Myth of Laziness -- Incidentally, we don'€™t call a failing heart lazy.


The Myth of Laziness

By Mel Levine, M.D.
Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 0-743-21367-X

The following is an excerpt from The Myth of Laziness , by Dr. Mel Levine.

"Laziness is not an innate trait. We all are born with a drive to produce, and like saplings growing in an orchard, we have within us the resources to bear fruit, to be and to feel useful and effective. Most of our own success and that of our children is experienced and demonstrated through accomplishments, the attainments of our heads and our hands, the sum total of our school, family, and career contributions. From early in childhood on through our adult years, we want to show what we can do. We gain energy and feel good about ourselves whenever our personal output wins the approval, the acceptance, the respect of our friends, our families, our bosses (or teachers), and, most of all, our own self-critical selves. To feel fulfilled in life, it helps immeasurably if you can take pride in your work.

Some individuals somehow, somewhere lose momentum; in the pursuit of accomplishment they fail to produce; they stall out. And often they face accusations of laziness. In truth, through no fault of their own, they suffer from hidden handicaps that disrupt and interrupt their output. They are not lazy; they have output failure.

The power and the vulnerability of the drive to be productive are frequently neglected. I believe that adults and children alike feel that a large part of who they are comes from what they do, particularly what they have produced or are producing, and what they aspire to achieve in the future. Casualties result when individuals have output failure and come to believe that their work is worthless and perhaps never will be worthy. Our society pays an exorbitant price to restore their mental health, to punish them within our justice system, to deal with their underemployment, and to cope with the many other negative effects of their thwarted drives toward success.


On the positive side, there are countless diverse ways to savor recognition and personal satisfaction from high-quality output. Garnering rave reviews for your leading role in a musical comedy, scoring a hat trick in hockey, getting mostly A’s on your term papers in religious studies, raising a well-adjusted child, and successfully replacing the gasket in a car engine are among the varied instances of output success. No one can emerge productive in all fields of endeavor, any more than any single piece of high-tech apparatus can accomplish all of the chores around the house. Each of us is destined to exhibit one or more personal forms of productivity. What matters is whether the necessary mind and body assembly lines are operating the way they should. Are you doing what must get done? Are the resulting products of sufficiently high quality? Are you generating enough output or are you putting forth a feeble trickle of inadequate stuff? In other words, is your work working?


Thanks to progress in the neurosciences and related fields, we have learned a great deal about brain wiring, including how, when, and where it operates. As a developmental-behavioral pediatrician specializing in learning differences, I have spent three decades concentrating on the varied and often subtle breakdowns within a developing brain that trip up basically bright children during their school years. In particular, I have studied the wide spectrum of dysfunctions, the very numerous discrete weaknesses that deprive so many students of success. Kids afflicted with these difficulties are the innocent victims of their own wiring. They have specific shortcomings in areas of the mind that control essential aspects of memory, language, attention, motor function, and other processes required for mastery of school subjects. The gaps in these areas are called neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Some are inborn, some acquired. Some are mainly genetically caused; some stem principally from environmental conditions. But most dysfunctions are mysterious, of unknown origin. I have described the wide array of these heartbreaking limitations in my book “A Mind at a Time.”

Many students wrestle with learning problems that are totally transparent. They manifest obvious trouble becoming good readers, mastering computations in mathematics, succeeding on scholastic aptitude tests, or surviving the social demands of the school day. But there is a substantial group with hidden miswiring, and they have been woefully neglected and misunderstood. These are individuals who struggle with output failure, a phenomenon that can decimate their productivity in school and cause some to fail in the workplace as adults.

At first glance, kids and grown-ups with output failure may seem entirely competent — so much so that they tantalize us with their abundant intellectual promise. But then that promise isn’t kept. Often these individuals absorb and process information well; they learn, but they don’t produce. They keep promising and intending to do things, but they seldom come through. In most instances, they can read far better than they can write, and they can interpret information but somehow can’t put what they learn to productive use. It seems as if they have working disabilities; they are unable to get their minds to work! So their intake greatly exceeds their output, and they disappoint themselves even more than they disappoint others. People say glibly that they are not “living up to their potential.”


In the early years of my clinical practice, I was struck by the sizable number of children referred to me who learned more effectively than they worked. I saw a particular concentration of such students cropping up during their middle school years — when there often is a dramatic upsurge in the demands for high output of high quality (particularly in the form of writing). These students had in common their inability to meet the intensified production demands. They became less and less successful as students. As I got to know them, I kept having flashbacks to my medical school days when we learned about “cardiac high-output failure.” The following quotation from the sixteenth edition of Nelson’s Textbook of Pediatrics captures the common phenomenon: “The condition, high-output failure, produces the signs and symptoms of heart failure ... when the demand for cardiac output exceeds the ability of the heart to respond. Chronic severe high-output failure may ultimately result in a decrease in myocardial [i.e., heart muscle] performance.”

Perhaps because of hardening of the arteries or high blood pressure, the heart is forced to work too hard. Eventually the organ weakens. The failing heart becomes dilated, its beats increasingly feeble, so it is unable to fulfill adequately its blood-pumping role, its output job. The same cycle can pertain to a mind, one that has become ineffective — when the demands upon it keep on exceeding its output capacities. When a mind is forced to strain excessively to meet production demands, academic output failure may ensue. Incidentally, we don’t call a failing heart lazy.

In 1981 I and two of my colleagues wrote an article entitled “Developmental Output Failure in School-Aged Children” for the medical journal Pediatrics. We described a group of students with various forms of output failure. Since then I have continued to study this too often neglected or misunderstood phenomenon.


Output failure is not a distinct syndrome, nor should it be understood as any sort of label or category. It is a result, not a cause. Low output occurs when one or more neurodevelopmental dysfunctions interfere with productivity. This is a very common phenomenon, examples of which include trouble writing a report or difficulty completing a project. Students who manifest output failure are a heterogeneous group. They have a mixed bag of neurodevelopmental dysfunctions and strengths. Some have serious problems getting organized. Others find it too hard to put their thoughts into words. There are those who can’t deploy their muscles in a coordinated, efficient manner. Still others lack the mental energy, the stamina needed for output. Some may experience problems remembering. But all of them face one or more high hurdles stubbornly obstructing their pathways to successful output. For the most part, their actual output barriers are seldom identified and dealt with. Instead, too many of these students stand unjustly accused of laziness or charged with some other form of moral turpitude. And they unfairly assume the blame for their reduced output.

Output failure is by no means confined to the first twenty-one years of life. The condition plagues numerous adults as well and very commonly leads to chronic career underachievement and gnawing discontent. We all know of individuals who seem competent and well meaning but whose productivity in the workplace is inadequate, perhaps even unacceptable. It may be the plumber who took forever and did a shoddy job fixing your bathtub drain, or the accountant who had to keep applying for extensions because he couldn’t get to your taxes, or a coworker who triggered bitter resentment because she never accomplished her fair share of the workload. It may be the person who comes up with great ideas but never carries any of them out. A traditional military adage applies here; as the commanding officer says to his platoon, “The people who rise out of the ranks are the ones who can get the job done.” Like students with output failure, the countless adults who cannot seem to get the job done deserve our understanding and our compassion. They are not intentionally turning off their spigots of output. Branding them as lazy accomplishes nothing.

“The Myth of Laziness” is intended to shed much-needed light on the phenomenon of output failure. As it explores the dysfunctions that result in output failure, this book will uncover some of the principal ingredients of successful output. Because I am a pediatrician and the bulk of my clinical experience has been confined to the five- to eighteen-year-old age group, most of what I have to say will concern productivity in school. However, I will also devote attention to some adult mechanisms and manifestations of output failure. Often the identical neurodevelopmental dysfunctions that thwart output in children can lethally affect adult productivity, too. A child may fail to do homework because she lacks mental energy. An adult with low mental energy may often be late to or absent from work because she has agonizing difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. An adolescent exhibiting problems with time management in school may be the equivalent of an adult who is always late for appointments and often running behind — perhaps without even realizing it.

Over a lifetime, the course of output failure may vary. Some individuals seem condemned to lifelong frustration with productivity. The problems they endured in school return to haunt them throughout their careers. In other cases, children with output failure become successful and remarkably productive adults in their chosen niches. Still others may develop signs of output failure as adolescents or as adults despite having created their share of praiseworthy products at an earlier time of life. As the demands on them change, as people themselves change, as their environments change, their output can change — for better or for worse."

This book can be purchased from the Amazon shopping cart on the home page of .


Sorry to hear you are having difficulty in school. Keep doing the best you can do.

I have tremendous admiration for students that have neurological disorders. As you know, it makes school harder than it would be otherwise. I hope your school system is providing you with supports.


New Member
Sounds like a great book. How many times have my son's teachers mentioned "lazy'.. and "not living up to his potential"..."He needs to try harder" etc etc. ?? Well too many times to count. I have always countered with statistics, documentation, whatever I could put together to try and fight against this form of prejudice in the school system against my son and his hidden disabilities. I think I will try and save up to buy this book. Thanks for sharing.



New Member
I've read this over twice now and you know this really looks more like me than my difficult child. No one ever understands how hard it is to just get out of bed, even on medications. Never mind, having to deal with a difficult child day after day. I am scared to death to start my masters in the fall, because of my lack of sustainable motivation and stamina, and constant procrastination. I am already way too stressed with difficult child, but if I don't finish my education I will be working in retail the rest of my life. And that is worse than anything I could imagine for us.



New Member

Very interesting-

I can especially identify my difficult child with the heart part of that segment. He isn't a good writer and does so easily get overwhelmed with that component of schoolwork which does seem to increase as they enter the higher grades. Very glad you shared that with us....