The world is reinventing itself at lightning speed, everyone is reinventing everything and reinventing themselves while they’re at it. Once again. That’s not really new, is it? It’s just that we experience it as new every time. Like right now, at a time when the digital revolution, in combination with an increasingly complex world, offers itself as a wonderful impulse for all forward-looking, career-obsessed world-improvers and self-optimisers.
“The vanity of the present” is what German futurologist Matthias Horx calls the phenomenon that we imagine ourselves, subjectively and collectively, to be so important in especially turbulent, fast-moving, dynamic and exciting times. Which explains why we often go about things with such a naïve and hyperactive level of enthusiasm. After all, we’re important. That can be pretty exhausting. Not to mention pointless. And it won’t really get you anywhere either.
You could try something radically different: like not doing anything at first.
It’s not so easy doing nothing for this article, allowing boredom to happen, daring to be lazy! To make things even more difficult, I was driving a Porsche. A 911 GT3 Touring. Does that sound boring? This was going to be a tough assignment. At least the car was blue. Well, sort of anyway. The official designation is blue graphite pearl effect, which is somewhere between light grey and obviously grey. Taking a different view of the matter, however, you might see that even grey can sometimes go into blue at Porsche. A relaxed grey seems to breathe blue. Until you step on the accelerator. Then all the grey in this world holds its breath.
But one thing at a time. Let’s calmly, slowly, courageously go through all the associations and relevant fact-checking:
Scientists call the human tendency to take action in a difficult situation “action bias”. The word “bias” here means a systematic distortion of and typical deviation from rational calculated action. Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of such “recurring cognitive biases”, some of which even mutually intensify each other. And, quite unfortunately, we are extremely prone to this kind of bias, which has to do with the fact that we tend not to make decisions rationally but unconsciously and intuitively. Our consciousness, as an obedient function of the subconscious, subsequently merely tries to explain everything and make it understandable with rules and formulas and the resulting stories. That doesn’t always work out so well. “Economists assume people have brains like supercomputers that can solve anything,” says the current Economics Nobel laureate Richard Thaler. “But human minds are more like really old Apple Macs with slow processing speeds and prone to frequent crashes.” Using a series of clever experiments, Thaler and the other pioneers of the relatively new field of behavioural economics have long discarded the notion of the rational homo oeconomicus.
Okay, so you could interpret action bias as a modern hectic phenomenon, a sort of cultural or civilisational ADHD. Rolf Dobelli, who lists action bias as one of 52 cognitive biases in his guide The Art of Thinking Clearly, takes an evolutionary perspective. We are optimised for a hunter-and-gatherer society. Lightning-fast reactions were essential for our survival. That’s why we feel the urge to take action in uncertain situations, to do something, no matter whether it helps or not or could even be harmful. The main thing is to do something. We tend to act much too quickly and much too often. But we feel better afterwards – even if nothing has really changed for the better.
What would happen when an innate character like this comes upon a VUCA* world like the one we live in right now? Exactly! So now what?
Let’s just wait and see.
“True professionals wait as long as they possibly can,” is the key message of Frank Partnoy’s book with the simple title Wait. Partnoy should know. He is one of the world’s leading experts in understanding the complexity of modern finance and financial market regulation. You just have to keep your nerves under control.
Even Steve Jobs said with natural coolness: “I’m going to wait for the next big thing.” Entrepreneur and investor Warren Buffett claims “lethargy bordering on sloth” was always the “cornerstone” of his success. A good plan.
“If you move, you have to know where. If you don’t move, you have to know why,” says Holm Friebe in the introduction to his stimulating and entertaining but also substantial and clever book Die Stein Strategie: Von der Kunst nicht zu Handeln (The Stone Strategy: The Art of Doing Nothing). With the slogan “Keep calm and carry on”, Friebe gets to the heart of the matter. Staying put becomes a principle. Let things lie for a while. Don’t act, wait.
That has nothing to do with resignation, avoidance or passivity. Nor with idleness, which recommends resting and taking a break as a necessary interruption for the purpose of recreation.
On the contrary: not doing anything as a strategy presupposes that you could always do something. You just deliberately (and unconsciously) decide not to. The German philosopher Dieter Birnbacher explains it like this: “The existence of possible action alternatives is a constitutive element for non-action.” Passivity can even be inspiring. You just need to allow boredom and laziness to be.
Which leaves us with the question as to the value of laziness in our world, with its ubiquitous worship of the work-fetish. And because I’m feeling too lazy at the moment to develop a detailed line of argumentation, I’ll keep it short yet stylistically sound: We can be proud of our laziness. We owe it our progress and prosperity. We just don’t realise it often enough. The essence of our economy consists in saving time and human energy. Laziness would only be a logical, if extreme, solution. You could say: “Laziness is the mother of invention.” It’s the dose that counts. Any questions?
*VUCA describes a world that is marked by – volatility, – uncertainty, – complexity and – ambiguity.