Striving, Surviving, Suffering and Slacking

The more I learn about the life stories of others, the more I tend to view mere survival as an accomplishment in the median case. This is an odd view of humanity, but an accurate one for the vast majority. We are misled about the actual difficulty of basic survival because societies are built around highlighting and celebrating the two ways you can react to easy conditions: striving and slacking. Striving leads to accomplishment, which we celebrate by according high status to the accomplished.  Entitlement leads to visibly enjoyed leisure, which we celebrate in a different way, by sanctifying it into a utopian view of the “good life” a given society offers. Societies advertise both by way of marketing themselves. What is generally swept under the civilizational carpet into invisibility are two other behaviors that are responses to hard conditions: surviving and suffering. These four kinds of behavior form a convenient 2×2 on which you can plot your life in a useful way.


The x-axis should be self-explanatory: it takes subjective hardship as a serious thing, but not as an absolute thing. Smarter and dumber on the y-axis refer to intelligence in the sense of capacity for pure Darwinian survival — a Hunger Games definition rather than IQ.  Note that being further north does not make you smarter. It means you’re getting smarter faster. These definitions make the entire diagram subjective.

Striving is getting smarter in good conditions. Surviving is getting smarter in bad conditions. Suffering is getting dumber in bad conditions — a progressive failure to continue existing. Slacking is getting dumber in good conditions.  Try drawing your life on this 2×2. Note that equal intervals of time will not map to equal lengths on the path. The trajectory tracks your story of adaptation, not your story of aging. When it comes to adaptation, as Lenin remarked, there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen.

My trajectory, in narrative terms, breaks down like so: growing up (74-92), college (93-97), MS (97-99), year-off from PhD (2000-2001),   paycheck world (2004 – 2011), free-agent world (2011-present).  Feel free to read what you will into my lifeline.

Here are some notes to help you get oriented. I didn’t put all this into the diagram since that would create way too much clutter, but you can try creating the full kitchen-sink version yourself as homework if you like.

Getting Oriented

  1. Striving and suffering are relatively stable equilibrium conditions, while surviving and slacking are unstable.
  2. If you keep surviving for long enough, you will inevitably be drawn into the striving quadrant. If you keep slacking long enough, you will inevitably be drawn into the suffering quadrant.
  3.  The x-axis is the internal watershed: the dividing line between those in growing and declining mental states.
  4. The y-axis is the societal watershed: the dividing line between celebrated, theatrical elements of a society and the dark underbelly elements
  5. The NW-SE line of symmetry between the two equilibrium quadrants separates net contributors and net drains-on-others in terms of pure systemic survivability.
  6. The SW-NE line represents the path of greatest thriving for a society (a turnpike in an economic sense). Reversing that arrow gives you the path of fastest collapse for a society.
  7. If you’re getting dumber sufficiently fast, you are your own worst enemy and no external events can pull you out of your spiral of hopelessness and despair.  This is the zone of zemblanity sufficiently far south
  8. If you’re getting smarter sufficiently fast, you will accumulate survival resources that make you increasingly immune to the vicissitudes of fate.  This is the zone of serendipity sufficiently far north.
  9. Close to the x-axis,  you aren’t making your own good or bad luck, but external jolts can knock you from one equilibrium to another with high probability. Other people and random life events can snap you from growth to decline mental states easily. Far from this band, you are increasingly master of your own fate, for good or bad.
  10. If we all drew trajectories like I have, you’d get a spaghetti ball of 7 billion trajectories that would tell you whether global society is overall collapsing or thriving.

Some additional notes.


Entitlement is the complacency that accompanies survival as a standard of success under conditions where survival is easy. Because survival has always been, and still is, hard for most of humanity, our expectations of life are calibrated at survival equals success. Being capable of belief in that equation without regard to actual conditions is the kind of fortunate innocent stupidity I usually label cluelessness.

You’ve won the nature-nurture lottery: you were born in great conditions, and are too dumb to react with the existential restlessness that accompanies recognition of your own luck and fuels serious striving. It usually manifests as slacking in the guise of theatrical striving that accomplishes nothing: make-work and bullshit jobs. These are people who would typically be offended if you offered to cash them out of their jobs with exactly the same salary. They prefer the false dignity of make-work to the true leisure of slacking.

These are the Biblical lilies of the field, who toil not, nor do they spin (though they often think they do).

Except I think actual biologists would argue that lilies work very hard sucking up nutrients and turning sunlight into battery power. Keynes’ conception of a leisure society (which he imagined being populated by precisely such lilies) would be a society of the makeworking clueless, not a society of the virtuous like he imagined. I do not think such a society would be stable. Pure cluelessness undermines itself. It would either collapse or thrive (see points 5 and 6).

When you put the clueless into tough survival conditions, they end up sufferingSuffering is the process of painful, progressive failure-to-continue-surviving. What people call a spiral of hopelessness and despair.

Striver Justice

Strivers who enjoy easy survival conditions, but recognize that they are enjoying an exceptional environment, tend to recalibrate the meaning of success. Usually in terms of accomplishment.

Roughly speaking, you are accomplished if whatever you do with your life turns out to have been at least as demanding as mere survival was to your most unfortunate contemporary “mere survivor”. Doing less seems, to the morally sensitive, to be a case of free-riding. To those who don’t navigate by collectivist morality, the condition of doing less than you can seems like a wasted, acting-dead life.

In a slightly moronic form, this can turn into hairshirt sensibilities of self-denial. How can I party while there are people going hungry? This is guilt-driven striving. To the extent that investing in leisure increases the overall effectiveness of the striving, partying-while-people-are-going-hungry is the smart thing to do. Partying to the point where you cross the x-axis is of course the classic start of the spiral of self-destruction.

Strivers often lack an explicit sense of justice and fairness because they are too alive to the nature of Darwinian reality to believe in it. But they often do possess a distinct sense of striver justice: an internal standard that tells them whether or not they are making the most of the luck they have.

Striver justice seems like a weak idea to me.

A more natural understanding is that if you don’t try to maximize your own potential, you are inviting the debilitating, getting-dumber trajectory from slacking to suffering upon yourself. This seems as good a one-life, atheist definition of karma as any.

A brain that is not getting smarter in a survival sense will necessarily get dumber and struggle to survive. Or to put it another way, your environment will get harsher until it hits your survivability threshold.  A fool and his karmic luck are soon parted. Conditions degrade to maximally stress the survival intelligence available.

Deciding to Live

Humans are survival machines. It is surprisingly hard to give in entirely to despair and hopelessness. Something always tends to sneak through. Going by the assumed fragility of the human psyche in many popular theories of psychology, you’d expect a vastly higher rate of suicide than we actually see. Not even trustafarians dumped into adversity after decades of ease are that fragile.

Crossing over from suffering to survival is the moment people call deciding to take charge of your own life. You’re balanced on a knife edge between a spiral of zemblanity and a spiral of serendipity. Deciding to live is exactly the same thing as deciding that getting as smart about survival and adaptation as your genes allow is a good thing.

What triggers this decision is often a non sequitur accidental learning that has no relevance to your life, like spotting a piece of corn in the depths of depression. What this sort of thing does is draw you out of your own head and make you alive to the fact that you are not an ethereal soul-being trapped on earth and waiting to return to heaven. You are a meat-bag survival machine in a material world that you are part of and depend on every second, but which does not depend on your continued existence.


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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I suffered and strived and survived and slacked some during all of my major life chapters. Did you find it difficult to choose a predominate characteristic for each section in your personal life breakdown? And if so, would you favor intensity or longevity as the way to select one in what must be some kind of mixture.

    • I think one of the four elements does play a starring role at any given time, by driving choices. You could be experiencing all four, but what drives your choices? Say you find $100, what do you do?

      Choosing to get temporary pain relief means suffering is dominant.
      A burst of hedonism means slacking is dominant.
      Saving it for a rainy day means survival is dominant.
      Investing it for an immediate productivity booster means striving is dominant.

  2. Really enjoyed this essay. “Conditions degrade to maximally stress the survival intelligence available.”

    Your comment that suffering and surviving are unstable conditions sounds quite hopeful, in a way. If one wises up and learns, and keeps doing this, then eventually striving will replace surviving, probably.

    You also provide a realistic reason to continue striving: if one doesn’t, one then starts getting dumber, and slacking can’t last forever. However, many people hold a goal of eventual slacking – retirement. And often they can continue slacking for the 15-20 years remaining in their life. Suppose sometime in the next few centuries humanity figures out how to live several hundred years. Then I’d bet that maintaining a long-term, stable condition of striving would become even more important.

    • You misread in a more positive way. I said surviving and slacking are unstable. Suffering unfortunately is stable. It accelerates decline and shortens life of course, but you can still live a long, dumb, painful life.

      • Ah, so you did – I think I understood that but then (significantly) misquoted you.

        Even so, I still find the idea hopeful – probably because I think I’m getting smarter, so I think my life is likely to improve. I’ve also known several people who just continued to suck at life, as we used to say in the Army.

        The positive side reminds me of this optimistic quote from William James:
        “Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out. Silently, between all the details of his business, the power of judging in all that class of matter will have built itself up within him as a possession that will never pass away.

        Young people should know this truth in advance. The ignorance of it has probably engendered more discouragement and faint-heartedness in youths embarking on arduous careers than all other causes put together.”

      • Love the 2×2. Funny how it somehow seems informed by “thou shall not slack” convictions. Middle class social reality? Leftovers from a pay check mindset? I love slacking, and strive for a stable state of serendipity. Maybe I could keep oscillating between slacking and striving. I am having trouble in striving in predefined scripts currently though. As well as missing a clear sense of urgency with regards to it.
        People keep throwing money at me. mmm….

        • Slacking at work is a tactical decision about a current situation. I fully endorse it when that’s appropriate, and pretty much endorse that playbook in my Gervais Principle series.

          Slacking at life otoh is an existential risk that usually only ends up with acting dead and eventual terminal misery :) Like Camus said, the only serious philosophical question is that of suicide. Life slackers essentially choose that option even if they don’t actually kill themselves.

  3. Great stuff. You’re on a roll lately. The wisdom of being over the hill maybe.

  4. I suffer from depression and have been on a path of self destruction by doing nothing for way too long now. Calling the south quadrants ‘getting dumber’ is a brilliant observation, my logical skills are as sharp as ever and yet dumb and ever dumber is exactly how I feel; in that Hunger Games sense.

  5. All things considered, I’d prefer to be on the right side of the quadrant. But perpetual striving sounds tiresome to my metaphysical ear. Even if retirement is the equivalent to slacking, as Tim suggests, must thriving be correlated exclusively with striving? Your analogy to the goal of the $100 spend is a useful diagnostic tool for any given period of one’s life; but it seems like the only sustainable choice for the long run is saving it (thus ensuring survival). I don’t intend for my retirement to be an unrelenting quest for hedonic gains; but an occasional rewarding bout of pleasure can motivate the flagging striver. Is thriving merely a matter of avoiding a stable state of suffering by any means available? If slacking inexorably leads to suffering (an irreversible dulling of mental and physical acuity), then perhaps an assured survival — neither the lows of suffering nor the highs of striving — is the best state. Yet another refactoring to wrestle with.

    At least I can state with confidence that these articles, which are a product of your striving, provide me with a “burst of hedonism” that I embrace with gratitude.

  6. The problem is, I’ve never known anyone to stabilize at “survive” or “slack” for a long time. Even if they have money.

    “Retirement” as a social construct, I have nothing to say about. But retirement as a threshold at which you are forced to fit goals to time and capabilities rather than extend time and learn to fit the goal… yeah, I can see that would be a different regime. It’s (hopefully, in the best case), a decline and graceful exit with minimal suffering.

    • I could imagine that being a monk/priest who only has to maintain the expectations of the believers and lives from their gifts ( or taxes is Germany! ) is a way of rent seeking, without the disadvantages of constant striving [1]. The latter may easily bump into a period of exhaustion or depression and then Darwinian selection is not too cute – the kind of competitive game sports which refreshes us in our better times.

      On the other hand, “striving” is a relative concept. For me gathering information, tinkering with concepts, languages, tech etc. is a time but almost a no-energy effort. No schlep involved, only a moon orbiting around a planet.

      [1] In secular societies, universities have or had much of the same function before they turned into institutions of mass education, research management with tight budgets and publication counters for measuring productivity. Instead of a charismatic and slightly detached ivy league, educating the cultural elites who will henceforth engage in worldly affairs, it appears like a host for perpetual make-work for smart people, who need budget monitoring and constant justification – the kind of annoyance we know from working in the industry. In a sense there isn’t even a space for “believers” – a role I’d play voluntarily for the illusion of a true north of the progress of humanity.

  7. As a former consultant, all 2X2’s speak to me. I love the framework that you’ve built here, and can’t help but wonder how you could incorporate self-perceived ‘happiness’ into it? The current assumption seems to place normative value on being a Survivor rather than a Sufferer, or being a Striver rather than a Slacker (i.e. getting smarter as fast as possible seems to be the goal).

    I think that if happiness were graphed on your 2X2 as a Z-axis, it’d be maximized exactly on the X-axis. Unhappiness seems to be the great motivator for ratcheting a person upwards (ex. obsession with self-improvement, perfectionism, Steve Jobs’ism) or downwards (ex: spiral into depression).

    Then again, perhaps what I’m calling ‘happiness’ is actually the same thing as your current Easy vs. Hard criteria. Perhaps the X-Axis measures adversity, and the Y axis is action response, given some level of adversity.

  8. I don’t see how “pure Darwinian survival” is relevant to those of us in the first world. Arguably, pure Darwinian survival is best ensured by instinct and not by intelligence or smartness. But in any case, stable, wealthy, modern societies have solved basic survival problems. As individuals raised in these societies, we simply don’t have to deal with those problems except in extreme cases.

    Those of us who do strive to “improve” ourselves in modern society are inevitably using higher, abstract intelligence in spheres that are not relevant to basic survival. However, as Hawkings put it, there is no guarantee that this intelligence has survival value.

    I know and have met quite a number of slackers in my time. I certainly would not try to talk them out of it by appeal to Darwinian survival. The more intelligent of them would laugh in my face for making such an argument.

    (Note: this perspective comes from a country with universal health care, a generous welfare safety net and minimum wages. Your country might vary.)

  9. “Not only trustafarians dumped into adversity after decades of ease are that fragile.”

    I presume this should be “not even“, given the context?

  10. I am failing to intuit something about this 2×2 and at risk of sounding silly, I’m going to write out my thinking.

    It strikes me as odd that the x-axis is a static, subjective experience while the y-axis is a rate of change. This makes for very unintuitive movement across time to me. It only makes sense to me that motion through time can only possibly move along diagonals:
    – getting smarter should make the same conditions subjectively easier
    – getting dumber should make the same conditions subjectively harder
    – conditions worsening outside your control should require you to get smarter faster to maintain your coordinates
    – conditions getting easier outside your control should require you to get smarter slower (or dumber) to maintain your coordinates

    The other thing that is bugging me is that boundaries aren’t very clear around conditions. It seems to me that conditions could be so bad that there is no amount of smartness that can prevent suffering. As it stands, getting even a little bit smarter over time can pop one into “surviving” no matter how bad things are. That doesn’t ring true to me. The flip side also seems to fly in the face of intuition – another commenter pointed this out that some people have things so easy that they can life-slack through their whole lives without suffering.

    I can mentally correct for these by rotating the 4S quadrants clockwise 90 degrees and assuming conditions change over time (either through smartness-pressure or reality-fiat) and leaving the x and y axes in place. That’s the only way your second point of orientation makes sense to me.

    Please enlighten me and point out why the above makes no sense or is already integrated into the model :)

    • Not sure I understand your confusion, because there IS a time axis, except it’s the intrinsic arc-length parameter of the actual trajectory, as indicated by the time series and arrow direction. As you move through time, conditions can get harder or easier, and you might be getting dumber or smarter faster or slower (decelerating or accelerating in terms of adaptive intelligence, thereby lagging or gaining on the environmental flux on average). I suggest you ignore the extrinsic coordinate system and try to read or draw on the graph with a worm’s eye view: following along the ant on the trajectory and asking what each delta-step (Dx, Dy) signifies. It’s easy to ask the pair of questions: “was I learning faster or losing learning last year?” and “did life get harder or easier last year?” to get at Dx, Dy and then just draw the graph 1 step at a time.

      What is really tricky here, and may be the reason you find this ambiguous, is that this definition of intelligence acceleration is relative to the “intelligence demands” of the adaptive environment. If the environment is getting more complex faster than you can cope, you are not adapting faster, so you are effectively getting dumber faster because you’re draining resources needed to fuel learning. The relativity arises because continued positive-ROI survival is actually necessary for learning to continue. When you run out of saved survival resources, you start running on empty and crashing.

      If you really don’t like it, the solution is to unpack it into two time graphs: S(t) (subjective suffering/hardship with y=0 being neutral) and d2I/dt2(t) which is just an intelligence acceleration graph, where y=0 is stationarity (getting smarter at a steady rate, which may not be enough to beat out an unsteadily changing environment — like getting better at buggy whip making in a world that’s transitioning to cars), y>0 is getting smarter faster through learning and y<0 is getting dumber faster via antilearning. The underlying hypothesis is that when it comes to Darwinian intelligence, more learning makes learning go even faster: the adaptable get more adaptable over time. It's an intelligence acceleration second law in disguise, so to speak. F=ma, where F is environment as forcing function and a is acceleration-demand. If you can't meet the demanded acceleration, you start to fall apart. If you are getting smarter faster than necessary, as humans have been, I suppose you start creating art and philosophy and cartoons.

      This kind of graph where the base parameter like time appears in an intrinsic way, is not super intuitive, but there are useful where they address a special purpose. One of my favorites is the Nyquist plot>, where the parameter in question is frequency, the evil twin of time. It is probably the hardest chart to learn to read in basic control theory, but it is also the most intuitive way to visualize system stability (the equivalent broken-down 2-chart version of the Nyquist plot, with frequency explicitly on the x axis, is the Bode plot)

      • Okay, I think this unknots what was bothering me:

        “What is really tricky here, and may be the reason you find this ambiguous, is that this definition of intelligence acceleration is relative to the “intelligence demands” of the adaptive environment.”

        I was getting hung up on the fact that the Y-axis seemed like it *must* be relative to your position on the X-axis, and I misinterpreted your explanation to mean that it was *not* relative to that.

        Thanks for getting me unstuck… hopefully there’s no invoice headed my way for your consultancy :)

        • The relativity is why disruption is possible in business. The disruptee is getting smarter faster with respect to an environment that is vanishing. The disruptor is getting smarter faster with an emerging one. So even though the disruptor is typically less capable in absolute terms, it wins (absolute terms as in say, the raw bit-size of all the learning accumulated… early car makers new much less about cars than horse breeders knew about horses at that time, for example, but getting smarter about breeding horses was sort of like winning the last war).