In Defense of Sloth

I’m beginning to think that laziness, not necessity, is the mother of invention.

Recent Chinese economic success has largely been driven by a combination of two factors: wages comparable to much poorer countries and infrastructure comparable to much richer countries.  No country on Earth seems to be able to beat the Chinese in both these areas simultaneously.  They’re very good at taking a product developed elsewhere, dismantling it, and figuring out how to mass produce it at a lower cost.  But they aren’t innovating as well as the West (for now) and they definitely aren’t innovating as well as other Asian countries, like Korea, Japan, or India.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Of the four major civilizations on the Eurasian landmass (the Chinese, the Indians, the Arabs, and the Europeans) the Chinese are probably responsible for more inventions than any of the others, historically.  And Taiwan, which is culturally Chinese, seems to be fairly good at innovation these days.  In HK, Westerners often complain about how difficult it is to get the locals to deviate from their rigid protocols and flow charts, and actually engage in creative problem solving.  Sometimes it feels like everyone here works for the DMV (that’s the Division of Motor Vehicles, for those of you who aren’t from the US–known to be a bureaucratic hellhole).  But not really, because DMV employees aren’t exactly known for their assiduousness, and the Chinese definitely deserve that positive stereotype.  DMV employees are frustrating to deal with because they’re too secure in their jobs, and therefore lack motivation to perform well.  In HK, people work their asses off because they know that there are always thousands of people ready to replace them.  As a result, they are determined to demonstrate that they’re never looking for shortcuts, always willing to work harder.

At work, my students generally fall into three cultural categories: local HK Chinese, local Indians, and Western expats.  All three speak excellent English, and all three tend to be quite affluent with well educated parents.  Of the three, I have the most trouble teaching the Chinese.  In many ways, they are the ideal students.  When I tell them to do something, they do it.  They never complain, they do all their homework, they remember what I tell them, and they do calculations quickly and efficiently.  As a US company in the test-preparation industry, we teach people how to “game” standardized tests: how to avoid doing calculations, how to approach sections holistically, and how to solve problems creatively.  Our techniques and strategies are developed in New York, and they’re largely designed with North American students in mind.  Though my job is to train teachers, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible from my trainees, many of whom have been working here for years.  What they all tell me is that the HK Chinese are resistant to our techniques; they always want to do math the “hard way.”

I’ve always been a bit lazy myself, and part of that is probably due to the way I was raised.  Like many Americans, as a child I was always praised for being smart, not hardworking.  Perhaps that’s why I’m a bit of an underachiever.  As a teenager, and in even college, I was actually proud of being an underachiever.  I saw myself as better than the nerdy overachievers, who always did things the hard way.  As an adult, I’m not proud to be an underachiever, and I wish my parents had emphasized hard work more.  Chinese people do not raise their kids this way, it’s safe to say.  And that’s a good thing.  Their kids are less likely to end up living paycheck to paycheck at age 31, like I still am.  My Chinese students always seem very modest when it comes to their intelligence, even when they’re quite bright.  But they’re proud of being hardworking.  I think there needs to be a balance between the two.  I don’t have the right balance, but neither do they, at least not if they want to close that innovation gap.  What both the US and China need to maintain their dominant positions in the global economy is a new way of thinking, somewhere in between California and Beijing.  No, not Hawaii, but India.

My Indian students seem to come from somewhere in between the Western expats and the HK Chinese (in this case both geographically and culturally).  And I’m beginning to think that India, not China, is the future.  Generally, these are my favorite students.  They usually have a better work ethic than the Westerners, but aren’t overly attached to doing things the hard way.  They are receptive to looking at the answer choices first, and appreciate it when I help them see that they actually already know the answer, no calculations needed.

Culturally, the Chinese seem resistant to this approach; my teachers are right, sort of.  It’s like they think it’s cheating.  But when I remind them that all the test knows is what answer they picked, and I emphasize that the gweilo are always going to do things the easy way, they come around.  Slowly.  First I have to convince them.  Then I have to make sure they actually follow my advice in the pressure situation that is a standardized test.  The second part is the hard part.  For the Indian students, this seems to come more naturally.  They don’t need to be convinced that the easy way is better, and so they have fewer mental blocks when it comes to applying the techniques.

If India can solve it’s substantial infrastructure problems, watch out.  Because India is a democracy, not an authoritarian regime like China, I think India has an inherent advantage when it comes to innovation, and cultural export.  Currently, China is trying to make a push toward exporting its culture, but because everything has to be approved by censors, its all very banal compared to Korean, Japanese or Indian culture.  In many ways, China has made real innovation illegal.  And even though HK has robust freedoms of speech and expression (for now) the shadow of the Big Beijing still looms large in the back of people’s minds.  We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds, but unless there’s a revolution of some sort, I’m betting on India in the battle of the world’s two most populous nations.



10 responses to “In Defense of Sloth

  1. You make some very good observations. Now it’s time for some self reflection.

    • Tom, I thought I did some self reflection, in gas bladder, gweilo and even in the new one a bit. What would you like to see? I’ll try to accommodate.

      • Sorry, the self reflection part was supposed to be directed at myself, not you. You are doing great. Keep it up.

  2. Very interesting … I’ve actually been thinking a lot about work ethic lately – mostly to try to come up with a way to avoid it while still reaping the benefits.

    India certainly seems to have the edge on knowledge based economies, so perhaps your conclusion is right. Considering that US consumption should be dropping precipitously, China either needs to find a new market or a new economic base.

    P.S. I haven’t read gas bladders yet, but I’m hoping that refers to Kramer’s tanker invention rather than to your bodily functions.

    • Kevin, how very American of you. I suspect that Chinese people spend less time than you do attempting to come up with ways to avoid work.

      Check out gas bladder. It refers to neither of those things, but I think it’s my best post. I’m less happy with the latest one.

  3. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    i like the observations you are making among the different student populations you have studying for the courses you teach. and the comparisons to americans. my birdseye view as a visiting professor to many universities around china for the past 5 years called me into establish student counseling centers under a government mandate due to the high increase in student suicides is that it is a time of true talking and true transparency among university students. my interpreter and others her age are not party members and do subvert the university censorship on the web by various means only to have their computer occassiolnally shut down and start over. is this an interesting response? I can tell more.

  4. Teacher, of course, tell us more. But don’t get your colleagues in the mainland into any more trouble. As a gweilo with a US passport in HK, I don’t really have to worry about such things. But academics in China (and in the US as well) have to worry about being too critical of the status quo. So please, tell us more, but be discreet.

  5. Personal experiences applied to a global perspective intelligently are few and far between. You do it well. I think that the Confucian ethic will make overcoming this penchant for hard work very difficult. It’s hard to break tradition, which is in some ways the path of least resistance ironically. When I’ve been back to Vietnam, it’s clear that they have a problem similar to that of China. Fortunately, the younger generation recognizes this (with some assistance from imported American television and the internet) and is pushing back against tradition. Internet cafes have popped up on practically every street and are frequented by teenagers and adults alike. It is becoming more evident to them that all the memorization they’ve been taught to do is obviously unnecessary. The college students I’ve interacted with seem to be fairly receptive of this. Since Vietnamese and Chinese culture are aligned in many ways, perhaps this means there’s much hope for China.

  6. Great observations W. I think many of the cultural observations you make, also apply to the many other parts of East Asia where the Confucian ethos has also spread.

    Doesn’t it seem that these East Asian economies can still grow/develop faster than the developed western economies for a long time before they are forced to innovate?

  7. Joe, I think places like China and Vietnam will definitely still keep growing. Assuming China or the planet doesn’t fall off some significant ecological cliff, I think you’re right, China will keep growing, and it will do so faster than the West. No significant innovation necessary. But so will India. And if India is in fact better at innovation right now, China may see some competition over Asian hegemony in the near future. Particularly if India can put that innovation toward creatively solving it’s infrastructural problems. Not imitating the West, but finding it’s own way in it’s own geography. China is very similar to Europe or the US in terms of geography, and Western-style infrastructure may work better in China than in India.

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