The Myth of Laziness

Few people are actually lazy. But laziness often is blamed for low productivity in school and in the workplace, according to Dr. Mel Levine, a nationally recognized learning expert who lives in Orange County.

In his latest book, The Myth of Laziness, Levine examines the misconceptions of laziness and points out that genuine learning problems, not just the lack of wanting to achieve, are the real culprits for most people.

“I have worked with many individuals and if they are not productive there is a good reason for it,” Levine said in a recent telephone interview. “It is incumbent on us to find out what is the problem and work toward resolving it.”

In the book, he offers case studies of eight individuals and identifies specific low productivity problems for each. Various solutions also are given in each case. The book takes a technical approach to the problems associated with learning and performance issues.

Levine, who is a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and the director of the university’s Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning, is well-known for his knowledge on various learning techniques. He is the author of A Mind at a Time, a New York Times bestseller that was published in April 2002. The new book focusing on laziness was published in January 2003 by Simon & Schuster.

Based on more than 30 years of experience as a researcher, clinician and teacher devoted to understanding the developing mind and helping children learn, Levine believes that everyone is born with the drive to excel, achieve and succeed. Instead of blaming laziness, he attributes the problem of low productivity to a widespread but neglected phenomenon: output failure.

“Output failure is not a distinct syndrome, nor should it be understood as any sort of label or category,” Levine said. “It is a result, not a cause. Low output occurs when one or more neurodevelopmental dysfunctions interfere with productivity.”

According to Levine, output failure is by no means confined to the first 21 years of life. The condition plagues numerous adults and commonly leads to chronic career underachievement and discontent. Like students with output failure, there are many adults who cannot seem to get the job done.

The book looks at eight specific weakness areas that contribute to output failure. These weaknesses are:

1. motor breakdowns, affecting coordination and logic

2. memory shortfalls

3. lack of verbal fluency – struggling to put thoughts into words

4. mental energy crises, sapping any staying power and ability to concentrate

5. controls out of control, wreaking havoc with planning and pacing

6. difficulty generating original ideas and supporting personal opinions

7. falling prey to disarray – problems with organizing, prioritizing and managing time

8. susceptibility to becoming distracted by personal cravings or social diversions.

Beyond delving into the inner workings of the brain, Levine explores external factors that affect output — including stress, competition, socioeconomic status, family values and role models. He also calls attention to critical internal qualities other than intellect, like optimism and resiliency.

The Myth of Laziness culminates with step-by-step, day-by-day strategies for improving productivity in the classroom, in the workplace and in life. To help parents and teachers protect struggling children from damaging labels, Levine offers a range of suggestions for working with children suffering from low output — from initiating collaborative projects to encourage kids to design their own home office to rewarding diligent study rather than report card grades. He also shares insights to help adults choose the best job for their personal strengths, increase their own output and gain recognition for their efforts.

In the book, Levine shows parents and teachers how to identify a child’s weaknesses and nurture his or her capacity to produce. He also explains what a child’s study environment should look like to maximize effective output. Levine also provides a checklist of key questions that parents can ask to identify the source of a student’s output failure.

Levine encourages parents to become strong advocates for their children in the school system. False labels placed on children often are passed along from year to year, he said.

“Parents need to demand that teachers and school administrators understand what is needed for their child to succeed in school,” he said. “Parents need to dig in their heels to get what is best for their child. It can often be a frustrating experience, but parents need to find just one person to listen and communicate with them about their child.”

Some of the pointers that Levine offers to parents in his book are:

? reward productivity, not grades

? understand and repair any breakdowns blocking a child’s output

? provide work incentives

? reinforce and praise output

? serve as taskmasters.

“Instead of offering to buy a new bicycle or CD player if a child gets all Bs, offer rewards for handing in every assignment, studying an agreed upon number of hours a week, and preparing well for tests,” Levine said. “Grades often involve too much luck. Children have more control over their output.”

Children develop their learning capacities mainly in school. They acquire their working capacities mainly at home. From an early age, parents need to instill in all children the ability to do important things that they may not feel like doing, Levine said. Certain responsibilities such as chores and schoolwork should be non-negotiable.

“Parents should serve as sympathetic and nonjudgmental consultants on homework assignments,” he said. “Parents should not do any work for the child. A kind and gentle approach works best without taking over.”