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Personal Growth

In Praise of Underachievement

Given the ubiquity of the achievement lobby, underachievement is actually no easy thing to grasp. But has it ever occurred to you to try for something less than your best in order to be happy?

What’s the Latest Development?

A little-known book on the virtues of laziness, written in 2006 by a medical doctor named Ray Bennett, is receiving some renewed attention for its serious discussion of purposeful mediocrity. In The Underachiever’s Manifesto, Bennett demonstrates the power and ubiquity of the achievement lobby by arguing that underachievement is more difficult than it should be. “Our world is so full of unrelenting messages about being the best you can be that it may not even have occurred to you to try for anything less.” Today, says Bennett, it is not unusual for career ambitions to hollow out a marriage or for talented people to eat poorly and smoke too much. 

What’s the Big Idea?

In one respect, Bennett’s message is as old as Aristotle’s advice that to be moderate in all things is part of living a happy life. “But the deeper point is your life is an enormously complex web of interacting variables, and it’s impossible to know how, when you focus on maximising one or two of them, you’ll end up distorting the others.” Toward the end of Bennett’s appropriately short treatise, he quotes Picasso (that famous underachiever): ‘You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two… In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.’

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