Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail

Robert Heinlein wrote a short story based loosely on his Naval Academy experiences about a man so lazy that he became successful. It is an interesting parable.

As a youth, I used to escape from reality by reading Science Fiction. That, and drugs. The former was probably a better influence. It has been interesting to live in the intervening decades and see much of the "Sci Fi" of my youth become the future history of the planet.

Future History, of course, is a term coined by Robert Heinlein, the famous Science Fiction writer. Heinlein's work can be somewhat sophomoric and perhaps even ultra-libertarian, but his works often illustrate - cleverly - aspects of human living that are not readily apparent to many.

For example, in Time Enough for Love, Heinlein's character Lazarus Long is seen burning money at the bank he is running on a small planet. A friend is aghast that someone could be so foolish as to burn something as valuable as money. Long explains that whenever his bank has to issue money, he just prints more. Rather than leave money laying about (and tempting robbers) he just burns the "deposits" until someone asks to withdraw money - at which point he prints more.

And it is a story-within-the-story that really tells a significant truth. The underlying value of money is not in the paper and ink, but in the idea of its worth. And like the disbelieving character in the story, most people simply don't get it. After all, money is valuable, right? You can't simply burn it. (And the story pretty much mirrors what our government does on a daily basis - shredded old obsolete bills and printing millions more to replace them).

The Gold Bugs should read that story - and understand that the value of gold is really just an idea that can (and will) change over time. Gold is no "save haven" for investors, as history has shown. Once the idea about its value increases, the supply will as well - leading to a decrease in the idea of its value.

But another story in that same book also made an impression on me as a youth. It was the Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail. It is a funny story, loosely based on some of his experiences at the Naval Academy. A young officer, assigned to a particular task, realizes that the laborious way people were doing it before was shortsighted ("We've always done it this way" - how many times have you heard that?). So he finds shortcuts to make his job easier, because he is so incredibly lazy. Since he gets his work done faster (and better) he gets promoted - again and again.

The story follows him to his private life were a similar thing occurs and before long he ends up a millionaire.

It is an interesting and useful story, in my opinion, as it illustrates several aspects of human nature that we should all be aware of. First, is the tendency of people to do the same things over and over again without questioning why they are doing them - and whether they can be done differently or better. Many inventors who come to me for advice have not come up with earth-shattering inventions. Rather, they have just noticed what others have blinded themselves to - that there are better ways of doing things. And oftentimes, people argue - in hindsight - that such inventions are therefore "obvious". But of course, they are obvious to us now.....

Second, seeing things from different angles is vitally important if you really want to succeed in life. Many folks like to "follow the herd", convinced that there is safety in numbers. There can be safety at the center of the herd, but as I have pointed out before, the grass there is trampled down and pooped upon. And often the herd can be spooked into a dangerous and ill-conceived stampede - sometimes off a cliff!

Third, while blinding ambition is not necessarily a bad thing, many people who are successful become so not through trickery, deception, and sharp practice, but rather through lack of ambition and the use of innovation in the place of hard work. The people who desperately climb the corporate ladder - willing to stab a co-worker in the back at a moment's notice - rarely really "succeed" in life, either on a financial or personal level (or not both). Such success is transitory at best and illusory at worst.

To some extent, I have tried to model my life on Heinlein's parable. My career has not followed the well-worn path laid out by others. And I have tried, through laziness, to find easier ways of doing things in order to cut costs and save money. And 9 times out of 10, it has worked.

Many of my friends who followed the herd have done well, but not spectacularly so. My fellow Engineering grads who went to work for big companies all ended up being laid off eventually. Few ever saw a pension or a gold watch after 25 years of service. And few made it up the corporate ladder to the coveted VP slot and the corner office. At best, most may retire with some modest savings after a lifetime of hard work.

A few who started their own companies did well, on the other hand. But that involved risk, and not everyone who took such risks succeeded of course. Those who failed? Well, they ended up with the same desk jobs as those who never tried.

And the same is true of my time in Government. Many of my fellow workers wanted to "do their time" so they could "get their 20 years in" and retire on a Government pension. A good plan, except for those who died 19 years into the bargain. And 20 years is an awfully long time, in my opinion, to work at any government job.

Many of my fellow law school students followed the path to the big firms, hoping to be promoted to Partner some day and make big money. Due to the pyramid nature of law firm partnerships, more than half never succeeded in their goal. Many of those who did succeed later on decided that the goal wasn't all it was cracked up to be - and ended up leaving.

Myself, I was never very ambitious. I went to Engineering school only because General Motors and United Technologies paid me to go. And when I graduated, I took at job at the Patent Office because it seemed like easier work than designing air conditioners in Arkansas. That, and my boss flat-out told me his department would be closed in 3 years. And when the Patent Office said they'd pay me to go to Law School, well that seemed like the path of least resistance as well.

Working in a law firm was hard work. And being lazy, I didn't understand why 2/3 of the money I made should be paid to cover a fancy office I didn't want, or to pay partners who rarely showed up for work. It just seemed like a no-brainer that I could work less and earn more on my own.

And that is where being lazy came in handy. Law firms like to throw huge salaries at you to entice you to work there. But my reaction was, "Why can't you pay me 1/4 as much and have me come in 2 days a week?" But that option wasn't available at the time. I didn't need the money but once you start making it, it is hard to stop.

One of the mistakes I made when starting my own practice was to follow the big firm model. After all, "that's the way we've always done it" - right? I hired Associates, a secretary, a paralegal, and bought an office building and leased a photocopier. And I was miserable. I had traded one treadmill for another. It took a lot of time for me to figure out that doing the way everyone else does is not the answer.

So I laid everyone off, rented out the office building and went back to doing what I did best - writing Patents. I didn't need to do a lot of work to succeed. And since I didn't have to run a treadmill every day to make money to pay overhead, I could take more time to write the cases the way I wanted to. But it took a long time to realize that model could work - and it took risk. There was no shortage of my fellow practitioners who said "it can't be done" either.

Since then I have tried to live as frugally as possible. I have also made the mistake of falling into the trap of owning things and that is one thing I am trying to change right now. Being lazy, I don't want to work very hard. And when you buy something, you have to work in order to pay for it. In fact - getting back to the first Heinlein story noted above - the idea of money really is represented by work. Each dollar in your pocket represents a measured amount of your labor.

So while a shiny fancy luxury car is a nice thing to have, in order to own it, you have to labor more. Own less, labor less. It is a very simple concept. And when you are spending all of your working hours making money to own things you never have time to use (because you are laboring to pay for them) then something is very, very wrong.

I see this all the time at the Lake. We have a small cottage on the water and were worried that the adjoining properties would be crowded with noisy families all the time. Turns out we needn't have worried. Most people are so busy working - so that can pay the cable bill and their car payments - that they never use their lake properties. Most are abandoned for 9/10ths of the summer.

There is no point in owning something if you never really get to enjoy it. You are better off working less and enjoying more.

I guess I have always been this way. My Elementary School report cards bear this out. "Robert is a bright lad, but needs to apply himself more" was a comment that was made by more than one teacher. I viewed much of school as make-work and busy-work to keep kids occupied, and moreover train us for a life of 9-5 existence.

When all is said and done in life, much of what we felt was critical and important in life ends up discarded. It is like on the last day of the school year, after you leave for the Summer. All those tests and quizzes and book reports and homework - so important to you during the school year - are now just trash to be thrown out. Was it all ever that important?

The same is true with careers. Do something you love - or at least enjoy - but don't take it all too seriously. Because when it is all said and done, chances are, no one will remember you for the work you did at Woodmen of the World Insurance Company.

Making time for yourself is more important than all that - and probably the most costly thing you can really "own" in your life is your own free time. Yet so many of us are all-too-willing to enslave ourselves for the sake of a dream job or a fancy house or fancy car. It needn't be that way.

Looking back, my only regrets were that I didn't have more courage to be more like Heinlein's Lazy Man. It was difficult to buck the norms of society and see things in a different light. The compulsion to conform is strong on all of us, and very few succeed in varying from this in even the smallest way.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try...