Getting Ahead By Being Inefficient


Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You get things done – just not in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best.

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Trying to be perfect is a waste of time.

Many of us feel constant pressure to adapt perfectly to our environments, especially our workplaces. Don’t waste time, we’re told. Maximize the output of your moments. Minimize your energy expenditure. If you aren’t getting great, someone else is, so before you collapse into a heap of perceived failure, take stock and improve your efficiency. We assume this is the ticket to success—to continually strive to be the best at whatever we are doing.

There is, however, something to be said for inefficiency: not doing everything perfectly, expending extra energy, making mistakes, trying new things—and possibly sucking at them. Sticking with something, even if you will never be as good as the person next to you. You develop flexibility and adaptability. You’re better prepared for new opportunities when there are changes in your environment.

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You do things. You just don’t always do them in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best at everything.

Efficiency Makes us Fragile

To understand how inefficiency can help you get ahead, let’s start with a story.

Imagine a tree that grows these tasty, nutritious turquoise berries. A species of bird has adapted to eating them efficiently. It has a beak that gets under the protective berry shell just so, allowing it to consume loads of the ripest berries whenever it wants. Its claws have adapted to the tree’s slippery branches, so it is the only creature in the forest that can perch on them with ease. The tree produces these berries all year round, thanks to a stable climate, so there are tons of them. The bird has evolved for the task of eating these berries, and they provide all the bird’s nutritional needs, so the bird has no incentive to try anything else.

In the forest there also lives a little mammal. Occasionally, the bird drops a berry and this mammal gets a taste of them. It really likes the berries, and tries to get more of them. It can never compete with the bird directly, as the bird is so specialized. But over time, it adapts to the situation. It starts to go after the berries at night, when the bird is asleep and not feeding. Its claws evolve to grip the tree better. Its vision in the dark improves. Being more active at night, it finds tasty grubs to spear with those sharper claws, so it eats them as well. The bird still gets the majority of the berries, but the mammal gets enough to keep the effort worthwhile, supplementing along the way.

Then, one day, a huge environmental change impacts the forest where this is all playing out. It is significant and lasts for a while. The vegetation patterns are disrupted. Food sources change. Who is in the better position to thrive in the new conditions? The environmental changes are a disaster for the bird. They are an opportunity for the mammal.

Why? In part, because the mammal benefits from its own previous inefficiency. Both the bird and the mammal can get the juicy turquoise berries. The bird is significantly more efficient at doing so, which is an advantage in a stable environment. Nothing can compete.

But in times of change, the inefficiency that forced the mammal to supplement the leftovers it could scrounge when the bird was sleeping is an advantage. That inefficiency allowed for the development of other traits that gave it flexibility to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. It became a generalist, with some specialized features like night vision that are broadly useful.

There is a bright side to disruption. Short-term disturbances enable fast-growing species with high metabolic rates and with inert life stages capable of withstanding adverse conditions to capitalize on briefly favorable circumstances, and it is these opportunists that are in the best position to spawn highly competitive dominants in postcrisis ecosystems from which well-adapted incumbents have been eliminated. — Geerat Vermeij, Nature: An Economic History

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you can do.

Perhaps we need to change our idea of what it means to be the best.

Have you ever been to a rock-climbing gym? You can usually pick out the beginners, because climbing quickly exhausts them and they end up using their hands like meat hooks to grasp the holds and pull themselves up the wall. After a bit of time, this changes. They figure out they’ll tire less easily if they use their legs more. So they develop their technique, pushing up with the legs more than pulling up with the arms.

After more time and effort and practice, new climbers can become really good at rock climbing. But no one gets good by using the same holds to climb the same bit of wall. Being really good at rock climbing means trying different techniques in different locations, dealing with weather and pain and the unexpected. It means being adaptable. Being a great rock climber is about adjusting for the environment, and continually seeking out the challenge of foreign rocks and new climbs. A climber who scales El Capitan 20 times will be incredibly efficient at climbing that one rock face—might even become a climbing guide—but will not be able to get up a new mountain with equal speed.

Efficiency is great in an unchanging environment, but to expect an environment to remain static is unrealistic. Environments change all the time. When workplaces value efficiency in a changing environment, they become fragile. Inefficiency, like a genetic mutation, can allow for serendipitous discovery. Sure, it may produce the same mistakes as before, but if the environment is different, they might actually work now.

Don’t be afraid of a challenge. Don’t be afraid of not being the best. When you routinely put yourself in situations where you aren’t the most skilled, you learn, you grow, and eventually you adapt. You build your repertoire of traits and talents, so when change hits you have a wide array of skills. This flexibility can also give you the confidence to seek change. The mammal could explore and find new opportunities, but that bird was never going to leave the trees.