0123 – laziness as work aversion

I want to talk about the word lazy, which I have come to hate with a passion. I’m biased, because I have often been described as lazy by my family, teachers and peers. I probably wouldn’t have given it this much thought otherwise.

Let’s get to it. What is laziness? Wikipedia says it’s a disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to do so. Synonyms include “idle, indolent, slothful, work-shy, shiftless, loafing, inactive, inert, sluggish, lethargic, languorous, listless”.

Let’s head over to etymonline: lazy (adj.)
1540s, laysy, of unknown origin. Replaced native slack, slothful, and idle as the main word expressing the notion of “averse to work.” In 19c. thought to be from lay (v.) as tipsy from tip. Skeat is responsible for the prevailing modern view that it probably comes from Low German, cf. Middle Low German laisch “weak, feeble, tired,” modern Low German läösig, early modern Dutch leuzig, all of which may go back to the PIE root *(s)leg- “slack.” According to Weekley, the -z- sound disqualifies a connection with French lassé “tired” or German lassig “lazy, weary, tired.


The thing about laziness is that it’s very subtly made out to be the attribute of a person. She’s a lazy person. You’re so lazy. Lazy is who you are. Why are you so lazy? What is wrong with you? It’s a way of policing people’s behaviour. If you don’t do the work that is assigned to you, there is something wrong with you.

Before we continue I’d like to make an observation: people described as lazy are rarely universally lazy. People typically do something. A boy might be lazy in school but work incredibly hard when playing World of Warcraft- a game that requires significant effort, practice, skill, focus.

It’s very telling to me that a person playing WoW instead of doing his homework is often described as lazy- he’s so lazy, he plays games all the time. I find that to be inconsistent. He’s not lazy, he’s work-averse when it comes to schoolwork. Which I think can be rather rational response to the drudgery of school, within a child’s mental framework.

I’m not being prescriptive here. I’m not saying kids should play games or that they should avoid doing homework. I’m trying to describe the situation more accurately so we can so something about it.

If we use the term “work-averse” instead of lazy, we can have much more interesting, useful discussions about people’s motivations and behaviour. Laziness puts the burden entirely on the person. Work-averse makes you think and realise that work-aversion is a phenomenon, like when two like magnets repel each other. School is like a magnet that repels some students, and then we ask those students, why are you so repulsive? And of course, the kid doesn’t really know. He likes world of Warcraft and hates school, and somehow it’s his fault.

Why? Because it’s more convenient to blame the kid (and Warcraft!) than the school. Kids who don’t like school are just a cost of doing business in the broader public education system. Casualties, roadkill, collateral damage. The system can’t afford to humor people who don’t fit. It’s not malicious or evil, it’s just limited.

Ok, I need to refocus my thoughts. My goal in writing this is to persuade you that “lazy” is an overly blunt tool.We do each other a disservice when we use it. It’s useful to sort students out, but it’s not useful if you want to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, if you want to help them self – actualize.

I don’t expect schools to change anytime soon. Some of the frustrations I had as a student were deeply structural, but I didn’t have the mental tools then to make sense of it. I just knew I hated school. Now I know why. I hated the hypocrisy of claiming to teach critical thinking but refusing to be questioned. I hated the idea of examinations where you don’t have access to references, books, the Internet. I can’t think of any genuinely interesting problem that school ever gave me. None of it seemed genuinely practical.

Erm that’s not what i want to talk about. Let’s explore interesting questions. Why are some kids work-averse in school and others not? How do some kids work incredibly hard even if they hate school?

Perception of reality, tradeoffs, utility

I believe it boils down to the student’s perception of reality and imagination of the future. I can think of two sets of students I admire. One is the girl who came from a broken family that was in debt and sometimes didn’t even have electricity. She was hardened by life at a tender age and was supremely determined to kick butt. She envisioned an escape route for herself where she would get her A’s and a scholarship overseas, and she did just that, in spite of her broken environment. She read a lot of books and fashioned herself a unique mental state which kept her driven. She knew she was different from her friends and couldn’t sympathise or commiserate with them. She didn’t let anybody hold her down. She had a personal mission/agenda and she achieved it.

While it’s a lovely story, she’s an exception- most kids from broken homes aren’t able to visualize or conceive of an escape. You can fill in the blanks yourself.

Another example is the kid that very comfortably rides the wave of success. Works hard, has life goals, intelligent high – achieving parents and family members. His mum is a pilot, dad is a doctor. Every Chinese new year he’s surrounded by graduates and PhDs. When this kid goes to school, he too knows he can’t hang out with the “middle” crowd. He has a legacy to live up to. From young, he’s been primed to take that graduation photo at Oxford, like his sister and brother before him. There’s an empty space on the wall where his graduation photo is supposed to be, and he sees it every day when he comes home from school. He also knows of his career prospects. He knows about the differences between Harvard, Stanford and Yale, and he knows which one he wants to go to.

Both of these kids have something in common that I didn’t have: a sense of purpose, a narrative to plug themselves into when the going got tough, something that they had to be responsible for- which would trigger alarm bells in their head if they began to jeopardise it. If you don’t have a vision of the future, if you don’t have a sense of who you are “supposed to be”, then there are no alarm bells. Drink, smoke, be merry. Until, of course, some sort of crisis situation. But you just deal with that, and keep moving along.

Something they don’t really teach you in school is that people have dramatically different perceptions and experiences of reality. When I was a kid, luxury meant swensens ice cream. For some kids, luxury is McDonald’s. Others go to Holland V and have eggs benedict for $25++ after school. Some kids have parents who are lawyers and surgeons, other kids have parents in jail. This affects their perception of reality tremendously, and than in turn affects how they see themselves in the world, and what they think they ought to be doing with their lives, with their time, with any given day.

I have a lot more to say on the matter, and I know a lot of this isn’t entirely accurate or precise, but the point of word vomits is that I blurt things out and edit them later. Let me know your thoughts.

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