The importance of being (smart and) idle

Imagine a grossly simplified world where everyone is either smart or dumb, and either hardworking or lazy. Who would you want to work with? There’s a strong argument that while the Western education system places a strong emphasis on being hardworking, the best results can come from the smart and lazy group – at least if these people are put into decision making roles. There is a quote attributed to Bill Gates that says “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it”.

In this simplified model, people who are dumb and lazy make the least effective workers. People are not smart, but who are hardworking, can thrive under the right leadership. People who are smart and hardworking are great, but by being hardworking they may be happy to tolerate cumbersome processes. The advantage in being smart and lazy is in knowing and understanding where the value comes from, and applying hardworking thinking to enable lazy ways of working, by finding the most efficient way to deliver that value.

It is of course a special strand of laziness we’re describing here – getting anywhere in life requires a level of application and dedication. The key difference is that the best results come from not simply accepting “the way it’s always been done”, or contently working in an ineffective way, but from looking for ways to get maximum results from minimum effort.

What is happening here is that the “smart and lazy” person is applying the principles described by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in his famous Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule. The observation that Pareto made was that in many different contexts, there was a very uneven distribution. For example, he noted that 20% of peapods in his garden contained about 80% of the total peas. We can leverage this, both by trying to identify why these 20% are more effective and finding a way to apply this to a larger set, and by balancing our efforts towards the more effective and away from the less effective.

Tim Ferris’ excellent book “The 4 hour work week” is built largely on this same premise: identify the small proportion of activity that yields the most results, and ruthlessly trim the rest. Perhaps the majority of complications come from a minority of customers – in which case some businesses may choose to cease to trade with these customers, and focus their efforts elsewhere; perhaps the majority of income is from a minority of customers – in which case a business may choose to spend their effort on these key clients.

Of course the starting model, dividing people into binary distinctions, makes an unfair assumption – that these traits are innate and unchangeable. We can all choose every day, in every action we take, to look for a “smart and lazy” approach. Doing this consistently enough will make it habit, and once we eliminate the waste to focus on the value, it frees us up for more important things!