Technically a few weeks late for a new year’s resolution, but better late than… whatever. Just stumbled across an incredible essay by Ryan Norbauer of 43 Folders: Death and Underachievement: A Guide to Happiness in Work
Norbauer chips away at the notion that productivity and achievement are pathways to happiness, and in so doing opens up a Pandora’s box of existential questions for the workplace. For those of us driven like rats to sip from the sugar-water spouts sticking through our cage walls looking for one more rush, one more minor achievement to fool our impatient selves into thinking we’ve found a scrap of meaning in our lives, Norbauer says it’s time to step back and take a close look at ultimate motivations:
The essential point that we must confront here is that the achievements which seem so important and for the pursuit of which we perpetually torture ourselves are on the one hand futile and the other utterly insignificant. What is the ultimate summit we expect to reach? And if we canâ€™t answer this question, why do we exert ourselves as if weâ€™re heading towards one?
His observations are in part triggered by the release of The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great, which rests upon these core principles:
- Life’s too short.
- Control is an illustion.
- Expectations lead to misery.
- Great expectations lead to great misery.
- Achievement creates expectations.
- The law of diminishing returns applies everywhere.
- Perfect is the enemy of good.
- The tallest blade of grass is the surest to be cut.
- Accomplishment is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s a powerful piece, and one I needed badly to see. I’ve been feeling all of this for a while now, but blaming it on the wrong things: ennui, exhaustion, a fragmentated work environment, my own stupidity. But maybe the problem is that I’m looking for
love satisfaction in all the wrong places.
My (fittingly late) New Year’s resolution is to chill more, back off the treadmill, and to remember to breathe.
6 Replies to “Death and Underachievement”
“Perfect is the enemy of good” is something I’ve been pushing for a while t my workplace, and it’s the best expression of something I’ve tried to embody since my first job in the 90s (back then I called it, “building solutions on things that work _now_”)
Oddly enough, it dovetails nicely with a book I’ve been reading to Nathan lately: Jon J. Muth’s “Three Questions” (yes, based on Tolstoy’s Three Questions). You and Miles would like it, I think, if you haven’t read it already.
In the end, consider what you want to be remembered for – and what you want to see when you look back on the long road of your own life.
Life’s too short.
(Absolutely. It’s only money. Don’t kill yourself for it.)
Control is an illusion.
(It depends greatly on control of *what*. Control of self and one’s own perception are distinctly not illusions.)
Expectations lead to misery.
(Way too broad. See below.)
Great achievements lead to great misery.
(Perhaps as disappointment with subsequent achievements. Can also be problematic for subsequent goal setting. See below).
The law of diminishing returns applies everywhere.
(True, but achievement depends on completion, often as not.)
The tallest blade of grass … cut.
(We’re not grass, and there is at least some meritocratic nature to most work places. Irrelevant.)
Accomplishment is in the eye of the beholder.
(But if your accomplishments all involve video games, you have very little to talk with your friends about over a beer.)
As a slacker’s creed, those points all sound valid, and straight out of “Fight Club.” As useful guides to live by, like most creeds, they go much too far.
I think achievement is important, even if it doesn’t mean much to anyone else. Setting goals and achieving them is a mental game you play with yourself to go on having a reason to get up in the morning, and a point at which you can unequivocally say to yourself that you did a good job. I think it would be a huge mistake to deprive yourself of that. The problem of creating expectations is really one of setting/accepting realistic goals and having the stones to tell someone (boss, or worse, oneself) that the potential goals aren’t realistic.
Goal setting is often driven into unrealistic territory by one’s work environment, driven on by the ideal of ever-increasing productivity with ever-fewer people, and this is where the real problem lies.
Just to keep it all in context, the essay is by one of the main contributors to 43 Folders, which is a site dedicated to achievement and productivity and efficiency. Maybe it reads like a slacker’s creed out of context, but in the context of what 43 Folders is all about, it should be read as an examination of obsessive drive to productivity and achievement (both in the workplace and existentially).
@ Jim Gaynor: Thanks for the tip on Three Questions. Looks like a lovely book – just ordered a copy for Miles and another for my niece.
This was just what I needed.