Underachievement, the way Bennett uses the term, begins to seem less like an appealing option for the lazy-minded and more like a path to a superior kind of achievement.
Partly, that’s just because moderation’s often best. (Bennett’s “underachiever’s diet” involves avoiding bad fats and keeping treats occasional; his “underachiever’s workout” entails walking, doing something with your upper body and getting enough sleep.) But the deeper point is your life is an enormously complex web of interacting variables, and it’s impossible to know how, when you focus on maximising one or two of them, you’ll end up distorting the others. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” wrote the naturalist John Muir – an observation that’s become a mantra for environmentalists, but which applies to individual lives, too. Tug too hard on one thread and the whole thing unravels.
This column has previously extolled the virtues of “deliberate mediocrity” as a strategy for beating perfectionism. But Bennett’s stance evokes the idea, most often associated with Taoism, that knowing not to reach too far might be the essence of freedom.
“Underachievement” is a radical and necessary corrective in a manic culture fervently devoted to accomplishment and efficiency. But rather than idealize lassitude and slothfulness on a personal level, I would prefer to champion an ideal of something like bonsai minimalism, applied to human life. A withdrawal from grandiose spectacle and self-aggrandizement, yes. But not a renunciation of all passion and striving, just confinement to a miniature scale. Not an inversion of heroism, but an almost puzzled lack of interest in the very concept. Refusing even the impotent artist’s consoling fantasies of posthumous vindication and acceptance and cultivating instead a quiet self-containment, content to prune and sculpt details of everyday life that others overlook as insignificant, too absorbed in one’s activity to consider using it as a marker of social status.