In (Abashed) Praise of Diligence

Here are a few Proverbs, taken from a half-dozen similar ones:

12:27 The lazy do not roast their game, but the diligent obtain precious wealth.

13:4 The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing, while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

21:5 The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.

(I like the first one especially: “the lazy [can’t even be bothered to] roast their game.” Now that’s lazy.)

I write a lot of reference letters for students hoping to get jobs, get scholarships, get into graduate schools. One of the skills one learns in this craft of reference-letter-writing is signaling to your colleagues when someone isn’t first-rate without actually condemning them outright—for in the glowing, gaseous cosmos of reference letters, anything dimmer than a brilliant letter gets noticed as an implicit “fail.”

Sadly, one of the conventions of such discourse is to use words that sound very good, and are very good, as euphemisms for a deficit, usually a deficit of creativity, insight, and all-round intelligence. And what group of words do we tend to use? “Effort” words, as in the kiss of death phrase, “He deserves an ‘A’ for effort.”

“She is an industrious person.”

“He works very hard.”

And today’s key word: “There’s no question of her diligence.”

You get the message, don’t you? “She’s a dullard.” “He’s a drone.” “We’ll be glad to send along this grinding nuisance to you.” “In fact, you may never be rid of this person, because he doesn’t know when to quit.”

Yet the Proverbs remind us of a vital truth that eviscerates a myth much beloved in our culture. The myth is of the Romantic genius who lolls about on a fainting couch all day and late into the night, sipping stimulating or disinhibiting beverages and snacking on delicacies, deigning to receive the effusions of visiting admirers, and basically just waiting for the lightning bolt of insight to strike. When it does strike, the genius is galvanized into action, and furiously produces an astonishing invention, profound poem, or wondrous painting, after which he deservedly collapses back into repose, to await his muse’s next desultory appearance.

Yeah. Well. The history of everything shows that daily diligence, not rare flashes of creativity, is the way most things get done. Diligence is the real world. Diligence is the Adult Fact that some children learn already through hobbies, music lessons, or sports, while many grown-ups never learn it at all.

Little by little, bit by bit, “line upon line,” day by day. Lao-zi tells us that the longest journey begins with but a single step. The implication is that the longest journey is nothing other than a series of single steps. Most of what matters in the world, from child-rearing to international diplomacy, from learning an art form to establishing a thriving business, is accomplished through diligence.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s endlessly fascinating book Creativity also proves that the thunderstrikes of illumination tend (and tend very, very strongly) to “happen” to people who have already put in the countless hours of learning and practice necessary to receive and recognize the innovative idea. There is no doing without diligence.

I repent, therefore, of my smug little jokes about “industriousness” and “perseverance.” I know better. Most of what I’ve been able to do in my life, such as it is, has come from just putting in the work. There is no substitute for “time on task.” The Romantic myth of the leisurely genius is, indeed, an enticement to sloth, to the easy way rather than the good way.

And now I have to get back to work. Duty calls . . . and that’s fine by me.