In my early twenties, I left behind a legal career, took a substantial pay cut and joined a large company working as an entry-level marketer. The job was not exactly challenging, the pay was mediocre, and I was definitely at the bottom of the food chain. I had a crappy apartment that wasn’t exactly in what you would call the right part of town. On the flip slide, I had enough free time that I could meet up with friends, grab drinks on a weeknight, watch as much football as I wanted on Sunday, and see my family regularly.
Fast forward a few years. It was a Thursday at 8pm and I found myself sitting in a corner office, tired, and answering a text from a friend that I wouldn’t be able to make it out because I had to work late… again. I had climbed the ladder. My salary had multiplied, and I now owned a house in the suburbs. I was seeing friends less, but drinking more. When I did find time to watch a football game, I couldn’t enjoy it because I found myself feeling like I was wasting my time doing something so unproductive. I was also just a generally miserable human being to be around.
I was fighting what I now recognize as the symptoms of burnout.
By most traditional measures of success I was doing “better,” and yet I was looking back on those early days missing my crappy apartment and my boring job.
That night, rather than work on whatever pointless PowerPoint presentation that I had open on my screen, I looked out through the window of my office and did some soul searching to figure where things had gone wrong. The only conclusion I was able to come to was that I was at my happiest at the moments when I stopped trying so hard.
It was that night that I formed a hypothesis: Slackers are happier than the rest of us. For the last decade or so, I’ve given this notion a lot of thought and tested my hypothesis on several occasions, and I finally feel that I can explain why this is true. Allow me to explain to you why I think slackers are happier than the rest of us.
They know they have enough
There’s a great poem by Kurt Vonnegut that tells the story of a cocktail party he attended with Joseph Heller.
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!
I think back on that night, and wonder if I had been as smart as Heller, if I would have spent so much of my life making myself miserable. If only I’d been able to recognize I had enough, maybe I wouldn’t have been compelled to work so hard to climb a ladder that ultimately didn’t make me any happier.
This problem is foreign to the Slacker. The Slacker, by definition is content with whatever he has, because striving more involves effort, and who wants that?
They have less ego
I am convinced that the reason most of us can’t recognize, as Heller did, when we have “enough,” is because of our ego. Even if you live a comfortable life, your ego, that annoying self-talk that you wish you could just slap in the face, gets you to keep achieving more so you can “prove yourself.” To who? Only the ego really knows.
In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday uses the Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism as his lens to dissect why ego is at the root of so much emotional pain and suffering. If you need a couple of hundred pages to explain to you why having ego is not only unhealthy, but also ultimately unproductive, I suggest reading this book.
I, however, am simply going to start from the premise that having a big ego is bad (because that’s what a Slacker would do).
If you accept that premise, then you have to see how the Slacker has an advantage. The Slacker’s ego is less developed. If he has an ego, it too, must be slacking, because the Slacker does not feel the need to prove anything to anyone. On the contrary, he’s perfectly content living a life of relaxation.
They don’t compare themselves to others
Growing up, I had a friend that took slacking to an artform. I once said that if slacking were an Olympic event, he would win the gold medal. That got me thinking, though, how would one create a slacking competition?
The answer is, you can’t. Because even if you could figure out the rules of the game, no true slacker would ever compete.
In a world where everyone from parents at a little league game, to the president of the United States is obsessed with “winning,” slackers are a breath of fresh air. Slackers don’t care about winning because they can’t even bother to compete. Because, at the end of the day, what’s the point?
When you stop to think about it, competition is a little absurd. We make up rules and ways of measuring things so that we can test ourselves against other people and say we’re better at them in that specific area. But why? Why would anyone need to prove that they’re better than someone else at carrying an egg-shaped ball into a painted area of grass in an arbitrarily selected number of attempts?
Does this make someone a better person? A better provider? More likely to survive? No, it just means that person is better than other people at that super-specific thing. So… congratulations?
The Slacker intuitively understands the futility of this. You’ve spent 10,000 hours of your life training to be better than me at playing all of Beethoven’s symphonies? Well, good for you, I suppose. I’m going to go take a nap.
They pick their battles (or avoid them altogether)
Arguments, disputes, disagreements, outright fights all require significant energy. Not just the energy expended in actually engaging in them, but then there’s the energy expended in mentally preparing for them, and then in reliving them.
Science is beginning to see evidence of what we all know intuitively – arguing with others is really bad for you. While a select few individuals appear to thrive on the emotions that come along with an argument (you know the ones who pick fights just for the sake of picking a fight), the majority of us would rather we all just get along.
The Slacker takes things one step further. Not only does he wish we could all just get along, but s/he actively avoids conflict. You won’t find many slackers doing litigation work. You also won’t find many slackers who start fights with their significant others (at least not on purpose).
In fact, whenever possible, the Slacker will avoid the battle altogether.
When it is not possible to avoid a confrontation, the Slacker is the best negotiator, because he wants to get out of the situation in the easiest and most expedient way possible. If this means making some concessions in order to ultimately be able to carry on with his life, so be it.
The Slacker can do this because he won’t stubbornly protect a misguided set of principles for the sole reason of doing it.
It’s actually easier for them to get sh*t done
Slackers get a bad rap for a lot of reasons. Chief among them is the argument that they’re a drain on the rest of us, because they just don’t get anything done. On the contrary, I’d argue that it’s actually much easier for the Slacker to get things done. He just finds a way of doing it that requires significantly less effort.
How many times has a situation like the following happened to you? Your boss gathers you and all your peers around and says there’s a super important project that needs to be completed. To get it done, everyone is going to have to deliver XYZ by end of the week (where XYZ could be a project plan, a cost benefit analysis, a SWOT, or any other number of highly effective methods of spending a lot of time accomplishing very little).
Most people in the group will make this their top priority, and spend most of their time on this project. The real over-achievers will put aside everything else and work day and night to put together something that is so good, so polished, that it can’t possibly be better. The Slacker will figure out what the bare minimum he can do is, and then the day before the project is due, will pump something out that’s good enough.
The end of the week comes, and the boss doesn’t ask to see the work. Next week comes and goes, and still he has not asked to see the work. Finally, the week after that, the over-achiever knocks on the boss’ door and says, “Hi, when did you want to review XYZ?”
The boss scratches his head for a minute, finally remembers what XYZ is, and says, “Oh right, we need to put that project on hold for now due to other priorities, but send it to me anyway.”
While everyone else wasted a week trying to put together the perfect proposal, and then needed to spend the subsequent week catching up on their real work, the Slacker is actually ahead of the game.
The example is extreme might seem extreme, but it happens daily.
A similar phenomenon is on display in the maxim, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” The Slacker intuitively understand this, and instead of obsessing over the last details, he knows that outside of high school, perfect grades don’t matter. Getting the job done matters.
(In a separate piece, I’ll talk about why I think slackers might actually be more successful than their peers)
They Have Less Stress
Many of the above reasons lead to an inescapable advantage of the Slacker. Slackers have less stress in their lives.
There are probably a lot of different definitions of stress, but take this one from the Cleveland Clinic: “Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.”
In the days of our ancestors, stress was caused by being chased by a Sabretooth tiger. Today, stress is caused by a to-do list that’s too long, worrying about the presentation you need to give next Tuesday, and fretting over whether Jenny is still mad at you. Either way, though, as you can see in the above definition, it’s not the event causing the stress that matters, but rather the the “reaction to any change.”
The Slacker has less stress, because rather than reacting to the event that causes stress in most people, the Slacker accepts it for what it is. Changing requires a lot of effort, whereas accepting an adapting to the current situation is much easier.
If you’re satisfied with what you have, then you don’t need to stress about changing your circumstances. If you can release your ego, then you don’t need to be stressed about your perception of yourself. If you don’t compare yourself to others, then you’ll never feel stressed about whether or not you measure up. If you avoid conflict, then you don’t need to stress about winning. If you don’t obsess over perfection, getting work done is not stressful endeavor.
And since, according to the Cleveland Clinic, high levels of stress contribute to headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, poor sleep, depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and has been linked to heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide, having less stress can only be a good thing!
They have more room in their life for serendipity
And finally, the last reason why Slackers are happier is that when you’re not busy trying to be the best, achieve perfection, and do all of the other things that non-slackers are doing, you suddenly create space in your life.
I think this space is the reason that so few people truly embrace the Slacker lifestyle. Sure, everyone claims they want more free time, but what would they do with that free time if they had it? Most of us, in the odd times when we end up with space in our lives, rush to fill that space. Either with work, a project, media, or anything that gets us away from the scariness of spending time with ourselves. Being alone with yourself means that you have to finally confront the thoughts in your head. And for most people, they’d really rather not confront their own mind. Instead, they’d rather outrun the monster that lives inside them by constantly running after something else.
But at the end of the day, that’s all we’re doing: running. And when the day finally comes when you need to stop running, because of illness, or fatigue, or some other outside circumstance, we find it incredibly hard to deal with, because the monster inside of us, our own inner-selves, has finally caught up, and we’re not equipped to fight it.
Perhaps what defines a true Slacker is someone that has figured out that you don’t have to fight the monster. Instead, you need to befriend it, no matter how ugly or scary it might be, because it’s not going anywhere. So, Slackers, as only true Slackers can, embrace the monster, invite it to chill out on the sofa and figure out how to pass the time with it. Maybe they invite the monster to the family picnic, maybe they play a game of solitaire with it, maybe they realize that the monster’s not so bad after all.