Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is the bestselling author of books on business, entrepreneurship, skill acquisition, productivity, creativity, applied psychology, and practical wisdom. About Josh »

Strategic Apathy

In my essay on Status Malfunction, we discussed the problem of allowing the promise of social status to warp our decision-making.

We didn't discuss the solution: making a conscious, deliberate choice to not care about the forms of status that don’t lead us toward the fulfillment of our current priorities or long-term goals.

I call it strategic apathy.


Every day, you’re bombarded with things that other people think you should care about:

A firehose of information asking you to pay attention, to change your mind, to change your plans, to care about what they care about.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to open the gates of your mind and emotions completely: to care about everything that comes your way to the maximum possible extent. To not have the option to not care.

Overwhelm. Anxiety. Horror. Insanity.

In order to function in a world overflowing with information and options, we’re forced to filter. The easiest filters are usually proximity and status: is this close to me, and will this make me look good to others? If so, pay attention. If not, filter it out.

The name of that filter? Apathy. We all use it every day in the service of sanity.

The Benefits Of Apathy

Apathy gets a bad rap, mostly from people who are telling you to care about something important to them. (“Don’t care about XYZ? Shame and guilt be upon you!”) But apathy can be a useful tool if you learn how to wield it.

Here’s an example: if you want to act in effective ways, it’s important to pay attention to your Locus of Control. If you can’t control or influence something, your investment of energy is wasted. Better to invest yourself in things you can change or improve in some way.

There’s a supervolcano that lies dormant under Yellowstone National Park in the US. Geologically speaking, it’s overdue to erupt, causing widespread devastation. Worrying about that possibility would affect what happens in the next 10,000 years by 0% – it’s not in your Locus of Control.

But if you’re worried about it anyway, focusing on what you can do – stocking up on emergency supplies, just in case – is way better than aimless anxiety and rumination. You can control your own actions, so you can choose to act in ways that improve upon any given situation.

So: it’s better to choose to care about things that are important to you AND things that you can influence or control. Choosing not to think or worry about things you can’t influence or control is apathy: strategic apathy. Apathy in the name of sanity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Status & Supervolcanos

That insight – that apathy can be consciously deployed in useful, positive ways – gives us a weapon against status malfunction.

As we discussed, you can never fully eliminate status considerations in your decision-making: it’s a foundational part of the human psyche. But strategic apathy can help ensure the promise of status doesn’t blind you to more important factors.

Here’s how it works: realize that what other people think of you is fundamentally outside of your control. You can influence how people perceive you to a certain extent – that’s why people work to accumulate status signals – but you can never fully control it.

So let’s deploy strategic apathy: what if, for any particular status signal, you consciously chose not to care about it? What would happen? What opportunities and results would you have, and what options would be closed or more difficult?

Instead of blindly assuming the status signal is valuable because status or that it will singlehandedly make you happy (it won’t), take a moment and actually do the calculus. What do you really gain, and what do you really lose?

Someone's Always Caught Up In The Fast Life

Here’s a straightforward example: luxury vehicles. Fancy, fast cars are pure status signals: they’re designed to grab attention, and if you drove them to the full extent of their capability on anything but a closed race track, you’d wind up in jail.

So let’s choose not to care about the flash for a moment: why do you really need a vehicle? What’s the purpose? What valuable results are you looking to produce?

If getting from “Point A” to “Point B” in a safe, reliable manner is the priority, almost any mechanically sound vehicle will do – maybe even a bicycle. Status considerations aside, it’s the exact same end result at a fraction of the price.

Have the money, know you’re buying a status signal, and don’t have other higher priorities? Buy the fancy car guilt-free. Otherwise, strategic apathy about fancy cars is a quick, easy, and painless way to save tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars in malinvestment.

What’s Important To YOU?

Strategic apathy can prevent unwise status-motivated decisions, but it can’t tell you what you do want. What are you working towards? What do you care about? What are you doing right now to move towards those valued ends?

Those are personal questions, and no one can answer them for you.

I can say, however, that these questions are easier to answer (and the ends easier to accomplish) if you take advantage of strategic apathy.

Here’s a question I asked my clients a lot in my consulting days:

“What if you got everything you want, but no one could ever know? All of your dreams come true, but no one will ever be aware of – or impressed by – your efforts or results. How would that feel?”

It’s a very useful question for determining if the end result is meaningful to you in itself, or if you’re primarily interested in the potential status increase associated with that course of action. Once status considerations are isolated, it’s easier to avoid any potential status malfunction.

Automatic Status

Here’s a wonderful thing about human societies: if you pursue important goals in an effective way, you will accumulate a certain amount of social status. That’s just how the human mind operates.

By deploying strategic apathy when appropriate, you’re not really giving anything up: you’re just making it more difficult for the world to distract you with shiny, worthless baubles.

Strategic apathy is a check on your own decision-making: a way to make sure you’re working on what you value long-term instead of what seems enticing on the surface.

So consider this formal permission to be strategically apathetic about fame, fortune, power, awards, recognition, luxury goods, and high position. You don’t have to climb the ladder. You don’t have to impress anyone. You don’t have to “change the world” or dedicate your life to any particular cause just because someone else wants you to.

What do you care about? How do you want to invest your time and energy? What are your priorities? What are your next steps?

Choose to care about the answers to those questions.

Choose to be apathetic about the distractions.

Read more essays by Josh Kaufman »
The Personal MBA
The First 20 Hours
How to Fight a Hydra