A lesson in perspective: The Underachiever’s Manifesto

Sonnie Bailey

16 October 2020

It’s easy to think you need to strive to thrive.

Heck, it’s a philosophy I’ve promoted at times.

The urge to strive is something I have to tame – or, more realistically, manage.

Which is why The Under-Achiever’s Manifesto is so refreshing. It’s a short, charming book written by Dr Ray Bennett, published in 2006. I enjoyed it immensely.

Dr Bennett’s philosophy can be summarised pretty easily:

“Turn everything down a notch. Lower the bar. Discover the laziness that has so far eluded you. No matter who you are, there’s something you’re trying too hard at.”

Don’t worry about what others think

In Dr Bennett’s words:

“There are more than six billion people on the planet. Almost none of them care about your latest victory in the stock market, or the promotion you ‘earned'”.

In other words:

“your successes and failures really don’t matter to nearly everybody alive – nor the other 100 billion or so people who have lived.

I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s comment:

“You’ll stop caring what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Never forget the law of diminishing returns

I’m often critical of the underlying assumptions associated with economic models, such as the assumptions of perfect information; no externalities; people being self-interested utility maximisers; etc.

But two big things that the field of economics get right are:

  • The idea of opportunity costs. Ie, if you spend resources doing one thing, one of the biggest costs is what you’ve forgone in order to do that thing.
  • A recognition that there are diminishing marginal benefits from consuming almost anything. Ie, the first chocolate biscuit provides you with much more happiness than the 10th chocolate biscuit.

Diminishing marginal returns doesn’t just relate to consumption. It relates to returns on how much time and effort we put into something.

The amount of time it takes to become competent at something is often a fraction of the amount of time it takes to become a master at that same thing. The rewards to effort start to taper off.

Once you get close to mastery, guess who is in your reference group at that point? People who have a similar level of mastery, all of whom are trying to eke out marginal improvements.

Bennett explains:

“A fundamental problem faced by overachievers is that they expect their successes to continue at the pace to which they’ve grown accustomed. The law of diminishing returns assures that they won’t. As [overachievers] move up the ladder, they will be surrounded by more successful people, it will become harder for them to stand out, and they will have to redouble their efforts. At that point, they can keep on pushing at the expense of their health and relationships”

The law of diminishing returns applies everywhere. By eking out marginal gains in one domain, you’re missing out on significant progress in entirely different domains.

I’m not saying that you have to follow this prescription for life. As the saying goes, “aut libri, aut liberi”, or “books or children” – you can choose domestic life, or a life of the mind (or focus on some other domain).

To be world-class in a domain, you need to focus on those marginal gains – on the 1% improvements. That’s legitimate. But it’s also legitimate to get to spend half the time in lots of domains and get to the top 10% of humans.

(Related: Mr Money Mustache wrote a post recently titled “The sweet spot”. I like it a lot. But I think he could have made the point even better: instead of focusing on a sweet spot, as if it’s a singular point, I think it would have been better to focus on a range of sweetness. It’s also worth acknowledging that the sweet spot is dynamic and will depend on the relative importance you put on something. If you are going to focus on becoming a tennis professional at the exclusion of other things, then the sweet spot for your tennis game is going to a lot further along the spectrum than if you’re happy to fit your tennis in around the rest of a full life.)

Be careful of too much effort

Sometimes too much effort can be detrimental.

Bennett talks about exercise: there is such a thing as exercising too much. Talk to elite athletes about training injuries. Talk to retired athletes about their knees (or whatever signature problem comes with their domain of expertise.)

Bennett turns the “No pain, no gain” maxim on its head:

“‘No pain, no gain’ = no brain”.

Pushing too hard can be unsustainable, and counterproductive:

“Consider the areas in which you’re striving for success against your own best interests.”

Our greatest achievements have nothing to do with us

The most profound form of inequality between human beings doesn’t have to do with wealth or income. It doesn’t have to do with health. It doesn’t have to do with intelligence or physical attractiveness (although the latter is an under-examined form of inequality). The most profound form of inequality is: being alive versus not being alive.

“Being alive at all”, for instance, “is by far your greatest achievement”, and it’s something you didn’t have a say in.

The right amount of effort, at the right time, in the right place

I’ll let Bennett conclude:

“underachievement isn’t about doing absolutely nothing. It’s about the right effort at the right time, in the right place.”

Don’t grieve if you underachieve!


Other articles you may like:

“Buy things, not experiences”

“Buy things, not experiences”

The sweet and the sour

The sweet and the sour

How I money (2022)

How I money (2022)

“Market cap” can be misleading

“Market cap” can be misleading

The right ragrets

The right ragrets

The 4% rule is a mind-killer

The 4% rule is a mind-killer