“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
I had this director at an old job, who was terrible on a variety of levels, but most notably in his ability and desire to create an extremely toxic environment. One that prompted managers to send passive aggressive emails and throw their reports under the bus at any sign of incompetence. One that encouraged the HR department to fire people for no particular reason, without explanation.
It’s one of those situations, like when everyone was wearing jeans without back pockets in the early 2000s, that I think about in hindsight and wonder, what the hell was going on and why did I not question it? Actually that’s not totally true. I questioned it a lot, the job I mean. But I didn’t do anything about it for a very long time.
Complacency Can Be Hard to Identify
The idea that perhaps I was being complacent had never occurred to me. I think I just felt comfortable enough, and held onto the naive belief that things would get better someday, as if I didn’t need to bother figuring that part out. It would just eventually happen. Not to mention the fear of uncertainty that comes with risk of leaving a comfort zone.
But that’s the problem with complacency. Maybe eventually things will get better, but it could be a long time coming. In between point A and point B could be three more years of life-sucking jobs, or relationships that feel like settling, or jeans without back pockets.
Worst still, complacency is hard to identify. We might not even recognize it in ourselves, when in fact it’s quietly lurking behind the scenes, affecting our decisions and actions and thought patterns.
The Case Against Complacency
I recently stumbled upon an interview on the Hurry Slowly podcast with Tyler Cowen, economics professor and author of The Complacent Class. That’s what got me thinking about all of this in the first place.
In the book he argues that Americans have broken from the traits that traditionally made our country dynamic and innovative. Instead, we’re working harder than ever to avoid change these days. We’re moving less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.
While these things may make us more comfortable, Cowen suggests there are significant collateral downsides, among them heightened inequality, and decreased incentives to innovate and create. The results? Eventually we’ll face impossibly expensive rents in the most attractive cities, worsening residential segregation and a decline in our creativity.
The only way to avoid this outcome, as Cowen sees it, is to force ourselves out of our comfortable slumber and start embracing change.
I believe there’s a big ole sense of risk aversion in our society. But I have a few questions.
Is comfort always a bad thing? Is change always for the better?
Critics of Cowen’s may point to technology and say, surely there have been innovations in technology over the last few decades. But a closer look reveals that technology has also created a society in which complacency thrives. Think about how often we tune everything out and scroll through Instagram every day, or how many hours we watch TV each week.
Consider this: the average American spends roughly two hours on social media and a whopping five hours watching TV everyday. That’s seven hours each day that we’re not doing a whole lot in terms of creating, building and innovating.
Cowen would argue this is affecting business growth in America, and consequently, the economy.
And actually, when I started researching complacency for this post, nearly every article my Google search pulled up was related to business.
Three Strategies to Break Free From Complacency in Business.
Is Your Business Suffering From This Silent Killer?
Complacency: The Enemy of Success.
… And a bunch more along those lines. Have we hit an economic plateau in America? Are our innovative days are behind us?
The data backs it up. Evidently the rates of productivity, economic growth and corporate innovation, as we can measure them, are slowing down. Our infrastructure has barely progressed in many parts of the country, which takes approximately one drive to the closest city during rush hour to find out.
Where Is Complacency Showing Up in Your Life?
But this isn’t all related to business and economic growth. It gets personal, too.
Here a brief list of things I am feeling complacent about in my own life:
- Organizing my finances: Just opening Microsoft Excel makes me uncomfortable, let alone putting numbers into it and trying to make sense of various projections. I prefer to ignore doing so, which inevitably results in feeling frustrated with myself come time to upload receipts, pay taxes and other panic-inducing moments.
- Building this website: I’d like to spend more time doing that but instead of writing this morning I checked my email and then started replying to things and doing other admin work while I was at it, and now it’s 1 pm and I’m hungry so I will probably write a few more lines then go eat and tell myself I’ll work on this later.
- My computer: The USB drive is literally crammed with chocolate and has been for some time, the source of which I have yet to identify. Plus the battery is busted and I have to constantly plug in my charger so it doesn’t die which means there’s probably something wrong with it, which would make sense because it’s like 6 years old (and also my USB drive is crammed with chocolate), so I should go to the Apple store and get a new one. But I haven’t because it’s fine and at least it turns on most days right?
- Dating: I’d really like to start dating again and meet someone, but that would mean putting real pants on and facing potential rejection which is very uncomfortable so I’ll probably just drink a glass of wine and swipe around on the apps tonight without actually starting any conversations.
LOL WHOA that one last just made me want to smack myself.
Aside from these things though, I do try to catch myself and redirect whenever I’m getting too comfortable or stagnant. In fact I scored “trailblazer” status in Cowen’s complacency quiz. I’m pretty sure that’s solely due to moving so much in the past few years and the lack of chain restaurants in my general vicinity, but I’ll take it.
Taking the quiz made me wonder if this is something people think about regularly. Like do people stop to check in with themselves and wonder if they’re being too complacent?
Does Everyone Experience Complacency?
I took a very formal poll over a group text with some friends to find out.
You guys ever think about feeling “complacent” in your life? Are there areas that you’re feeling stagnant in, but you’re comfortable enough that you don’t do anything about it or feel afraid to take a risk?
Almost every response was related to work.
Yes for me it’s 100% my job. I’m super comfortable and make decent money but I don’t love what I’m doing. I want to find something I’m passionate about but I’m scared to take the risk and maybe not make as much money.
I think we can all related to that on some level right? After all, many of us spend the majority of our waking hours working, so that’s a lot of time to be feeling stagnant. That’s probably gonna affect how you feel on a daily basis. But man, taking a leap is so freaking hard when money’s involved.
What I found interesting, was that a few people interpreted being complacent as a good thing.
If anything I need to calm down and start “living in the moment” because I can go days, weeks, months without talking to people who I love. I tend to lose focus of what’s really important.
In this case, constantly striving for more money, more experience, more acknowledgement, more whatever starts to feel exhausting. Maybe there’s something to be said about feeling too restless.
From another friend:
I would actually prefer to be more complacent. I have been overly unsettled for my liking.
Which brings up a new point: what’s the difference between feeling complacent and feeling settled? Settled seems to have a positive tone (thanks to cultural expectations), while complacent a negative. But maybe it depends on what you want for your life.
Perhaps people don’t want to move around a lot, or have a job that pushes them, or regularly try new things. Then again, that could be the problem. As Cowen notes, “By sheltering ourselves from the new and different, it’s hard to see what is lost by standing still.”
I’d like to think that point is to recognize when we’re sliding into a state of complacency. See it as an opportunity to push ourselves outside the comfort zone and take a few more risks, if we’re unhappy with the status quo. That’s what’s required for living a full life that we love. And for the sake of contributing to a society that’s progressing in a positive direction, it does seem like we could all embrace a little more change.
How to Challenge Complacency Today
There are some great ideas on Cowen’s website to live with less complacent in relationships, work, and daily life. There’s even more information in his book. Some of these steps are simple and fun (go to the movie theatre without planning what you’ll see), while some are tougher (ask a stranger out in real life?! Ahhhhh). He suggests picking three:
- Get off of social media for a month. Don’t even announce that you’re doing it. Just do it.
- Have a civil conversation with someone you typically disagree with on social or political issues. Take the time to figure out what drives them and where their ideas come from.
- (If you’re single) Ask out a stranger in real life. In case we’ve all forgotten how to do this, walk up to someone at a bar, start a conversation, and go from there.
- Delete the four most frequently used apps from your phone for a week.
- Stop listening to music or podcasts while you’re in public and interact with your physical surroundings.
- Go to lunch with someone in your office from a different department.
- Go to the movie theater, without looking in advance, and choose a movie that you wouldn’t normally see.
- Explore a music genre you are not familiar with until you find three songs you really like.
- Talk to your Uber driver… about something other than Uber.
- (Bonus) Grocery shop exclusively at a specialty grocery store for a month, such as an Asian food market.
- Write an article defending the opposite political view of what you believe. Try to be as convincing as possible!
- Take an online or evening class that has nothing to do with your career or existing talents.
- Next time you get upset about a political or social injustice, do something about it. Volunteer, protest, or donate to a cause.
- Use Google in funny ways. Be creative about what that means.
- Identify the quirkiest thing about yourself and double down on that trait. Find similarly eccentric people in person or online.
- Think of a product or service that should exist but doesn’t. Share ideas with friends and family at a minimum and get feedback.
- Imagine your dream job. Look for it. Apply for it even if you think you aren’t qualified. What’s the worst that could happen?
- Schedule a conversation with your boss about your future and new opportunities. If you aren’t getting what you think you have earned, ask for it.
- Judge a book by its cover: use tinder for books or go to a bookstore and pick a book based solely on its cover.
- Make a decision based on a coin flip.
- Stop using yelp or other go-to restaurant review sites for a month. For that matter, avoid eating at chain restaurants for a month.
- Start a savings account so you can one day buy or rent the home of your dreams. Or at least have enough money to couch-surf all over the world.
- Stop using delivery-service apps of all shapes and sizes for a month.
- Try to get to a location 20 or more min away (as the car drives) without your GPS.
- Leave your phone at home once a week.
- Pick a city 50-ish miles away from you. Take a day trip. Park in the middle of town and explore.
- Make time to travel to new places outside of your comfort zone
- (Bonus) Pick a city that you’ve never lived in that interests you and apply for a job there.
Do you ever feel complacent in a certain area of your life? If so, will you try one of these action steps? Tell me which ones below!