To the people who know me best, I am a bizarre mix of discipline and ineffectuality. I rearrange my fridge daily with the efficiency of a professional Tetris player, but I once vanquished a snake plant after forgetting its monthly hydration needs. Waking up before sunrise poses no challenge for me, yet I lack the patience to cook anything that takes more than seven minutes. Recently, I completed a 16-mile run but scraped my knee in the process, didn’t bother to disinfect the wound, and found a healthy colony of bacteria on my leg the next day.
In many cultures and across many time periods, my minor triumphs would be seen as virtuous, and my habitual idleness might be considered a moral failure. Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. Napoleonic France, the late Ottoman empire, and the contemporary United States have all generally stigmatized laziness and praised industriousness. The notion that a person can embody both of those characteristics might feel incongruous.
Yet because of a linguistic fluke, I have never seen my actions as a problem. I grew up in South Korea, where there are two words that can roughly translate as “laziness”: geeureum and gwichaneum. Geeureum’s connotations are more or less identical to the English—the word bears the same condescension.
But gwichaneum lacks the negative valence. There’s even a kind of jest to it. To feel gwichan (the stem word of gwichaneum, which I’ll use here for simplicity) is to not be bothered to do something, not like it, or find it to be too much effort. The key to understanding the term, however, is how it fits into Korean grammar: You can’t say “Bob is a gwichan person”; you can only say something like “Doing laundry is a gwichan endeavor for Bob.” The term describes tasks, not people. It places the defect within the act. Errands that are gwichan induce laziness in you.
To me, this is not mere verbal trickery. On the contrary, it is an illumination. Gwichan nails what’s wrong with the litany of errands that plague our everyday existence: Many of them don’t merit our devotion.
Thinking about our moments of indolence this way is not a renunciation of responsibility—life still demands that toilets be scrubbed and toddlers be fed. Gwichanism (a popular neologism in Korea) is not an apologia for anti-productivity or anti-work, and the gwichanist will still fulfill their vital life obligations.
You see, gwichanists aren’t unproductive; they’re perhaps meta-productive, interrogating the merit of every undertaking. For example, you wouldn’t call the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who allegedly wrote at least a dozen books and seven tragedies, lazy. But in the presence of Alexander the Great, his only request was that the monarch get out of the way of his sunbathing. He illustrates a key difference between a lazy person and a gwichanist: The former is chronically unmotivated, and the latter is selectively, purposefully unmotivated. In that sense, gwichanism is a kind of controlled slackerism, a conviction that achievement is possible without a type-A personality.
In fact, to me, the downsides of being a go-getter or a lazy person might manifest similarly: Both an overcommitment to all of life’s responsibilities—however petty—and a refusal to commit to any of them can lead to an absence of agency in one’s life. Instead, being a gwichanist might help you reclaim your time. During my mandatory military service in Korea, I chose to cover up scratches on my boots with black marker instead of polishing them. Yes, this was the kind of aggressive corner-cutting that my superiors would have abhorred if they’d been aware of it, but it spared me enough time to read practically all of Vladimir Nabokov’s oeuvre.
The gwichanist philosophy comes with costs. Because of the wide array of tasks that I choose not to bother with, my everyday life sometimes feels comically inefficient. On a recent trip to Europe, I traveled with a portable printer, because I didn’t want to have to find places to print my writing for proofreading. At home, I put pens, Post-its, and legal pads everywhere, because I won’t write anything down if they are not readily available.
What other people find to be worth their effort or not might be arbitrary. But embracing gwichanism allows me to assert the primacy of my preferences, however esoteric. In its ideal form, the gwichanist lifestyle isn’t sloppy so much as breezy. Sure, some tasks just don’t get done. But the ones that matter do.