The laziness hypothesis of innovation

The laziness hypothesis of innovation is anything but new. In its most succinct form the laziness hypothesis of innovation was probably formulated by Robert A. Heinlein.

Progress doesn’t come from early risers — progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.

Benjamin Franklin once said that he was “the laziest man in the world. I invented all those things to save myself from toil.” In a way that sounds paradoxical, because he worked really hard to make his inventions come true, and so did pretty much all inventors and innovators. And yet, there is a more than a kernel of truth in this hypothesis.

How can this paradox be solved? We can safely assume that none of our ancestors were too lazy to support themselves and their offspring (we wouldn’t be here). We can also safely assume that some people have been more hard-working than others for hundreds of years, as this trait is at least partially inherited and correlated with the Big 5 personality trait conscientiousness. Why did evolution make some of us more hard-workig than others? Looking at our recent ancestral environments we can assume that we inherit three or four personality types due to our ancestral mode of substance and assortative mixing/mating:

Early farmers had the hardest work to do (about 40 hours per week) compared to hunter-gatherers (about 15–20 hours/per week). So, high conscientiousness (including early rising) is most likely an early farmer trait, that goes hand in hand with less openness and more reliance on routine and tradition. Foragers and pastoralists on the other hand needed to be more open to experience in order to remain flexible.

We know that foragers (hunter-gatherers), e.g. the San people of southern Africa are often considered lazy by surrounding farmers and herders. There are quite a few problems with this label, though. First, foragers aren’t programmed to be able to do sustained rote work, so if they are forced to their minds will quickly get distracted (ADHD hypothesis, cf. Thom Hartmann) and experience rote work as excruciatingly mind-numbing. Second, foragers have little motivation to work for material possessions as they don’t care much about them. Third, paid work quickly creates inequalities among foragers. They tend to avoid such inequalities for two reasons: they would have to share the surplus with everyone else (which creates little incentives to work more than everyone else) and what worse inequalities create unnecessary social tensions. Where farmers and herders are motivated to work more for higher status, foragers would be demotivated.

The majority of people alive are farmer types, otherwise, we wouldn’t be living in a world of 9–5 jobs and a 40-hour workweek. The descendants of foragers will inevitably have some struggles in this farmer world and be considered lazier. You can find these types commonly in people with neurodiversity: ADHD, ADD, ASD, gifted all of whom are commonly considered somewhat lazy. What they do have in common is hyperfocus, though. As much as they abhor rote work, once they are passionate about something they are unstoppable. It is similar to what hunters experience in what is called “persistence hunt” and “flow” with a modern expression. You can observe this phenomenon when an autistic child learns about hundreds of insects or dinosaurs. You can also observe it when an inventor like Edison tries to make a light bulb by failing 1.000 times. You can observe it in people like Elon Musk, who recently admitted to being on the spectrum. Nobody would even dream of calling Elon Musk lazy as he is the epitome of the hard-working self-made entrepreneur. And yet, Elon loves to procrastinate playing video games. So do Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page. So do legions of neurodiverse people. If Elon had got a 9–5 job, I am quite sure he would have never become the hard-working person he is. Einstein wasn’t exactly considered a hard-working guy in his patent office in Switzerland. I don’t think he would ever have made it to the employee of the month. It’s a good thing that his job gave him enough time to procrastinate and develop his ideas, though.