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Laziness The Mother of Invention

By Robert Fritz

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. But the fact is that in times of critical need most people fall back on conventional modes of thinking and acting. One contemporary example of this is the downsizing trend in many companies. Often the downsizing is accompanied with claims that the fewer number of remaining people will invent new efficient systems to handle the pressure of the sudden workload and capacity imbalance. People are scared they will be next on the chopping block, and this is the moment when, while necessity for invention is high, tolerance for risk is exceedingly low. No one is inspired to stick his or her neck out to test out a new way of working or put into place novel innovations.

But, ah, laziness, that much maligned human quality, seen by many as a terrible character flaw, is one of the true mothers of invention. Laziness must not be confused with lethargy. Lethargy comes with an inclination to be passive. But real laziness has no restrictions on the work ethic. Instead, laziness poses this question: isn't there a better way to do this thing?

Perhaps it is important to note that laziness is often joined at the hip with high aspiration. You want to achieve something that matters to you, and that, combined with a good dose of laziness, motivates you to rethink basic fixed premises.

Some of the most industrious people are both ambitious and lazy. From the outside looking in, they can appear to be workaholics because they demonstrate an extracurricular capacity for work. From the inside looking out, they are simply taking the steps they need to in order to accomplish their various goals. But they are unwilling to engage in mindless actions, extra steps, busy work, or useless labor. They seek an economy of means, in which every step counts, an approach that is the most efficient and effective toward accomplishment.

"There's got to be a better way," often leads to new strategic steps in which radical ideas sometimes cause dramatic changes. Think Google, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other Internet services that challenged tradition. There is a lot of hard work involved with building those services and the companies that offer them. But there is a lot of laziness too. Isn't it more convenient to Google some area of research than to have to trot down to the local library and find all the books that you would need to make headway on a project? If I can get a better result at a much lower level of effort, it is hard to make a good argument in favor of working harder for less impact.

People who are in the "creativity" business often confuse simple idea generation with real innovation. They think that "freeing the mind" is the key to the creative process. They think that free association enables one to come up with things that you haven't imagined before. So, naturally, they try to engender creativity by brainstorming, coming up with ideas indiscriminately, hoping that some of them will go beyond the usual silliness and have some merit. It is a shotgun approach, hoping that something will emerge that will be of value. This is much too much work. Why would I want to generate a lot of nonsense, simply to finally come up with something useful? And this is why professional creators filmmakers, writers, painters, architects, composers, animators, etc hardly ever brainstorm. It would be too inefficient, too indirect, too wasteful, and too impractical when you've got deadlines and back-to-back projects. Professionals are simply too lazy and too busy.

Generating ideas is not particularly useful in and of itself. And, while it is seen by those who talk about "creativity" as central, in the real creative process as practiced in the arts and sciences, it is often one minor activity among a broader scope of bringing a creation into existence. Creativity is not the same as creating. Creativity is focused on the unusual, a departure from the norm. But when the creative process becomes your usual orientation, what was unusual becomes usual. Professional creators know how to create, and innovation is simply part of the mix. They are too lazy to play around with "creativity" exercises. Yet, a natural byproduct of high aspiration combined with a good dose of laziness is true originality.

I want to create something, perhaps a book, or a business, or a piece of engineering, or a piece of music. The next step is, of course, studying the starting point, or current reality. Where am I now in relationship to the outcome I want to create? Almost always, current reality will be inopportune. We won't have the time or money we need. The circumstances will be limited in other ways. What does this mean? It means that we can't rely on the usual conventions to achieve our goals. Therefore, given the limitation of the circumstances, how might we get there anyway? Here is where we are able to rethink the basic premises of the "tried and true" "best practices" that are seen as the "proper" approach.

This is not freeing the mind, but focusing the mind. The structural tension created by the difference between the desired state and the actual state engages the mind's ability to invent. Instead of coming up with a lot of junk in the hopes that there might be a morsel of something useful, the mind takes aim to resolve the question: What is the best way to accomplish this outcome, given the limitations of the circumstances? Like an archer, stretched bow aiming the arrow toward the target, the mind invents new ways to accomplish your goals directly, simply, and powerfully.

Focusing the mind (vs. freeing the mind) leads to consistent and reliable innovation. But innovation, in and of itself is not the goal of the creative process. Creating our desired outcome is the goal of the creative process, whether the methods we used are conventional or "inventional." We want an economy of means. We want little wasted effort. We want our actions to count. And that is because we are lazy in the best possible sense of the term.


2009 Robert Fritz

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Updated: 10/24/10