Doing Nothing: How It Works, and Why It Matters
Queen Elizabeth II: “It doesn’t feel right, as Head of State, to do nothing.”
Queen Mary: “It is exactly right.”
Queen Elizabeth II: “Is it? But surely doing nothing is no job at all?”
Queen Mary: “To do nothing is the hardest job of all. And it will take every ounce of energy that you have.”
-Dialogue is from The Crown TV Series Season 1, Episode 4, 53m:59s
Homo Sapiens began to disperse across the planet roughly 70 to 50,000 years ago. Consider how long we’ve been on Earth as a species. In our short human history, we have been hunter-gatherers for 90% of our time. Subsequently we turned to agriculture, quickly replacing most of the hunter-gathering life. Between the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution began. Now we live in an Information / Technological era, but these modern eras have had little influence on who we are physiologically speaking.
You and me evolved biologically as hunter-gatherers: it was how we lived until about 12,000 years ago when we settled for agriculture. Humans were wild, skilled at hunting and identifying what was edible. Imagine how fit and capable they were in nature. It wasn’t until the Agricultural Revolution began that we could settle, plan for the winter, and have enough food. But there was one big problem. They could work very hard and then have a bad yield or worse, have their stock stolen or burned.
We became fragile. Hard work could turn into nothing. As a hunter-gatherer you could miss your prey, but you could try again. As a farmer you didn’t have the time to grow more crops before the winter. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval N. Harari explains that the Agricultural Revolution was one of humanity’s biggest frauds. Before humanity could reap the benefits, countless generations suffered of starvation and diseases. Every revolution has its costs and benefits. For instance, while the Informational era has brought perhaps humans’ greatest invention, the Internet, we’ve grown increasingly overweight and more socially isolated.
So where are we today? Without a doubt we’re now enjoying the fruits of the Agricultural Revolution. But what about the Industrial Revolution? While we enjoy the benefits of product abundance, we still live the lie of the Industrial Revolution’s hard work mantra: “If you work hard enough, you will succeed.” We’ve entirely ignored and dismissed the hunter-gatherer in us to be shaped to think and act like a factory worker—efficient, obedient, and hard-working in order to succeed. Do you think hard work really is the key to success, or are there other more important factors at play? Among hard working people, why do some have more financial success than others? And why do some hardly succeed?
Hard Work / Busyness
Perhaps the best way to begin answering these sorts of questions is by asking: how do you measure “working hard”? How hard is hard work? Does it have to be physical? Do you have to be “busy” 40 hours/week or 60+ hours/week? Is it measured by the lack of sleep you get, or like a billionaire recently said: you have to work so hard that you shouldn’t even want go to the bathroom while at work? Will you then succeed big? The point though, is that working hard is relative. Sometimes it’s necessary because we have no choice. Sometimes it’s fruitless because you invested your time and resources, only to eventually lose money. It’s relative because you could work really hard and not make much while others profit disproportionately off of investments without working at all.
Hard work is not the problem per se. The main problem is equating hard work with success. Why? Because you could simply be working harder but achieving less. With the Industrial Revolution came the need of hard work. So how did work look before the Industrial Revolution? Hunter-gatherers had periods of intense activity while hunting, but they were more concerned about building the skills to guarantee a meal rather than the hard work itself.
After the Agricultural Revolution was firmly established, humans finally had some free time to specialize. Families developed a specific trade with specialized skills that were passed on from generation to generation. There were brewers, coopers, carpenters, farmers, and blacksmiths, to mention a few. These families focused on the mastery of their craft, not on how much or how hard they worked. Pride was in the uniqueness of work. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, needed people to leave their honorable craft in exchange for labor. It promised more work and more profit, but if they went bust, jobs were lost and most importantly, family crafts were eventually lost. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Industrial Revolution. We benefited a lot thanks to it, but the problem is we’ve normalized, even romanticized, the concept of hard work. And it’s still very real in our culture.
What’s our brief history of hard work? We hunted and gathered. Formed tribes. We settled into agriculture. We developed specific skills. Then schools taught to be compliant, and we became obedient and hard-working employees. We learn that the only road to success is hard work. We’re proud of working hard, when we could we working smarter. Unfortunately, working smart just doesn’t have the appeal that working hard does. But the secret ingredient that is kept away from you is this: working hard – decision making = bad outcomes. And working hard + better decision making = potential for great outcomes. The decision making part of the equation determines something fundamental: when (and if) to take action.
When it comes to what to do, there’s a lot of information. We’re flooded by information on how to maximize productivity, efficiency, performance, etc. However, there is no consideration about non-action. Doing nothing has far more benefits than we realize. Determining when to do and when not to do is a key point in this insight. Doing for the sake of doing leads to unnecessary risk. I’ve personally noticed this over intervention in medicine. Doctors seem to want to prescribe a medicine always, even if it’s just a temporary problem. I think part of the issue is patients may feel cheated if they have to pay for the doctor visit and get nothing, so instead they get something that’s possibly harmful.
In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim N. Taleb defines Iatrogenics as: “Harm done by the healer, as when the doctor’s interventions do more harm than good.” But the same applies to all professions. Ask yourself: when could my work do more harm than good? As we saw earlier, there is a pride and romance of being a doer even if the risks outweigh the benefits. Doing nothing should be the result of mindful consideration when you shouldn’t take action. Being a hard worker for the sake of it, or working for a salary demands justification of your work, which in turn forces people to come up with ghostly problems and unnecessary solutions with side effects.
Doing nothing is about having the clarity and courage to not do when everyone expects you or others to “always be busy.” When this is not the case, you’ll find at the very best corporate employees trying to look busy, and at worst, employees spending resources on useless meetings, or exposing the company to avoidable risk or harm. Of course, taking action is very important. I’m not suggesting it isn’t. Most Insightful Bean articles are about doing. But we need to be keen in identifying when taking action is needed and urgent, and when to not take action because it would expose unnecessary risks with minimal benefits. At your personal level, think about the advantages you could tap into from non-action.
For the economy to function, you not only need to be a hard worker, but a hard consumer. You can work very hard for several years, and then destroy it all by purchasing something expensive or going into credit card debt. Consider that a poor decision can cost you years of hard work. Have you thought why it is harder to keep your money than it is to make it? Doing nothing is also about knowing how to keep (and compound) the fruits of your labor. It’s hard to understand non-action because you simply can’t see it. We tend to focus on entrepreneurial action, but not so much on prevention of loss. Doing nothing is very often doing more. We’re sold the idea that entrepreneurs love risk. But the truth is that they hate it. The solution? It all comes down to decision-making.
Becoming better decision makers means we become better at taking action. At every step of the way, we must ask when we should act and when we shouldn’t. Consider this: Homo Sapiens have always tried to find ways to free up our time, so that we either don’t have to be stuck doing the same thing over and over again, or so that we find a way to make the process easier to do. If time is money, then it makes sense to seek to separate our hard work from money. In other words, when you work hard, say 1 hour, and you get paid an hourly wage, then hard work is money. But as soon as you save your hard work, then you can have an investment work for you. Only then can you leverage time over money.
As romantic as hard work sounds, it’s time that we should be really after. Rich Dad Poor Dad best-selling author Robert Kiyosaki talks about 4 quadrants: 1. Employee 2. Self-employed 3. Business owner and 4. Investor. When you’re in the first quadrant, you get a job. In the second quadrant, you own a job. In the third you own a system, and in the fourth, you own time. It’s a little heart breaking that we spend so much time preparing for life in the first quadrant without considering the other quadrants, especially since we know time = money. When you’re self employed, you still need to work hard, but at least you’ve cultivated skills. You bear more risk than an employee, but you have potential for more profit.
In the third quadrant, a business owner owns a system with increased risk, more potential for profit, and less hard work as you leverage others’ time and resources. As an investor, it becomes more and more about decision making. The distinction is better decisions lead to more success. However, this is far from easy. At any given quadrant, and with any action you take, there is uncertainty. That’s why a lot of our actions can result in loss. So how do you make decisions under uncertainty?
I used to rely on experts and their forecasts. We live in the illusion that the news keeps us informed. Long-term forecasts are always wrong. Nobody is a fortune teller. The few that get it right are just by chance. The best decision you can make under uncertainty is preparation. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen? How will you try to prevent it? And if it does occur, how will you be prepared for it? Only then do you take action to try to tap into the gain you’re after. Make sure to direct your actions at potentially big gains. Since actions should be iterative (not a one time pass/fail), aim to expand your options, or your possibilities to change your course of action like a rudder on a boat.
In decision making, always mitigate downside, then seek upside. Nassim N. Taleb suggests to have 90% extreme risk aversion, and only to be 10% risk loving. Doing and doing nothing is more about the quality of the decisions you make than it is strictly about not doing anything. We must choose to be very focused and hard working in the moments when it warrants it (10%), and do nothing the rest of the time (90%). Just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they had periods when they ate a lot, and the rest of the time when they didn’t. They stayed fit and healthy. Unnecessary action is like unnecessary eating. It’s no good. Always be mindful about decisions you make. Making better decisions ultimately means doing more.
Here lies the unknown key to success of when to act and when not to act, and that’s solely in the realm of decision making. We’re such a product of the Industrial Revolution that we can’t even imagine when doing nothing could be a better course of action. But now you know. To carefully consider and decide when you should do nothing is as important as executing when you must take action. When you do take action, be a modern hunter-gatherer: take pride in artisanal work. Create a system that works for you. Prepare. Be a decision maker, and always seek to improve the quality of your decisions. What will you do? What won’t you do?
Juan F. Diaz
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