Millennials have long been told that we are the laziest generation, condemned by the Horatio Algers of bootstrap-enthused generations before us. “Through hard word and sacrificing your social life, romance, and mental well-being, you too can attend college,” they would preach. But, instead of kowtowing to the cult of all-nighters, I offer a defense of laziness.
Tutoring for the SAT, I find that many students throw the full weight of 12 years of math education into each and every problem they encounter. A student I work with recently tackled a question on parabolas by breaking out calculus. While I was impressed at first, I had to stop her 10 minutes into her furious derivatives to suggest an alternative path: plugging in numbers.
The cliche of “work smarter, not harder” should be rewritten as “try to do as little work as possible.” Working smarter is a codified version of the faux-vice of laziness. Is it laziness to use a shovel instead of digging with our hands? Using the right tools to do less work is an art. Whether it’s plugging in our answers, choosing to pretend X = 7 (worth a try), or drawing a picture of that ubiquitous rectangular garden we need the perimeter of, turning our problems into less work should be lauded, not demeaned.
I don’t believe we should avoid working hard for an answer, but there is no virtue in taking the path of greatest resistance. Sometimes being lazy means doing the minimum amount of work possible to get the right answer, even if your 9th grade geometry teacher would scoff at you (looking at you, Mrs. Dudley). The real world is dominated by those that can approach problems in a smart way, even if they have long forgotten the quadratic formula.