Conquer Laziness Now
Readers of a certain age may remember an old Goodyear tire commercial with the tag line, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” The applications transcend auto repair, as Shaomin Li, professor of international business at Virginia’s Old Dominion University discovered on a business trip to Taiwan.
As he was being chauffeured from one venue to the next, Professor Li noticed that his host always backed into parking lot spaces, opting for often tricky and laborious maneuvering over the simpler method of pulling straight forward. Detecting a wider pattern of behavior, Professor Li conducted his own experiment. He discovered that 88% of Chinese drivers back in when they park, in contrast to 6% of American drivers.
“All of a sudden,” recounts Professor Li, “I said, gee -- isn't this delayed gratification?”
Type or stereotype?
We shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a single study, but this observation does not appear in a vacuum. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the popular stereotype that transplanted Asians excel academically and professionally in contrast to homegrown Americans.
Mr. Gladwell discovered that the stereotype is much more accurate among southern Chinese than among northern Chinese, and he identifies a single reason for the difference:
In Northern China, where agriculture is much more westernized, farmers rely more on mechanization and are more likely to practice ranching, which leaves animals largely on their own to graze. In contrast, the life of farmers in Southern China involves an occupation more labor intensive than most Americans can even imagine.
The Wisdom of Peasant Farmers
- If farmers weren't busy, where would the grain to get through winter come from?
- If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy.
- Useless to ask about the crops; everything depends on hard work and fertilizer.
- No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year will fail to make his family rich.
Rice farming involves rising before the sun almost every day of the year to oversee multiple pools of rice plants, adjusting water flow to keep each pool at the perfect level, and checking for leaks or breakage in the pool walls. The clay basins that form the pools have to be perfectly flat, as do the layers of mud that form the soil. Fertilizer has to be blended and measured perfectly, and weeds have to be pulled by hand constantly.
Before the process even begins, Chinese rice farmers choose from among hundreds of varieties, of which a dozen or more are chosen to minimize the risk of crop failure. Once chosen, the rice is planted in a seedbed from which it has to be transplanted a few weeks later, with each plant spaced exactly six inches apart from every other. Insect control is done by hand, from one plant to the next.
It is arduous, endless work. A westerner working a 40-hour week puts in about 2000 hours a year, little of which is physical and much of which includes surfing Facebook and schmoozing around the watercooler. Even western farmers face physical labor only in certain seasons, and even they have come to rely more and more on technology.
According to some estimates, however, a typical rice farmer works 3000 hours of hard labor in one year. But it’s a living. And it creates a culture of discipline that seeps into every aspect of life. Even the way people park their cars.
The rewards of waiting
Reporting on Professor Li’s study, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam suggests a connection to the famous “Stanford Marshmallow Test” from the 1960s, where preschoolers were asked to sit alone in a room in front of a single marshmallow with the promise of a second one if they waited to eat the first. About a dozen years later, researchers discovered that those who waited outscored those who gave in immediately by an average of 210 points on their SAT exams. Over the decades that followed, the ability to delay gratification seemed to account for measurably greater success in almost all areas of professional and personal life.
But there is one question the study does not: Is delayed gratification innate, in which case we are born programmed with either a huge genetic advantage or disadvantage? Or is it learned, in which case the test results tell us more about parenting skills than about human nature?
Either way, the application of the test to international parking habits suggests two things. First, that a culture of discipline benefits every member of that culture. Whether it’s how we park or how we farm, our environment shapes us in ways that may have a profound impact on the course of our lives.
Second, even if we weren’t fortunate enough to have grown up in a disciplined home or society, by making conscious decisions about mundane actions we might be able to transform ourselves into completely different people
Consider not only the way we park but the way we get up in the morning, swinging out of bed versus burying our heads in under the pillow; the way we eat, dropping our head down to the plate and shoveling in whole mouthfuls versus sitting up straight and raising measured bites to our lips; the way we pass people on the street, with a smile, a nod, or a brief greeting versus a silent grimace while we refuse to make eye contact at all; the way we speak to people when we’re under pressure, snapping and snarling, or with conscious awareness that other human beings have a higher purpose than to be our whipping posts.
As it turns out, our nagging mothers and stern fathers were really looking out for our best interests after all.
Taking the first step
The paradox we face is that discipline requires discipline, and too many of us don’t have the discipline to take the first step. How many New Year’s resolutions come to nothing, and how many bricks of good intention pave the road to nowhere? As King Solomon says in Proverbs:
The lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven men of sound judgment.
But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And if we take the first step, we have at least a chance of taking another, and then another and another. And we can start right now, with something as simple as the way we park our cars.