I really wanted to finish this piece by writing something along the lines of:
“Now whenever people ask me what I’m up to, I’ll reply ‘I’m just being lazy, and that’s allriiight (Matthew McConaughey drawl included)’”
But I’m not there yet.
However, I am at the point that whenever the “L word” comes into my conscience and Camelo tries to take over, I ask myself the following questions:
Is it laziness or is it play?
Is it laziness or is it fear?
That ought to shut up Camelo for a while.
Media Worth Consuming
Still Early by Josh Knox: I shared this piece earlier this week on Twitter because I couldn’t resist, but this is a beautiful, moving, and painful reflection on miscarriage, family building, and grief. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read all year.
Forge a Painting by Elizabeth Edwards: If you recall last week’s Tangent, it was all about the idea of creative expression being celebrated, even if it’s spurred on by imitation. This piece by Elizabeth beautifully augments this idea.
On the Tyranny of Time by Silvio Castelletti: Silvio is back on the newsletter with a powerful reflection on mortality and time. This quote from his piece hit me deep: “When God punishes you, it’s not that you don’t get what you want. You get everything that you want and there’s no time left.”
Photo of the Week
A little Colombia throwback. I became obsessed with this mossy rock and took like a thousand photos of it. Here is my favorite shot.
Until next time!
Final note: Thank you to Christin Chong, Ed William, Tommy Dixon, and An Nguyen for your great feedback on this piece.
In my mind he’s French. I don’t know why he is French. I love French people. I have French friends. I love French fries as well.
From his book Consolations. H/T to Andy Sparks for sharing this quote with me when he was my coach.