Lewis was a keynote speaker at the 2017 Insight Summit put on by online survey company Qualtrics. In a candid interview with Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith, Lewis explained why laziness never seemed like a bad thing in his mind, and how it's helped him succeed.
"I grew up in New Orleans, where no one did anything," he said. "It's an endlessly charming and delightful place, but the idea that your worth was connected to things you did in the world was an alien idea." In fact, Lewis recalled, his father had him convinced that there was a Lewis family crest with this motto: "Do as little as possible, and that unwillingly, because it is better to receive a slight reprimand than perform an arduous task." That turned out to be untrue, but the idea that leisure was to be cherished and that being constantly busy was not necessarily a good thing stuck with the younger Lewis.
Embracing laziness has helped him be successful because he focuses his efforts only where it really matters, he explained. Here's how that can create a real advantage:
You're OK with doing nothing.
When was the last time you felt comfortable doing nothing? Not for an hour or a day, but in general, with no immediate projects at hand? Lewis said he has no problem with inactivity if nothing worthwhile has captured his attention. If he believed that being industrious was important, he said, "I'd be panicked at the question 'What are you working on?' if I wasn't working on anything."
Have you ever taken on a project just so you wouldn't be inactive, just to keep things going? How many better opportunities have you missed because that project made you too busy to pursue them? Being willing to be inactive or less active means you'll be available when something truly worthy of your best effort comes along. It also means you'll have the time and space to go looking for those really worthwhile projects. If you're busy being busy, you'll miss them.
You won't waste time trying not to waste time.
That's something most of us do, Lewis said. "People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives. If you mistake busyness for importance--which we do a lot--you're not able to see what really is important."
Lewis is willing to waste time--a lot of it--if something seems like it could be really worthwhile. He'll spend a year or more hanging around someone who interests him even before he knows for sure whether he'll wind up with a book.
Have there been potentially great projects in your own life that you didn't get to explore because you didn't have the time to waste? Maybe the next time something comes along that tugs at your heart, you should find a way to waste as much time as it takes to get the project off the ground or prove to yourself that it won't work.
You'll zero in on what's truly game-changing.
"My laziness serves as a filter," Lewis said. "Something has to be really good before I'll decide to work on it." Lewis has published six heavily researched books in the past 10 years while also working as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, so his laziness certainly hasn't stopped him from producing quite a lot of work.
But it has helped ensure that what he does is his very best work--only the things that really call to him. Here's the test: "If a story I've gotten to know didn't get told, would I be sad?" he asked. Unless the answer is an absolute yes, Lewis doesn't take on the project.
When was the last time you asked yourself if you would be sad if some work didn't get done, or if a possible project didn't happen? Next time an opportunity arises, ask yourself that question before you say yes.