These days, seems like every time I hear someone telling me how we should fix things, they’re telling me to do what we’re already doing, just do it harder. The problem, they say, is not that our ideas are bad; it’s that we’re lazy.
This seems true across pretty much everything in the world. I’m too fat? Well, I need to eat right harder and exercise harder! It used to be 30 minutes at the gym was what they recommended, with some curls and maybe rope-climbing; then it was Nautilus; now it’s Crossfit. Are our students underperforming? Our teachers need to teach harder! Our students need to complete tests harder! Our energy prices high? We need to exploit our natural, non-renewable resources harder! Drill, baby, drill! Israel not secure? We need to blow up Gaza harder! No jobs? We need to cut taxes harder! It’s that last marginal 2% that will actually cause those jobs to appear, just you watch!
I think that we can comfortably say by now that, if trying harder were all it took — if the problem somehow was that Bill Clinton and the dot-com economy made us all lazy — our kids would be smart; our economy would be charging along; our gas would be cheap; Israel would be the darling of the UN; and every American would have six-pack abs.
But the reality is that it’s never working harder that gets you there. In fact, history shows that the true path to progress is laziness. Do you think we got ahead because ancient man thought “gosh, maybe I can carry just one more saber-toothed tiger carcass home?” No! Ancient man thought “let’s invent the wheel, make a cart, and carry all these saber-toothed tiger carcasses, plus a bunch of rocks, home!” Roman didn’t take over the known world because they said “let’s build the largest phalanx ever; they invented the legion, and then topped that off by inventing the aqueduct to save them the trouble of carrying buckets down from the Alps so that the city of Rome could have something to drink.
And that’s continued into modern times, too: Henry Ford didn’t say “let’s all do piecework harder!” Instead, he invented the assembly line. Systems Engineering isn’t about “let’s make shit not break harder,” the concept is about creating things that don’t break in entirely new ways. In the 1960s, our technology leaders didn’t think “let’s pack more vacuum tubes into it!” They went and invented the semiconductor instead. FedEx didn’t start with the philosophy “let’s have more people delivering door-to-door,” Fred Smith’s C paper was about a new way to do logistics.
Casting our failings in terms of laziness is compelling in a society descended from Puritan ethics; and, in general, it’s rarely a bad idea to work harder. But it is often a bad idea to work really, really hard at the wrong thing. Maybe, just maybe, we should start thinking: it’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re working really hard at the wrong thing.
Disclaimer: this is exactly what the Hippies said; and the Hippies were, in fact, lazy. So, YMMV.