Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Here’s to the lazy ones. The slackers. The flaky. The unconscientious. The bumps on a log. The ones who cut corners. They’re not fond of duty…

For those who aren’t aware, the title of this post is stylized after Apple Inc.’s  “Think Different” (a/k/a “Crazy Ones”) advertising campaign quote. However, this isn’t a satirical piece but, instead, an exercise in challenging conventional wisdom. While conscientiousness, a Big 5 personality trait, is often cited as the single best predictor of career success, it’s not the end of the world if you aren’t naturally well-endowed with it. The catch is that you must possess some other extraordinary quality that is rewarded in the context of your work situation. I believe that General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord would agree as he stated back in 1933:

I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!

Amen to that! It’s self-evident that those of us who’re lazy have a high toleration for chaos. Just observe the little time and energy that is devoted to maintaining neat and organized physical spaces. Now, before continuing, I just want to point out that this discussion focuses on laziness in the realm of “doing,” not “thinking.” Indeed, cognitive laziness would impede the capacity for cleverness and creative thinking.

Referring back to von Hammerstein’s quote (more on that here), the less conscientious certainly don’t corner the market on cleverness. However, they will more frequently encounter situations that demand unconventional solutions in order to continue their energy-conservation life strategy when compared to their hardworking peers. As it turns out, laziness and cleverness make a powerful duo, and I believe the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder,” encapsulates this.

Laziness can drive you to compensate by cultivating cleverness. It can prompt you to find ways to make tasks easier, processes more efficient, and spur you to think of original ideas and solutions. The goal is to stand out for the quality of your contributions instead of the quantity of widgets you produced, and what better time to emphasize quality than in today’s knowledge economy? We’ve always needed new ideas however and, as an extraordinary past example, Einstein (as a natural long-sleeper) managed to enjoy 10 to 11 hours of sleep on a regular basis and make a huge impact with his work (see here and here). Furthermore, according to the author of “In praise of laziness“:

It is high time that we tried a different strategy—not “leaning in” but “leaning back”. There is a distinguished history of leadership thinking in the lean-back tradition… We need to revive it before we schedule ourselves to death.


The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers—the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy. In the early 1990s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summed up the mood of the refuseniks: “One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.” Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.

Finally, in support of my opening conjecture, the American Psychological Association offers a hint to those looking for niches that can work out well for less conscientious talent in this statement (referencing the Holland Occupational Themes or RIASEC):

…using conscientiousness as a standard of job performance won’t work for all jobs. For some jobs, particularly creative ones, conscientiousness may be a liability, rather than an asset. Some research shows that while conscientiousness predicts performance in realistic and conventional jobs, it impedes success in investigative, artistic and social jobs that require innovation, creativity and spontaneity.

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3 responses to “Here’s to the lazy ones. The slackers. The flaky. The unconscientious. The bumps on a log. The ones who cut corners. They’re not fond of duty…

  1. Sara Rickover October 14, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Lynn, thanks for this reminder of the types of people we encounter. I’ve heard it shortened into (1) those who can do and will do, (2) those who can do but won’t do, (2) those who can’t do but will do, and (4) those who can’t do and won’t do. These archtypes exist everywhere, and managers need to know how to manage them all.

    • Lynn Patra October 14, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      Hi Sara! Thanks for introducing me to this alternate way of saying it! This is the first time I’ve heard this version. I’d been exploring various other people’s interpretation of the 2×2 quadrants and, yes, I’ve found that these archetypes transcend time and place. Thanks again!


  2. Pingback: What a Financially Comfortable, Successful, Laid-Back Professional Looks Like | Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

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