Chapter One: The Laziness Lie — CHAPTER ONE — The Laziness Lie
I work in downtown Chicago, just off Michigan Avenue. Every morning, I make my way through throngs of tired commuters and slow-moving tourists, passing at least half a dozen people sitting on street corners asking for change. Many times, I’ve witnessed a suburban-looking parent discouraging their kid from giving money to a nearby homeless person. They say the typical things people say about giving money to homeless folks: they’re just going to spend the money on drugs or alcohol; they’re faking being homeless; if they want to improve their lives, all they need to do is stop being lazy and get a job.
It enrages me to hear people saying these things, because I know surviving as a homeless person is a huge amount of work. When you’re homeless, every day is a struggle to locate a safe, warm, secure bit of shelter. You’re constantly lugging all your possessions and resources around; if you put your stuff down for a second, you run the risk of it getting stolen or thrown out. If you’ve been homeless for more than a few days, you’re probably nursing untreated injuries or struggling with mental or physical illness, or both. You never get a full night’s sleep. You have to spend the entire day begging for enough change to buy a meal, or to pay the fee required to enter a homeless shelter. If you’re on any government benefits, you have to attend regular meetings with caseworkers, doctors, and therapists to prove that you deserve access to health care and food. You’re constantly traumatized, sick, and run ragged. You have to endure people berating you, threatening you, and throwing you out of public spaces for no reason. You’re fighting to survive every single day, and people have the audacity to call you lazy.
I know all of this because I have friends who’ve been homeless. My friend Kim spent a summer living in a Walmart parking lot after a landlord kicked them, their partner, and their two children out of the apartment they all shared. The hardest part of being homeless, Kim told me, was the stigma and judgment. If people didn’t realize Kim was homeless, then they and their kids would be allowed to spend the better part of a day in a McDonald’s, drinking Cokes, charging their phones, and staying out of the oppressive heat. But the second someone realized Kim was homeless, they transformed in people’s minds from a tired but capable parent to an untrustworthy, “lazy” drain on society. It didn’t matter how Kim and their children dressed, how they acted, how much food they bought—once the label of “lazy” was on them, there was no walking it back. They’d be thrown out of the business without hesitation.
Our culture hates the “lazy.” Unfortunately, we have a very expansive definition of what “laziness” is. A drug addict who’s trying to get clean but keeps having relapses? Too lazy to overcome their disorder. An unemployed person with depression who barely has the energy to get out of bed, let alone to apply for a job? They’re lazy too. My friend Kim, who spent every day searching for resources and shelter, worked a full-time job, and still made time to teach their kids math and reading in the back of the broken RV that their family slept in? Clearly a very lazy person, someone who just needed to work harder to bring themselves out of poverty.
The word “lazy” is almost always used with a tone of moral judgment and condemnation. When we call someone “lazy,” we don’t simply mean they lack energy; we’re implying that there’s something terribly wrong or lacking with them, that they deserve all the bad things that come their way as a result. Lazy people don’t work hard enough. They made bad decisions when good ones seemed just as feasible. Lazy people don’t deserve help, patience, or compassion.
It can be comforting (in a sick way) to dismiss people’s suffering like this. If all the homeless people I see on the street are in that position because they’re “lazy,” I don’t have to give them a cent. If every person who’s ever been jailed for drug possession was simply too “lazy” to get a real job, I don’t have to worry about drug policy reform. And if every student who gets bad grades in my classes is simply too “lazy” to study, then I never have to change my teaching methods or offer any extensions on late assignments.
Life, however, is not that simple. The vast majority of homeless people are victims of trauma and abuse;1
most homeless teens are on the street either because homophobic or transphobic parents kicked them out, or the foster system failed them.2
Many chronically unemployed adults have at least one mental illness, and the longer they remain unemployed, the worse their symptoms will generally get and the harder it becomes for employers to consider them as a prospect.3
When a drug addict fails to recover from substance use, they’re typically facing additional challenges such as poverty and trauma, which make drug treatment very complex and difficult.4
The people we’ve been taught to judge for “not trying hard enough” are almost invariably the people fighting valiantly against the greatest number of unseen barriers and challenges. I’ve noticed this in my professional life as well. Every single time I’ve checked in with a seemingly “lazy” and underperforming student, I’ve discovered that they’re facing massive personal struggles, including mental-health issues, immense work stress, or the demands of caring for a sick child or elderly relative. I once had a student who experienced the death of a parent, followed by the destruction of their house in a natural disaster, then the hospitalization of their depressed daughter, all in one sixteen-week semester. That student still felt bad for missing assignments, despite everything she was going through. She was certain people would accuse her of “faking” all these tragedies, so she carried documentation with her everywhere she went to prove that these things had happened to her. The fear of seeming “lazy” runs that deep.
Why do we view people as lazy when they have so much on their plates? One reason is that most human suffering is invisible to an outside observer. Unless a student tells me that they’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, poverty, or caring for a sick child, I’ll never know. If I don’t have a conversation with the homeless person near my bus stop, I’ll never hear about his traumatic brain injury, and how that affects basic daily tasks like getting dressed in the morning. If I have an underperforming coworker, I have no way of knowing that their low motivation is caused by chronic depression. They might just look apathetic to me, when really they’re running on fumes. When you’ve been alienated by society over and over again, you tend to look totally checked out, even if you’re really busting your ass.
The people we dismiss as “lazy” are often individuals who’ve been pushed to their absolute limits. They’re dealing with immense loads of baggage and stress, and they’re working very hard. But because the demands placed on them exceed their available resources, it can look to us like they’re doing nothing at all. We’re also taught to view people’s personal challenges as unacceptable excuses.
Zee is reentering the job market after years of combating a heroin addiction. He’s been hard at work fighting his addiction in rehabilitation programs, learning life skills in group therapy, and rebuilding his sense of self by doing volunteer work. Yet when potential employers look at Zee’s résumé, all they see is a gap in employment that’s several years wide, which makes it seem like Zee spent all that time doing nothing. Even some of Zee’s family and friends think of those years of recovery as wasted time. We know that drug addiction is a behavioral and mental disorder, and we know that statistically, most people attempt sobriety several times before they succeed. Yet we tend to view people with substance-abuse disorders as if they’re morally responsible for having them, and as if every relapse is a choice they gleefully made.5
This isn’t just true of how we view and judge other people; we also do this to ourselves. Most of us tend to hold ourselves to ridiculously high standards. We feel that we should be doing more, resting less often, and having fewer needs. We think our personal challenges—such as depression, childcare needs, anxiety, trauma, lower back pain, or simply being human—aren’t good enough excuses for having limits and being tired. We expect ourselves to achieve at a superhuman level, and when we fail to do so, we chastise ourselves for being lazy.
We have all been lied to about laziness. Our culture has us convinced that success requires nothing more than willpower, that pushing ourselves to the point of collapse is morally superior to taking it easy. We’ve been taught that any limitation is a sign of laziness, and therefore undeserving of love or comfort. This is the Laziness Lie, and it’s all around us, making us judgmental, stressed, and overextended, all while convincing us that we’re actually doing too little. In order to move past the Laziness Lie, we must confront it and dissect it so we can see the poisonous influence it has exerted on our lives, our belief systems, and how we relate to other people.
What Is the Laziness Lie?
The Laziness Lie is a belief system that says hard work is morally superior to relaxation, that people who aren’t productive have less innate value than productive people. It’s an unspoken yet commonly held set of ideas and values. It affects how we work, how we set limits in our relationships, our views on what life is supposed to be about.
The Laziness Lie has three main tenets. They are:
- Your worth is your productivity.
- You cannot trust your own feelings and limits.
- There is always more you could be doing.
How do we get indoctrinated with the Laziness Lie? For the most part, parents don’t sit their kids down and feed them these principles. Instead, people absorb them through years of observation and pattern recognition. When a parent tells their child not to give a homeless person money because that homeless person is too “lazy” to deserve it, the seed of the Laziness Lie is planted in the kid’s brain. When a TV show depicts a disabled person somehow “overcoming” their disability through sheer willpower rather than by receiving the accommodations they deserve, the Laziness Lie grows a bit stronger. And whenever a manager questions or berates an employee for taking a much-needed sick day, the Laziness Lie extends its tendrils even further into a person’s psyche.
We live in a world where hard work is rewarded and having needs and limitations is seen as a source of shame. It’s no wonder so many of us are constantly overexerting ourselves, saying yes out of fear of how we’ll be perceived for saying no. Even if you think you don’t fully agree with the three tenets of the Laziness Lie, you’ve probably absorbed its messages and let those messages affect how you set goals and how you view other people. As I break down each of these statements, consider how deeply they’re ingrained in your psyche, and how they might influence your behavior on a day-to-day basis.
Your Worth Is Your Productivity
When we talk to children and teenagers about the future, we ask them what they want to do
—in other words, what kind of value they want to contribute to society and to an employer. We don’t ask nearly as often what they’re passionate about, or what makes them feel happy or at peace. As adults, we define people by their jobs—he’s an actor, she’s a mortician—categorizing them based on the labor they provide to others. When a formerly productive person becomes less so due to injury, illness, tragedy, or even aging, we often talk about it in hushed, shameful tones, assuming the person has lost a core part of their identity. When we don’t have work to do, it can feel like we don’t have a reason to live.
It makes complete sense, of course, that many of us think and talk in these ways. In our world, a comfortable, safe life is far from guaranteed. People who don’t (or can’t) work tend to suffer; unemployed and impoverished people die at much younger ages than their employed or middle-class peers.6
Since we live in a world that’s structured around work, not working can leave a person socially isolated, exacerbating whatever mental and physical health problems they might be dealing with.7
The stakes of not being productive are dire. As a result, many of us live in a constant state of stress about our financial and professional futures—which means feeling a ton of anxiety about how much we’re working.
Michael is a bartender. He lives in fear that he’s not working enough. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a working-class Italian family that dealt with a lot of dysfunction and mental illness. He carved out a life for himself despite all that, and learned a skill that’s always in demand. Now he can’t say no to a job. When you’re a talented bartender in Chicago, you get asked to cover a lot of people’s shifts. Michael snaps up every job offered to him, hopping from bar to bar all across the city, even if it means getting only a couple of hours of sleep in the wee hours of the morning. It took me weeks to even schedule an interview with him because his schedule was so overfilled.
“My entire life has been burnout,” Michael tells me. “When I owned my own bar, I worked ninety hours a week, every week. I was sleeping on the floor of the men’s bathroom at night. I was booking the events, writing the food menu, writing the cocktail menu, getting orders from our suppliers, and doing the actual bartending. Then the bar went under, and I had to start taking whatever other jobs came my way.”
Michael has always lived this way. As a teenager, he was a ballet dancer. The unforgiving, workaholic world of ballet taught him to fill every waking hour with training and practice, and to ignore any signs that his body was breaking down. He carried that same level of commitment into the adult world, where he’s worked without relent for decades. Even when he travels, he puts out feelers for bartending shifts he can pick up while he’s in town. He’s never known a break. He keeps a meticulous spreadsheet of his hours and earnings, and the figures are mind-boggling.
“I worked three hundred eighty hours this March,” he tells me. For reference, a standard forty-hour workweek adds up to about 160 hours per month.
The consequences of Michael’s compulsive work habits mirrored mine and Max’s in many eerie ways. A few years ago, when the bar Michael owned was failing, stress caused him to start vomiting blood. He also developed a nasty chill that would overtake him every evening, as would happen with me. Yet he kept pushing through his illness, hoping that by working harder, he could save his business.
Those of us who are particularly lucky get to retire after years of living this way. But because we’ve been taught to make work the center of our identities, we don’t know how to handle the change of pace. Retired people often become depressed and see their lives as devoid of purpose.8
Like unemployed people, retired folks often report feeling directionless and lonesome. Their isolation and lack of daily structure can make them sick, putting them at an elevated risk of heart disease.9
Many of us spend our entire adult lives dreading this period of life, or we put it off by continuing to work past the point that’s healthy for us.10
When the coronavirus hit Chicago and all the bars shut down, Michael was immediately overtaken by panic and dread. He had worked nearly every day of his adult life, and with the bars closed, he had no idea what to do with himself or how he would go about making money. So, he set out to open a speakeasy in an empty storefront in the city. He knew a lot of other service-industry folks, and some of them knew which vacated buildings he could sneak into to set up an illegal bar. Many of Michael’s non-service-industry friends were shocked that he would put his life and his friends’ lives at risk in this way, exposing himself and everyone he knew to the virus by opening up shop. Eventually, someone persuaded him to reconsider.
While I was also dismayed by Michael’s speakeasy plan, I understood why it made sense to him. Life had forced him to be self-sufficient, and his only escape from adversity was to work hard without consideration for how much it might hurt him. Work had already made Michael puke blood in the past; from his perspective, risking acute respiratory syndrome didn’t seem all that different.
Two weeks into social distancing, Michael texted me: “I can’t wait to have a damn job again. This is the most time off I’ve had since I was fourteen, and I’m going crazy.”
Lots of us are like Michael, even if our choices don’t always look as extreme. We’re unable to cut back on work, always reflexively taking on new responsibilities out of a compulsive fear that if we don’t, our lives will fall apart. We’ve had to trade our health for our financial or professional well-being, choosing between getting adequate time for rest, exercise, and socializing and logging enough hours to get by. Tragically, many of us do this not out of paranoia but because we know just how economically vulnerable we really are. An international disaster like COVID-19 only convinced Michael he was smart to have overworked as much as he did in the past. If he hadn’t, he would have had an even smaller financial nest egg to survive on.
Chronic overcommitters are experts at ignoring their bodily needs. Our economic system and culture have taught us that having needs makes us weak, and that limits are negotiable. We learn to neglect ourselves and see health as a resource we can trade for money or accomplishments. This brings us to the second tenet of the Laziness Lie: that we cannot trust our own feelings of exhaustion or sickness, and that none of our limitations are acceptable.
You Cannot Trust Your Own Feelings and Limits
Eric Boyd is a successful fiction writer, but he struggles constantly with the fear that he’s going to screw up and lose everything. His fear comes from a very reasonable place: before he became an author, he was in prison. He knows, more intimately than most of us, that the comfort and security his work has brought him could dry up at any moment. As someone with a prison record, he can’t dive into the workforce with the same ease that many of us can. So even though his schedule is filled with speaking engagements, teaching opportunities, and paid writing gigs, Eric keeps signing up to participate in paid clinical trials and other side hustles. He never says no to a writing or performance opportunity, even if it means traveling in the middle of the night from one city to another. He still fears that if he doesn’t keep pushing himself to the limit, he will descend into laziness and never recover.
I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of overworked people, and this fear is one almost all of them share. The people who log the most hours, who run themselves the most ragged, who say yes far more often than is actually sustainable for them are the ones who most suspect that they’re “lazy.” They seem plagued by the fear that deep down they’re selfish, needy, and unmotivated. It may sound like a paradox, but it’s a core part of the Laziness Lie—perhaps the one with the most dangerous consequences.
The Laziness Lie tells us that we’re all at risk of becoming slothful and unaccomplished, and that every sign of weakness is suspect. It has many of us convinced that deep down we’re not the driven, accomplished people we pretend to be. That the only way to overcome our selfish, sluggish instincts is to never listen to our bodies, never give ourselves a break, and never use illness as a reason to slow down.
This aspect of the Laziness Lie teaches us to fear and loathe our own basic needs. Feeling tired? That isn’t a sign that you need sleep; you’re just being lazy. Having trouble focusing on something complicated? It’s not because you’re distracted and overwhelmed, it’s the opposite! You actually need to be taking more on in order to keep yourself sharp! Do you find yourself hating a job you once loved? You’re just being a baby. You need to push yourself harder to overcome how shamefully unmotivated you’re feeling.
When we buy into this belief system, it becomes very difficult to identify our needs and advocate for ourselves. Back in 2014, when I was debilitatingly sick, I found myself doubting my illness at times. I’d wonder if I was somehow making the fevers up in my mind and secretly manipulating my friends and loved ones into feeling sorry for me. Even my doctor doubted I was as sick as I said I was. He made me record my temperature every evening, in a little journal that I brought to his office. We both discovered I’d been running a fever of 103 degrees nearly every evening. Even then, I still felt guilty about being such a bother. I couldn’t understand why willpower wasn’t enough to make me well.
Our bodies and minds have many early alert signals that warn us about oncoming colds, hunger, dehydration, or mental fatigue. If you wake up with a sore throat or a sour taste in your mouth, you can plan ahead, rest up, and nip a virus in the bud. If you find yourself distracted by persistent thoughts of food, it might remind you to grab a snack instead of waiting for full-blown hunger pangs to come.11
And if reading a single page in a book is too mentally taxing, you can take that as a sign that your brain needs to do something more relaxing for a while.
According to the Laziness Lie, however, these are not useful warning signs—they’re deceptions. You don’t need a snack, a cup of tea, or a languid Sunday in bed. Those are just your worst impulses, trying to tempt you into behaving badly. The Laziness Lie encourages you to ignore your body’s warnings, push through discomfort, and ask for as few accommodations as possible. And at the end of all that struggle and self-denial, there’s no reward. You never actually earn the right to take it easy, because the Laziness Lie also teaches you that you can never, ever do enough.
There Is Always More You Could Be Doing
The Laziness Lie encourages us to aspire to an impossible level of productivity. It sets us up to expect full, eight-hour workdays of unbroken focus, followed by evenings filled with exercise, Instagram-worthy home-cooked meals, and admirable side projects. According to the Laziness Lie, a worthwhile person fills their days in ideal, industrious ways. They don’t skip doctor’s appointments, fail to get their oil checked, or miss days at the gym. If someone lacks the energy to make it to the polls on Election Day because they just finished working a grueling third-shift job, the Laziness Lie says they’re to blame for everything going politically awry in this country. When a part-time student doesn’t have the mental energy to study after caring for her children all day, the Laziness Lie says she isn’t smart enough or virtuous enough to get a college degree.
There’s no limit to what the Laziness Lie will do to persuade us that we need to be doing. Our aspirations can climb and climb, but they’ll never hit the ceiling, because the ceiling doesn’t exist. If you’re a diligent employee, the Laziness Lie will berate you for not volunteering more often, or for not doing enough for your family and friends. If you devote your life to serving other people and meeting their needs, the Laziness Lie will point out that you’re not working out enough, or that your home is a mess. If you win a massive award or hit some other life-changing milestone, the Laziness Lie will smile politely and say, “That’s very nice. But what do you plan to do next?”
We’re all taught to take immense pride in our achievements, but we’re also discouraged from resting on our laurels when we do accomplish something great. No level of success grants a person the social permission to stop and catch their breath. We’re forever left wondering What’s next? What else?
The Laziness Lie teaches that the harder you work, the better a person you are, but it never actually defines what an acceptable level of “hard” might look like. By forever moving the goalpost and never actually allowing a person to be vulnerable and have needs, it’s setting us up for failure right from the start.
This past year, my mom suffered a hip injury that would not heal. Instead of resting and attending physical therapy, she kept aggravating the injury by standing all day long at her job as a dental hygienist. She kept dragging herself to work for weeks (which became months) even though it was clear her body couldn’t sustain it.
It got harder for my mom to walk or stand, and she was starting to dread going into the office. Still, she kept putting off retirement. She’d been a dental hygienist for over forty years, she kept reiterating to me; it was who she was, the only job she’d ever done as an adult. So the inevitable kept getting delayed, until my mom’s pain got so intense that she had no choice but to call in sick for every shift she had on the schedule. Instead of being the planned, scheduled affair she wanted it to be, my mom’s retirement became an emergency decision, announced to her coworkers via text message.
The Laziness Lie kept my mom from admitting to herself that it was time to stop working. It keeps many of us from taking the time we need to recoup, or from spending our younger, typically healthier years doing things we genuinely love. So many of my friends and loved ones are hurting themselves in similar ways, leaving their health, relationships, and years of their lives as offerings at the altar of hard work. This is what the Laziness Lie has done to us. It has made us terrified of living at a slower, gentler pace.
This understanding of the world has left many of us constitutionally incapable of caring for ourselves, let alone extending full compassion to others. What’s worse, the Laziness Lie is so deeply ingrained in our culture and our values that many of us never think to question it. To fully appreciate its far-reaching impact and how it became so integral to our culture, we have to look back centuries, into the origins of capitalism.
Where Does the Laziness Lie Come From?
The Laziness Lie is deeply embedded in the very foundation of the United States. The value of hard work and the evils of sloth are baked into our national myths and our shared value system. Thanks to the legacies of imperialism and slavery, as well as the ongoing influence that the United States exerts on its trade partners, the Laziness Lie has managed to spread its tendrils into almost every country and culture on the planet.
The word “lazy” first appeared in English around 1540; even back then, it was used in a judgmental way to mean someone who disliked work or effort.12
Many etymologists believe it came from either the Middle Low German lasich
, which meant “feeble” or “weak,”13
or from the Old English lesu
, which meant “false” or “evil.”14
These two origins illustrate the odd doublespeak at work whenever we call someone lazy. When we say someone is lazy, we’re saying they’re incapable of completing a task due to (physical or mental) weakness, but we’re also claiming that their lack of ability somehow makes them morally corrupt. It’s not that they’re tired or even dispirited in some way we might sympathize with; the word implies that they’re failures on a fundamental, human level. The idea that lazy people are evil fakers who deserve to suffer has been embedded in the word since the very start.
One of the major factors that caused the Laziness Lie to spread throughout the United States was the arrival of the Puritans. The Puritans had long believed that if a person was a hard worker, it was a sign that God had chosen them for salvation. Hard work was believed to improve who you were as a person. Conversely, if a person couldn’t focus on the task at hand or couldn’t self-motivate, that was a sign that they had already been damned.15
This meant, of course, that there was no need to feel sympathy for people who struggled or failed to meet their responsibilities. By lacking the drive to succeed, they were displaying to the world that God hadn’t chosen them for Heaven. When the Puritans came to colonial America, their ideas caught on and spread to other, less pious colonists.16
For many reasons, a belief system that judged and punished the “lazy” was about to become very popular—and politically useful.
Colonial America relied on the labor of enslaved people and indentured servants.17
It was very important to the colonies’ wealthy and enslaving class that they find a way to motivate enslaved people to work hard, despite the fact that enslaved people had nothing to gain from it.18
One powerful way to do so was through religious teachings and indoctrination. A productivity-obsessed form of Christianity evolved from the older, more Puritanical idea that work improved moral character, and it was pushed on enslaved people. This form of Christianity taught that suffering was morally righteous and that slaves would be rewarded in Heaven for being docile, agreeable, and, most important, diligent.19
On the flip side, if an enslaved person was slothful or “lazy,” there was something fundamentally corrupt and wrong with them.20
Enslavers made it a point to keep enslaved people as busy and exhausted as possible out of fear that idle time would give them the means to revolt or riot.21
Even more disturbing, enslaved people who tried to run away from bondage were seen as mentally ill and suffering from “runaway slave disorder.”22
By not accepting their proper role in society, they were demonstrating that they were broken and disturbed. This worldview became the foundation for American capitalism.23
The Laziness Lie had been born. It would quickly spread to other marginalized people, including indentured servants, poor white laborers, and Native Americans who had been forced into government boarding schools.24
These exploited groups were also taught that working hard without complaint was virtuous, and that desiring free time was morally suspect. As the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of the country, with more and more Americans working long hours in manufacturing plants, the Laziness Lie was pushed even more. The wealthy and highly educated began to claim that poor whites also couldn’t be trusted with “idle” time. In fact, too many breaks could make a person antisocial.25
Propaganda from that time often claimed that if the working poor weren’t kept busy, they would resort to crime and drug use, and society would run amok.26
Laziness had officially become not only a personal failing but a social ill to be defeated—and it has remained that way ever since.
We can see the dogma of the Laziness Lie in popular media from that period as well. In the late 1800s, the writer Horatio Alger published numerous stories in which struggling, impoverished characters were able to rise into the upper classes through hard work. The popularity of these books led to the idea that poor people simply needed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they wanted to live a comfortable life.27
In the 1950s and beyond, Evangelical preachers promoted a similar idea with the Prosperity Doctrine, which claimed that if a person devoted their life to serving Jesus, they would be rewarded with bountiful job opportunities, wealth, and success.28
In the decades that followed, the Laziness Lie found its way into countless films, plays, and TV shows. From the national myths of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed to the strong, independent cowboys on the silver screen to the memoirs of entrepreneurs like Conrad Hilton, one of the most prevalent legends in American culture became the tale of the single-minded, hardworking man who had created his own success and changed society through sheer force of will.29
In these stories, the hero is always a strong white man who doesn’t need the support of anyone else; he’s usually a bit of a social island, with no close connections to other people and a disregard for society’s rules in general. In every way, he’s the picture of independence, and it’s through his strong personality and doggedness that he succeeds. These myths, though inspiring and appealing to many, carried with them a dark implication: if a person didn’t succeed, it was because they weren’t doing enough.
For people who believe in the Laziness Lie, things like economic reform, legal protections for workers, and welfare programs seem unnecessary. Those who want to succeed just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, after all. Research from the past three decades consistently shows that a majority of Americans do, in fact, think this way. For many of us, our first instinct is generally to blame a person for their own misfortune, especially if we can pin that misfortune on laziness.30
Research also shows that when we believe the world is fair and people get what they deserve, we’re less likely to support social welfare programs and have less sympathy for poor people and their needs.31
Much like the parents I’ve seen discouraging their children from giving money to homeless people, many Americans believe that generosity, compassion, and mutual aid is “wasted” on the lazy. Furthermore, if we believe the world was created solely by independent people, we may come to think that there’s no need for us to be interdependent and compassionate. We may even come to see relying on other people as a threat to progress.
Decades of exposure to the Laziness Lie has had a massive effect on our public consciousness. It’s made many of us critical of other people and quick to blame the victims of economic inequality for their own deprivation. It’s made us hate our own limitations, to see our tiredness or desire for a break as signs of failure. And it has created an intense internal pressure to keep working harder and harder, with no limits and no boundaries. The rise of social media and digital work tools has only made these pressures harder to escape.
The Laziness Lie Is Everywhere
Much like the Horatio Alger novels of the past, today’s popular media still teaches us to worship hard work and look down on the lazy. From the films we watch to the YouTube videos that keep us company on our lunch breaks, we’re inundated with stories that praise diligence and individualism. Some of today’s most popular celebrities promote the idea of themselves as “self-made” entrepreneurs rather than extremely privileged and fortunate tycoons. Our fictional heroes overcome evil and accomplish their dreams because they possess unique levels of drive and dedication, not because they support and are supported by other people. Conversely, characters who face limitations and personal challenges such as physical disabilities or mental illness are almost always portrayed as villains or comical side characters deserving of pity but not respect.32
John Wick has become an iconic action film character because he defeats throngs of enemies almost entirely on his own, and he’s never able to settle into the retirement he keeps promising himself. Many stories about assassins, spies, and supersoldiers follow a similar trajectory, portraying the lives of steely, serious men who just can’t seem to give up their jobs, no matter how horrific they are and how much they brutalize them. From Blade Runner
to The Usual Suspects
, some of America’s most classic and iconic action films feature characters who, like Wick, keep putting off retirement for the sake of pursuing one last job.33
That last job never actually ends up being the last one, of course. There’s always a sequel, featuring new opportunities with even higher stakes.
In Avengers: Endgame
, Thor is made a laughingstock because he responds to an intergalactic disaster by becoming withdrawn, alcoholic, and lazy. The film also puts the actor in a fat suit, using his fatness to both indicate and mock how much worse his life has become. In the narrative of the film, it doesn’t matter that Thor has lost dozens of friends and watched an unimaginable disaster ripple throughout the universe. That’s not enough of an excuse for him to descend into a nonproductive, suffering state. A perfectly normal reaction to trauma and grief is rendered mockable and pathetic, and countless fat viewers end up insulted and dehumanized in the process, as do viewers with depression or addiction issues.
This obsession with the strong individualist character has permeated our culture for decades. Films like The Matrix
, Star Wars
, and the Harry Potter series all emphasize the importance of their lead characters’ being “chosen ones” who must sacrifice everything in order to defeat evil. These characters may have support networks and sidekicks who help them through the story, but when the final moment of triumph comes, they’ve almost always had to suffer and struggle alone to earn it. They’re told they possess a unique ability no one else has, and they have no choice but to use that ability to save the world. This teaches viewers that our skills and talents don’t really belong to us; they exist to be used. If we don’t gladly give our time, our talents, and even our lives to others, we aren’t heroic or good.
Many of the most popular children’s TV shows of the moment, such as Dragon Ball Super
and My Hero Academia
, also focus on relentlessly hardworking people who exert themselves to the point of injury or pain. I used to watch an earlier version of Dragon Ball
as a kid, and I identified with the characters who pushed themselves nearly to death for the sake of winning battles. Young children were regularly depicted as sustaining bloody, painful injuries on that show, yet they always continued to fight. At the time, I admired their dedication and wanted to be tough just like them. As an adult, I’m pretty horrified by the violence and outright child abuse that’s being celebrated on shows like those as “hard work.” Even more morally complex, modern children’s shows like Steven Universe
and Avatar: The Last Airbender
still teach children that it’s up to a singularly motivated individual to save the world. If that person has to sacrifice everything in order to do their job, so be it. In reality, of course, fighting for change is a much more gradual, collaborative process.
Instagram influencers and popular YouTubers are also major peddlers of the Laziness Lie. YouTube videos by major “influencers” like Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson are filled with talk about how hard the creators are working and how much they’ve sacrificed to earn their success. Their obscene levels of wealth are always attributed to their effort, not good luck. Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner have spent years (and multiple TV shows) portraying themselves as entrepreneurs, attributing their massive wealth and fame to the fact that they never stop hustling and looking for new opportunities. When the Instagram influencer, model, and comedian Rickey Thompson became famous enough to sell merchandise (around the time he hit four million followers), the first item he revealed was a T-shirt with his catchphrase “Booked and Busy” printed on the front.34
These massively popular figures cannot stop hammering home the importance of remaining “busy.” It’s the constant narrative theme in their lives and work.
Video game and comedy YouTubers often dabble in the same themes, talking about how devoted they are to their fans and how much time they’re putting into each project. Some streamers regularly fall asleep on camera, because their devotion to constantly generating content runs that deep.35
Some performers stay on camera for more than twenty-four hours at a time. In one infamous case, a streamer died on camera due to sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. He had been streaming for twenty-two straight hours at the time of his death.36
In some ways, it can be positive for children and other viewers to hear from self-made successes on a regular basis. Social media has democratized who gets to be famous and successful—to an extent. Sometimes Black, queer twentysomethings like Rickey Thompson genuinely do ascend to fame and wealth because they produce excellent videos and work very hard. Yet for every Rickey Thompson there’s a Jeffree Star, a massively successful YouTuber and makeup magnate who lives in an opulent mansion while his employees toil away in his warehouses, making the products that earned him his wealth.
When massively successful stars attribute their good fortune entirely to how diligently they’ve worked, they set people up to have unrealistic expectations about the odds of success, and how wealth is actually meted out in this country. This is especially troublesome when the work habits being promoted are excessive and dangerous. Our media has a selection bias built into it: we rarely get to hear from the people who worked equally hard but failed or lost everything because of it.
The musical comedian Bo Burnham (whose career started on YouTube) describes this phenomenon very well: “Don’t take advice from guys like me who’ve gotten very lucky. Taylor Swift telling you to follow your dreams is like a lottery winner saying ‘Liquidize your assets! Buy Powerball tickets! It works!’?”37
Our media rarely shows people setting limits, asking for help, or devoting their lives to the things that make them feel happy and safe. Of course, it’s much harder to tell a story about a happy person with a fulfilling, healthy life than it is to show violence, toil, and struggle. Strong, independent heroes are captivating to so many of us because we long to have the power and dedication they possess. As much as I’m troubled by the themes in many of these stories, I still get a rush from watching John Wick murder throngs of enemies with only a library book and sheer force of will. Still, there’s a real social cost to the fact that we’re taught time and time again that we should never give up or ask for help, when there are many times that a person needs and deserves a break.
It’s not just popular media that teaches us to work relentlessly without stopping. The Laziness Lie is also promoted in our schools. Our modern-day educational system was formulated during the Industrial Revolution, and was designed to train students for employment in warehouses and manufacturing plants.38
Today, the structure of the school day remains remarkably similar to the structure of the average workday. There are rigid schedules and arbitrary deadlines that don’t take into account what else is going on in a student’s life. Absences or changes in the routine can get a child in trouble. Children who struggle to focus or sit still for eight hours are treated as problems to be minimized. Students who aren’t naturally gifted in a subject are given less attention and support; so are kids who don’t fit the stereotype of what a “talented” student looks like because of their gender, race, or socioeconomic status.39
Some people thrive in the standard academic environment. Those of us who have an easy time sitting still and following directions can flourish, receiving praise and encouragement every step of the way. However, a large number of young people are instead given the message that they’re not good enough, don’t work hard enough, and are destined for failure.
At Loyola University Chicago, the students I teach are working adults. Many of them enrolled in college as eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds, but then something got in the way of their graduating “on time.” They got pregnant, fell ill, or had to quit school to take care of a dying parent. Sometimes they just couldn’t focus on school or didn’t see the point in it. Unfortunately, many of my students absorbed the idea that they’re to blame for the challenges they faced. Many think they were just too “lazy” to finish school the first time around.
A few years ago, I was approached after class by an adult student named Maura. She had a couple of facial piercings and dyed hair—just like me. She had just gotten a new tattoo and wanted to show it to me. We talked for a bit about piercing and tattoos, and concerts we’d been to; she and I had a ton in common. Then she asked me how old I was. It turned out we were the same age. As soon as Maura realized this, she immediately started berating herself for having “not done much” with her life compared to me. She did it in a joking way, but I could tell it was coming from a place of genuine insecurity.
I do a similar thing when I discover a successful person who’s younger than me. Because I’ve been taught to constantly measure my accomplishments and see how they stack up against somebody else’s, I feel threatened when a person seems to be “ahead” of me, yet I don’t tend to evaluate other people’s lives in that way.
I started asking Maura about what she’d been doing throughout her twenties. I learned that she’d managed a large retail store for several years while taking classes part-time and raising a child. She also had several roommates, all of whom were younger than her, and often found herself falling into the mom role for them. She had to drive them to work when their cars broke down and look after them when they got sick. On top of all that, Maura’s ex-husband was in the military, and for years Maura had traveled with him, unable to find a job on the bases where they lived.
Maura had clearly lived a rich, responsibility-filled life. Her twenties had been much more interesting and challenging than my own, yet she believed she’d done “nothing” with all that time. She was a more mature, well-rounded person than I was. I tried to tell her as much, but I’m not sure she believed me. After all, she’d been told by many professors at that point that she wasn’t applying herself or trying hard enough. At the same time she was taking my class, Maura was failing another course because her professor wouldn’t let her retake an exam she’d missed because of an emergency at her job.
Like so many of my adult students, Maura seemed sleep-deprived and checked-out from time to time. But from speaking with her, I realized it was because she had so much on her plate. It’s easy for a teacher to mistake exhaustion for apathy or lack of motivation, yet I almost always find that when I sit down with students who seem unmotivated, they’re impressively productive people who fill their days with full-time jobs, self-improvement, and service to others. Despite all of this, many of my most dedicated students believe they’re lazy. Often it’s because some teacher in their past berated them for circumstances beyond their control.
The Laziness Lie has also followed us into our homes and private moments. Digital technology and social media fill our spare time with e-mails from coworkers, stressful notifications about appointments we’ve forgotten, and guilt-ridden messages about what our bodies, homes, and lives ought to look like. Digital work tools have made it possible for many of us to work from home, but rather than making our lives easier, this has created the pressure to be constantly available to our employers. We get our news from phone apps and social media sites rather than printed papers, making it harder than ever to get away from upsetting images and distressing information. Even the online spaces that are supposed to bring us pleasure and entertainment, such as Instagram and TikTok, guilt us with advertisements for weight-loss products, intricate home-improvement projects, and complicated beauty regimens. Everywhere we turn, we’re told we’re not enough. And when we finally disconnect from this constant stream of shame and pressure, we often feel guilty for “disappearing” on our colleagues, family, and friends.
Why You Feel Lazy
When I tell someone I don’t believe laziness exists, a funny thing usually happens. The person will almost always try to argue with me about how lazy and terrible they are. They’ll admit to me that yes, of course other people who are judged for being “lazy” are actually very hardworking. And yes, a lot of the time seemingly nonproductive people are dealing with tons of legitimate barriers and challenges—but, they insist to me, they’re nothing like those people. They’re just lazy because there’s something deeply wrong with them. They’re somehow lazier and more awful than anyone in the world. I’ve talked to dozens of really accomplished, driven people who remain absolutely convinced that they’re uniquely, shamefully lazy.
The first time I had this type of conversation, I was hanging out with an artist friend, Michael Roy, who does street art and murals under the moniker Birdcap. Michael travels the world, covering interior and exterior walls with complex, brightly colored designs that combine ancient mythological figures with nostalgic images from his youth. He’s become a successful artist because of his talent and dedication, but when we were hanging out back in 2015, he told me he was horrifically lazy.
I had asked Michael how he had the energy to constantly travel the world doing murals, applying for artistic grants, and producing digital art for freelancing clients, all at the same time. He shrugged at me and said that he had
to push himself like this, because if he didn’t, he’d descend into laziness and never make another piece of art ever again. In his mind, being productive seemed somewhat binary: either he was grinding away constantly, painting murals by day and drawing on his tablet at night, or he was a total sloth with no creative drive and no professional prospects.
At that point in his life, Michael didn’t have a house or an apartment. He traveled so often that it didn’t make sense for him to. He slept on couches or in hostels and lugged a backpack full of spray paint cans with him wherever he went. He didn’t have health insurance. He spent full days outside sweating under the hot sun on a ladder, coating walls with primer and decorating them with elaborate designs, yet he believed he was on the brink of succumbing to laziness.
Michael is not a uniquely lazy person. He’s an especially busy person. But like so many of us, he feels an intense pressure to keep pushing himself forward. The “lazy” feeling he hated and feared was probably a sign he was tired and nearly burned out, but he had no way of realizing that because everyone around him was singing the praises of hard work, dedication, and showing no weakness.
The world of visual art is competitive and sometimes cutthroat. The people who do succeed have to be constantly active, not only producing new work but also building their online platforms and brands. Every day, Michael sees his colleagues promoting their successes on social media and in interviews. As he goes about painting, applying for grants, and taking on new clients, he also has to worry about gaining new Instagram followers and doing interviews himself.
A professional world like Michael’s creates an arms race of busyness, with each person vying for a limited number of opportunities and social media eyeballs. Each artist has to snatch up as many jobs as they can get, because they have no way of knowing what the future will hold. At the same time, they have to build a public reputation for themselves as relevant and cool. Since every person is broadcasting an image of themselves as successful, dedicated, and popular, it can be hard to keep track of where you fall in the hierarchy. And because of all this, it’s dangerously easy to feel like no matter how overwhelmed you are, someone out there is doing ten times as much as you are.
A lot of people feel the way Michael does, forever burning the midnight oil while fearing that they’re on the verge of ruining it all by taking a break. We live in an economically uncertain time, with many industries being disrupted or automated. Freelance jobs and gig work have replaced reliable full-time employment for many people, creating an environment of uncertainty and competition. Digital tools like e-mail and Slack have eroded the boundary between home and the office, making it difficult to ever truly take time off. Meanwhile, social media reminds us constantly of what other people are doing and accomplishing, making us all feel like failures who just can’t keep up.
It’s a strange paradox, but when we set out to do more than is good for us, we end up feeling like we’re not doing anything at all. If there are always more items on your to-do list than you can possibly check off, you will never feel accomplished. If your boss is constantly e-mailing you with questions and requests, you can start to feel guilty for something as simple as turning off your phone to go to sleep at night. When exercise, activism, and even talking with friends is tracked and measured by phone apps, you may start feeling like you’re constantly letting people down. We feel lazy, but it’s not because we’re awful, apathetic people—it’s because we’re exhausted.
Does looking at your calendar fill you with dread? Do you have a deadline that you keep pushing back because confronting it head-on seems impossible? Do you “waste” hours every day scrolling through Twitter or shopping online for things you don’t need? If so, you might be feeling very lazy right now—and that might actually be a good thing.
When we feel unfocused, tired, and lazy, it’s often because we desperately need some time to rest our bodies and brains. Research has repeatedly shown that a person on the verge of burnout will have trouble staying focused and productive.40
No amount of pressure and stress can magically help a person overcome that lack of focus and motivation. The solution is to cut way back on expectations for a while. Overextended people have to find space in their lives to sleep, power down their stressed-out minds, and recharge their mental and emotional batteries. You can wait until you reach a breaking point like Max and I did, or you can prevent illness and burnout by being gentle with yourself before it’s too late.
The Laziness Lie has tried to convince us that our desires for rest and relaxation make us terrible people. It’s made us believe that having no motivation is shameful and must be avoided at all costs. In reality, our feelings of tiredness and idleness can help save us by signaling to us that we’re desperately in need of some downtime. When we stop fearing laziness, we can find time to reflect and recharge, to reconnect with the people and hobbies that we love, and to move through the world at a more intentional, peaceful pace. “Wasting time” is a basic human need. Once we accept that, we can stop fearing our inner “laziness” and begin to build healthy, happy, well-balanced lives.