The enemy of progress: what is complacency and how can we avoid it?

Adam Maj
8 min readApr 10, 2020

The 19th century was beginning to come to a close, and an unassuming man named George Eastman was in his home, working to create a new contraption which he believed could make a huge difference. His new machine, which he would call a Kodak Black, was the first consumer camera to ever be created.

Back in Eastman’s time, cameras were expensive pieces of equipment that were reserved almost exclusively for professionals. The unwieldy parts and confusing mechanics made it difficult for ordinary consumers to work the devices. However, with Eastman’s new invention, the camera had now become a device not only for professionals but for everyone.

Realizing the value of his creation, Eastman immediately took to creating a company based around his product. He would call the company “Kodak.” Almost immediately after he released his product to the public, Eastman’s company saw rapid growth and success, growing to become the leading global supplier of film stock by 1896, less than a decade after the company's founding.

Fast forward almost a century, and Kodak had become one of the most envied companies on the planet. Known as the pioneer of photography and leader in innovation, the company grew to hold a 90% share of the photographic film market by 1976. At one point, the company got so popular and well known that the phrase “Kodak moment” became a commonly used phrase in the English language. Kodak was clearly one of the most dominant companies in the nation and there was no question that it was there to stay for decades longer. Or so everyone thought…

Contrary to popular expectations, Kodak’s sales began to decline steadily toward the end of the 20th century. Even worse, their competitors started to beat them out with new and more innovative technologies as Kodak slowly faded into the background of the camera industry. Finally, in 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy, marking the official end to the century-long reign of the camera giant (they later rebranded their company and reopened, but Kodak is hardly more than a ghost of what it once was today).

In a matter of a few decades, Kodak went from being on top of the world to utter failure. So you might be wondering — what went wrong here? How did Kodak lose such a huge lead in their industry that they ended up going bankrupt? I would argue that one of the main factors that contributed to Kodak’s failure was complacency.

What is complacency and how did it destroy Kodak?

Complacency alone has been the downfall of countless companies and people in the past.

At its most basic definition, complacency is simply what happens when satisfaction or laziness leads a person or entity to stop trying to improve.

In the case of Kodak, once the company grew to become the largest photography company in the world, they stopped trying to innovate and started to simply try to defend their position as the top company.

Kodak’s key mistake came in 1975. A Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson had created his own new camera product and presented the idea to the leaders of Kodak. They weren’t impressed. Sasson’s invention, the first digital camera to ever be created, was too much for the company which was worried about harming its own sales of film camera’s with the introduction of this new camera model. As a result, they turned Sasson down and ignored his invention.

Soon, competing camera companies realized the potential of the digital camera and adopted the technology, quickly surpassing Kodak and leaving them in the dust. While Kodak was satisfied with their current product and didn’t want change, its competitors immediately jumped at the prospect of innovation and quickly rose to the top.

Kodak failed because it was too content with its own technology to work toward innovation and improvement.

This is the essence of complacency.

Complacency as a barrier to personal growth

Companies are not the only entities that are extremely susceptible to complacency. Individuals can easily fall victim to the mindset and slow down their growth, leading to eventual failure. In order to avoid complacency and optimize for constant growth and improvement, it is important to be aware of what complacency looks like for individuals, how it can affect you, and how you can counteract it.

At an individual level, I would argue that there are a couple of different kinds of complacency which all happen for different reasons and thus, must be addressed differently. I’ll talk about each one, what it is, and how it can be avoided below.

1. Lazy Complacency

This is one of the more commonly found kinds of complacency. It can often stem from an underlying lack of motivation to do work which causes us to delude ourselves into thinking that everything is fine the way it is. This turns into a genuine belief that begins to creep into our lives, causing us to slowly improve less and become more unproductive.

This kind of complacency can be avoided by stepping back and looking at what is causing us not to want to do work and what the benefits of self-improvement could be. It's important to note that avoiding complacency does not mean working all the time or sacrificing enjoyment for improvement. Avoiding complacency is just about making the right decisions that will be the best for you in both the short and the long-term.

In many cases, we will find that being lazy is not going to be the best option for ourselves. This is because self-improvement is a process that leads to many benefits. However, sometimes the right decision is to simply relax and enjoy yourself. In the case of lazy complacency, the important thing is just to think about whether relaxation or improvement will benefit you the most with thoughts about both long-term and short-term outcomes.

2. Arrogant Complacency

This kind of complacency often stems from some kind of achievement or accomplishment. Often, when we achieve something that we deem to be impressive or satisfactory, we turn to sitting around, content with our achievements and seeing further improvement as unnecessary. This kind of mindset specifically is what often allows people who are on top to fall to the bottom.

When you are doing well, achieving your dreams, and accomplishing your greatest dreams, it is very easy to start thinking that you have it all, or that you have accomplished everything that you want to accomplish. This is the mindset causes people to sit around while others who are not yet content to surpass them.

Arrogant complacency can be avoided by actively recognizing when you achieve something that there is still room for growth. This is not to say that you shouldn’t celebrate your successes. It is important to recognize what you have accomplished and be satisfied with what you have done. However, it is also essential that this satisfaction doesn’t lead you to stop your personal growth. There is always room for improvement and growth, and specific accomplishments shouldn’t block your vision of this.

3. Lack-of-Vision Complacency

This kind of complacency is slightly more obvious and thus, is more difficult to detect. It is largely connected with the goals that we set for ourselves and how realistic they are.

Lack-of-vision complacency sets in when we achieve everything that we believe to be our goals and then genuinely believe that there is nowhere else to go. The critical difference between this kind of complacency and arrogant complacency is that with arrogant complacency, we are content with what we have achieved, whereas with lack-of-vision complacency, we genuinely believe that what we have achieved is the best we can do.

The most effective way to avoid this kind of complacency is to have appropriate short-term and long-term goals. These goals don’t have to be very specific, but they can be just enough to keep you moving in the direction that you want to with your life. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, you can always set your goal to be a constant improvement or something along those lines. The key is that your short-term goals are always updating to help you get toward your longer-term goals. That way, you will always have somewhere to keep improving and you won't fall into the trap of thinking that you have nothing more to learn.

Key Takeaways

Hopefully, this article has helped you to recognize some of the different kinds of complacency and will enable you to avoid them. Here are some of the key topics that we touched on:

  • Complacency at its most basic form is what happens when satisfaction or laziness leads to a person or entity to stop trying to improve.
  • Lazy complacency is when we are complacent due to a lack of motivation to work and can be avoided by thinking about the benefits of self-improvement versus relaxation.
  • Arrogant complacency is when we are complacent due to contentment with our own achievements and can be avoided by putting your accomplishments in perspective and recognizing that there is still room to improve.
  • Lack-of-vision complacency is when we are complacent because we believe that we have finished achieving what we want to and can be avoided by redefining our goals or thinking about them more deeply.

Hope this was helpful, thanks for reading!

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I’m Adam, a 17 year old interested in modern technologies like machine learning, quantum computing, and more. I am also interested in training mindsets and mental frameworks.

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