Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Resolution?

I came across a reference to what appears to be a most extraordinary booklet by ay Bennet titled The Underachiever's Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great . It appears to be a send-up of the get-it-done/achievement genre - while simultaneously being a legitimate achievement in the genre. The central idea of the slender volume might best be captured by the opening paragraph of its chapter on work:

Underachievers are the best, most dependable workers. This may seem counterintuitive but the key here is that while some achievement is necessary and good for productivity, a lot of it is dangerous to you and everyone around you. And if you have a wide enough perspective, you'll see it's also an exercise in futility.

The assumptions underlying this statement can be found among Bennet's "Principles of Underachievement:"

  • Life's too short.
  • Control is an illusion.
  • 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.

He extensively employs the language of pathology to describe what he calls the "dangerous addiction" to achievement, which he diagnoses as an ultimately fatal disease:

Consider: how many brilliant careers are coupled with disastrous marriages? How many talented, hardworking people smoke too much, exercise too little, or drink themselves into oblivion each week? At the other extreme, how many fitness-crazed or hyper-competitive individuals tear up their knees running marathons or risk life and limb scrambling to mountaintops? How many brilliant and ambitious people dream of winning accolades for their genius, only to wind up working for their C+ colleagues? And even if you do manage to just about maintain a full-sprint schedule of personal and professional achievement, it can take something as commonplace as the flu to throw your whole highly tuned enterprise stressfully out of whack. What you've never realized all these years is that it's your commitment to excellence that is at the source of your trouble.

I have to say that these sentiments echo several thoughts and ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a few years (and, in retrospect, in my behavior for much longer than that!). One idea is that of satisficers and maximizers - the categorization of folks into those who "just want to decide and move on" and those who agonize over every decision, every purchase - and, then, once decided, immediately regret their choice for fear of having passed up a better alternative.  I am unambiguously a satisficer!

A second idea has to do with the idea of expectations.  A friend and executive I worked with for years once opined, "the secret to happiness is low expectations." While meant as a sarcastic aside, it has resurfaced in my mind over and over again as I've reflected on my own personal happiness versus those around me.

Next, the idea that moderate or mediocre achievers in most endeavors actually end up being the business owners, executives and decision makers has proved, in my experience, to be true over and over again, while the valedictorian, top athlete or most diligent worker ends up "on staff", working for the person(s) of mediocre intelligence, drive, and talent.

Finally, the observation I made to a friend recently that all the many biographies I've read of the great figures of history ( Lincoln, Kissinger, Adams, Jefferson, Einstein, Franklin, Kennedy and on and on) reveal how deeply and painfully these folks failed in areas of their lives that I consider of critical importance (primarily their relationships with partners, children, family and friends).  I have surmised from all this that to reach the levels of achievement as these men did in their specific areas of accomplishment (politics, science, government, etc.) requires the jettisoning of accomplishment in other areas.  In other words, "you can't have it all"!

Thanks to Ryan Norbauer for the reference.

1 comment:

mlt said...


I've been off the radar since 1/1/08. I'm back in the office today and when I read your entry had to employ all of my will to keep coffee from spewing out of my nose. Not that it was meant to be terribly funny; it's just that I had to stop and laugh at myself.

(Thinking) Right on! I knew I was underachieving for a reason!

I think I tend (regrettably) to be more of a maximizer. I would love to be become a satisficer, but I can't seem to pick the perfect time to make the change.