The Myth of Laziness

And How It Keeps Us From Being Great at Sales, Leadership, Parenting, and Pretty Much Everything Else

One of the things that we as humans are not so good at dealing with is when things don’t go the way we’d like them to. Buddhists have a word for the feeling we get when that happens: dukkha. It’s a shorthand for the nagging dissatisfaction and unease that follows the various disappointments of everyday life— and learning to cope with it is essentially the basis for the entire religion.

But this isn’t an essay about religion or spirituality. It’s an essay about something very different: the concept of laziness. It’s a concept that I’ve struggled with for a long time — partly because I’ve been accused of being lazy on more than one occasion, and partly because I have found myself believing that I was, in fact, lazy. But the more years I live, and the more I attempt and fail to finish various projects, the more I am becoming convinced of a simple hypothesis: there is no such thing as laziness.

A more conservative thesis would be this: calling someone lazy has no good practical application, and is itself a lazy thing to do. And moreover, the concept of laziness is actually an intellectual and interpersonal crutch. We use it when we can’t do the hard work of really communicating and attempting to understand others. Once we realize this, we can vastly improve how well we sell, lead, parent, and generally get along in the world.

“Laziness” is a Lazy Concept

Consider the dictionary definition of laziness: a disinclination to expend effort or energy. I simply don’t think that a person who has this as a personality trait truly exists. No one is really disinclined to expend effort or energy on everything. And in fact, some of those who others call “lazy” can be seen expending a lot of effort in order to avoid doing things.

At best, laziness is a relative term. All it means is that you’re unwilling to expend energy on certain things — namely, whatever the person calling you lazy is concerned with. In that case, what the concept of laziness comes down to is simply a mismatch in priorities. Someone sees X as a priority, and you don’t. So you don’t do X, or you do a sub-par job. Thus, you get called “lazy”.

Had you attached the same level of urgency to X, you likely would have moved heaven and earth to make X happen — in the same way that when you have to urgently go to the bathroom, you make the effort to find one.

What’s worse is that we who call others lazy are also — in effect — being lazy. We’re using a convenient label to explain a problem — one which puts a stop to any inquisition into why someone was lazy about something. Again, it’s not that the person is lazy and that’s why they didn’t complete the task. They didn’t perceive the urgency or importance. It seems like it would be valuable to find out why they didn’t. And who knows what other valuable nuggets of information you can turn up while looking for the answer to that question.

Transference: Getting Great at Sales, Leadership, Parenting, and Pretty Much Everything Else

More often than not, if we attempt to explore why someone was “lazy” and didn’t do what we asked, we’ll find the same thing to blame: our inability as humans to deal with the fact that people simply feel differently than we do about many things. We all experience this. Our urgent need to get on the next flight to Dallas is rarely ever matched by an equally urgent need in the ticket agent at the gate to find us such a flight.

And that’s where the real opportunity is missed when we just label people as “lazy”. We miss the opportunity to figure out how we failed to transfer the urgency and/or importance of the expectation we had. Often times, the reason for this failure is a lack of focus during conversations, or conversations that are too one-sided. Other times, the failure is simply a lack of connection, and thus a lack of importance placed by another on your relationship. It could be that the other person is simply overwhelmed, and cannot even bear to reprioritize once they settle on some arbitrary list of priorities.

There can be numerous reasons why someone didn’t do what you expected, but “they’re just lazy” is the laziest reason you could possibly use. And why use it when you could explore the real reasons, and possibly learn something about how to effectively help others to feel the urgency and importance that you do?

Those of us who can take the urgency and importance we feel and transfer it effectively to others truly excel at interpersonal activities: sales, leadership, parenting, public speaking, and so on. To some, it may seem like simply “motivating people” or “getting their asses in gear,” but it’s something much different — much more magical. It is a delicate art of carefully and completely transferring a perception and a felt value from one person to another, or many. That is no small feat.

So how do you do it? That’s a tough question. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that it begins with simply being more tolerant of people, and more patient with them. It certainly also begins with refusing to explain people’s behaviors by using simplistic and general character traits. After all, when you paint people and their intricate minds with a broad brush, all you get is a blurry and uninteresting depiction of reality.

Rather than assuming laziness as a motive, assume some responsibility for failing to transfer the felt urgency and importance to them. Assume it was your fault (just to start with). Then ask questions to understand what their priorities are — which will give you insight into why your priority wasn’t one of them. Like I said earlier, even those who we label as ‘lazy’ expend energy on things — like their priorities. And when you can link their priorities to yours, well that’s half the battle of transferring your feelings of importance and energy to them. That’s alignment, and alignment gets things done! Again, calling someone lazy doesn’t get things done — at least not for long.

Motivation is a tricky thing. Those who don’t seem to feel it can be hard nuts to crack, but you’ll never crack them if you simply don’t try. So do yourself the favor of ditching the word “lazy”. Do the work of finding out why someone else didn’t do the work. You may just become better at the work that you do.