Messi Walks

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A few years ago, a soccer theory about Lionel Messi went viral.

Messi is known for walking (literally walking!) in the middle of soccer matches more than almost any other player. He’s often been called lazy for it. The viral theory took a different stance: that Messi’s tendency to walk when he’s not involved in the action during soccer games isn’t unattached laziness — it’s great strategy. (This theory turned out to be true.)

Interestingly, this perceived laziness among high achievers is not isolated to sports:

  • Charles Darwin notably worked about 4 hours a day.
  • Winston Churchill was known for his (likely alcohol-induced) afternoon siestas.
  • Hemingway, a prolific writer who wrote numerous American classics, wrote about 5 hours a day.
  • Mozart composed for less than 6 hours a day.
  • Albert Einstein was uninterested in material at school, which earned him a reputation for laziness.
  • Isaac Newton was often called lazy, and would go long stretches without doing academic work.
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer was famously impatient and didn’t spend much time writing papers or doing calculations (at least relative to his peers).
  • This list could go on virtually forever. So many high-impact people seemingly worked few hours.

There is a valuable idea here, but it’s not the one you have probably heard about.

The popular narrative about lists like the one above is that we should all be working less. That the 9-to-5 is an ineffective remnant of an era filled with manual labor. We should be putting in fewer hours a day, fewer days a week. I mean, hell, just look at the guys above. They didn’t work much!

That narrative is focused on the wrong things.

For one, it is true that the modern 9-to-5 is a remnant of the Henry Ford manufacturing era — but it was actually less work than people were doing before. Before the 9-to-5, people worked longer hours on average. Weird as it may sound, the 8-hour workday was a protection for workers.

It’s also true that most Americans are already working fewer hours than their 9-to-5 would indicate: people have self-reported in studies that they work, on average, ~4 hours per day.

So the whole narrative that we should be working less — the stuff you read in mainstream publications or find on social media — is kind of bullshit. It’s bullshit because the 9-to-5 isn’t generally exploitative, and it’s bullshit because most people are already getting paid for more hours than they are actually working.

Chiefly, though, it’s bullshit because the specific number of hours you work is one of the least impactful things you could focus on. There is no good, universally applicable answer to the question of how many hours is optimal. It’s almost comical to imagine Darwin and Newton and Mozart wringing their hands, sweating bullets, thinking: “Am I working too many hours? Is the system broken?”

The working hours of high-impact people are not a product of an obsessive focus on working less — they are a byproduct of focusing on getting good work done. And it just so happens that people like Darwin were able to get great work done in the hours they worked (which may or may not apply to you).

Let’s take another look at the list at the beginning of this essay, this time with the right lens:

  • Lionel Messi has scored more than 800 goals professionally, has the most recorded assists in soccer history, has won a World Cup, has won the Champions League many times, has won La Liga many times (and much more).
  • Winston Churchill led the United Kingdom through WWII.
  • Darwin wrote and published more than 150 papers and 20 books.
  • Hemingway published 7 novels, 6 short story collections, and 2 non-fiction books.
  • Mozart published more than 800 works in his lifetime.
  • Albert Einstein authored many of the most influential scientific papers of all time.
  • Isaac Newton wrote over 4 million words in his lifetime. Some of those words invented calculus, and the laws of gravitation and motion.
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer is the main reason the United States developed the atomic bomb before Germany did.

If, in the pursuit of getting more and better work done, someone calls you lazy, that is okay. You know what you are getting done (and it will soon become obvious to the people around you, if not already). If you like the laziness narrative because you simply want to do less, that’s also fine — but then your laziness is not Darwin’s laziness, or Hemingway’s laziness. It is simply lazy.

With a choice between laziness as a byproduct of great work and laziness in the pursuit of doing less, history shows that prolific and high-impact people opt for the former.

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1. In many parts of the world, huge parts of the population still do work excruciatingly long hours. Read about working culture in Japan, or the 996 system in China. There are also certainly jobs in the United States where people are working 100+ hour weeks (investment banking, for ex.) or jobs where most people are productive for more than 4 hours of the workday (manual labor, for ex).

2. It is worth noting that Messi, for example, has likely spent more time honing his craft than most people work in a lifetime.

3. When we say it is “fine” to be lazy because you enjoy being lazy, we mean it’s fine depending on what your goals are. If you want to accomplish a lot of productive work in your life, or become great in any given field, etc., then it is probably not fine to be content with being lazy. 

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