Just a job? Before you know it, even a slacker might land a career. Photographer: Chris Haston/NBC Universal via Bloomberg
Just a job? Before you know it, even a slacker might land a career. Photographer: Chris Haston/NBC Universal via Bloomberg

My mother would like me to stop working so hard.

To understand why this is so funny, you need to have known me in high school, or perhaps the first few years of college, when I was cutting classes, reading novels and struggling to write my own. (Eventually I succeeded, only to discover that the fruit of my long labors was possibly the worst novel ever written in English.) I also enjoyed hanging out with my friends and watching television. What I did not enjoy was doing what I was told, especially if it bored me.

I’m not exactly a proud former slacker. After nearly flunking out of both high school and college, I realized it was much easier to go to class, and do my work, than to endure the inevitable denouement of slacking. Like most people who learned that lesson late, I sure wish I hadn’t been so slow on the uptake. It took five years of wandering in the job market and a lot of verbal tap dancing to get me into a good business school -- from which I went to a construction trailer on the Ground Zero recovery site after the management consulting job I had lined up suddenly evaporated.

So my parents endured a lot while waiting for me to get it together. In fact, it was something of a surprise to all of us when I stumbled into a decadelong career as a writer, and especially when I got to supplement my day job with a contract to write a book on failure. It was after I had spent a few years of 16-hour days and seven-day weeks, writing the blog by day and the book by night, that my mother suggested I was working too hard. Which made me laugh. And, after a moment, made her laugh, too: This is the woman who insisted on photographing me holding my diplomas so that she would have incontrovertible evidence that she wasn’t dreaming.

I don’t want to valorize slacking. I also don’t want to entirely denigrate it. Spending thousands of hours practicing your writing skills, and working ordinary jobs for unglamorous companies, is not-bad preparation for being a journalist. When the prodigal sons return to the fold, they often bring with them valuable information about the outside world.

America’s educational system was practically designed for the wanderers. Unlike Germany's, it does not track kids into an apprenticeship when they’re still in high school; unlike more countries than I can name, the U.S. does not allocate college places and careers on the basis of a few high-stakes exams. The educational system and the corporate world, have long had lots of points of entry and re-entry. My sense from talking to managers, and educators, and from looking around my own profession, though, is that this has changed. More and more, everyone is trying to select for a long record of academic perfection, especially at the top. A few years ago, an anonymous hedge fund manager told Keith Gessen that he could never have been hired today:

[I]t would be impossible because I had no background, or I had a very exiguous background in finance. The guy who hired me always talked about hiring good intellectual athletes, people who were sort of mentally agile in an all-around way, and that the specifics of finance you could learn, which I think is true. But at the time, I mean, no hedge fund was really flooded with applicants, and that allowed him to let his mind range a little bit and consider different kinds of candidates. Today we have a recruiting group, and what do they do? They throw résumés at you, and it’s, like, one business school guy, one finance major after another, kids who, from the time they were twelve years old, were watching Jim Cramer and dreaming of working in a hedge fund. And I think in reality that probably they’re less likely to make good investors than people with sort of more interesting backgrounds.

It’s certainly true in journalism, which used to be the sort of thing that Michael Lewis could fall into on a part-time basis, and now requires sterling credentials and a monomaniacal focus on gathering clips. As David Brooks points out, emphasizing academic perfection also means recruiters are selecting for conformity:

If you work in a white-collar sector that attracts highly educated job applicants, you’ve probably been flooded with resumes from people who are not so much human beings as perfect avatars of success. They got 3.8 grade-point averages in high school and college. They served in the cliche leadership positions on campus. They got all the perfect consultant/investment bank internships. During off-hours they distributed bed nets in Zambia and dug wells in Peru.

When you read these résumés, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity. Either they have no desire to chart out an original life course or lack the courage to do so. Shy away from such people.

I think this is a little harsh: Some of my best friends had 4.0s and went to Harvard. They deserve plaudits for not having spent years tormenting their teachers, anguishing their parents and disgracing their families' names. On the other hand, I’d like us to reserve a soft spot for the wanderers who decide to settle down. The reason I started off with my own story was not to plead for my own case -- I’ve safely leaped out of slackerdom. Nor was it to #humblebrag about how hard I work, because it’s not actually that hard to work 16 hours a day if you have a forgiving spouse, no kids and no choice.

I simply wanted to make the point that how hard you worked in high school is not necessarily a good predictor of how hard you will work at the age of 40 -- that the mother fretting about her underachiever may someday be the mother fretting about her workaholic. The child may be father to the man, but the man may not take after that particular parent.

People who have worked hard all their lives are a valuable addition to any company. But people who haven’t quite such a perfect record can also be valuable additions. You probably don’t want a whole firm full of former slackers, because who will make sure the trains run on time? But a firm that’s entirely composed of America’s new mandarins isn’t good, either. Selecting only one type is the HR equivalent of monocropping -- because they’re all vulnerable to the same threats, you risk getting wiped out.

Then, too, you have to ask what kind of society we want to live in. Is it really one where all the goodies are parceled out according to what you did at the age of 16? Yesterday I quoted Adam Smith to the effect that “there’s a lot of ruin in a nation.” There ought to be a lot of redemption in one, too.

To contact the writer of this article:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
James Gibney at +1-202-624-1863 or jgibney5@bloomberg.net.