Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Lazy Smart People

I was asked by someone who doesn't read this blog to re-post my theory on why smart people are lazy. I guess doing so proves I'm not so smart, eh?

Anyhow, the basic observation is this: most of the brilliant young people I've met are also quite lazy. We're talking ages of 15-25. We're talking brilliant, not just bright.

Now, to be honest, a lot of not-so-brilliant people are also lazy. But the percentages were off: the number of brilliant and hard-working people in that age bracket is countable on one hand.

My theory on the matter can be most clearly explained using public school. A brilliant child going to public school finds that maxing out the reward requires either being brilliant or working hard. Obviously, being brilliant is easier. Working hard while being brilliant produces no additional reward.

What's worse is that the ease with which the reward can be obtained devalues it. It's like this story:

"Hi, welcome to class. For coming to class, we're giving you a little baggie full of toenail clippings!"

"Uh... okay..."

"But if you work real hard, we'll give you a gallon jug of toenail clippings!"

"And if I don't want any toenail clippings at all?"

"Then you'll have to come back next year and try again!"

The devaluation of the only reward public school offers means that not only do brilliant children not work hard, they stop working at all. It's easier not to care at all about the class than to only care a little.

Now, before you think this is a situation caused solely by public schools, a similar thing happens in all interactions.

Adults reward brilliant children entirely out of proportion with hard-working children. Anytime a child says something brilliant, nearby adults are astonished and gush appreciation. Anytime a child works hard, they just get a consolation pat for being hard workers. No contest: why would you stay addicted to chocolate when you've got heroin? Stop working hard, it's not worth it.

Similar situations arise with other talents, of course. Charismatic children usually have a pretty easy time making friends, which devalues friendship considerably. This usually manifests as having tons and tons of mild friends or mistreating your close friends because you can always make another.

(I haven't studied these other talents as closely, for passably obvious reasons. Feel free to comment on your own experiences with them.)

The basic idea is simple: working harder rewards less than working smarter. In some situations, that's not true. Sports, for example: a talented athlete often finds that if he works harder, he kicks much more ass. A much better reward. But in our society's mad march towards mental mediocrity, the rewards are capped at a level which is absurdly low. Once your intelligence allows you to max those rewards out with only a few minutes work, the rewards devalue to the level of toenail clippings.

Some children could be made hard working, I imagine. Perhaps private schools, or home schools, with much higher reward standards. This seems to be largely true: all the brilliant, hard-working young people I've met have been from one of those two options, save one.

Also, once they get a family, it looks as if people's whole demeanor changes. Maybe they stop being lazy. Maybe they stop being brilliant. ;) Either way, that's why this is limited to the under-25 crowd.

Anyhow, that's my theory. And you're welcome to it.


Craig Perko said...

Oh, and for some reason, at a certain level of "being too goddamn smart", people stop asking for your help with homework. Then you get to college, and suddenly people start asking for your help again.

Hmmm... maybe it's just because I was an ass in high school...

George said...

So you're saying in a reward-based culture, given a choice people will be brilliant rather than industrious; the source is external.

I agree in part but I favor the notion that the source in internal. There are a lot of brilliant lazy people because it's biologically more common to be brilliant and/or lazy than to be industrious. Notwithstanding some cultural motivation the biological imperative is to be lazy, equalling less effort and conservation of resources. Industriousness is an aberration ;).

kestrel404 said...

No, I think he's saying in our culture (where there is the reward of positive attention for getting good grades in school), if you're getting an A because you're just that smart, getting an A+++ (which is not denoted on your report card, but requires significantly more effort) is simply not done.

If you want an example of a real reward-based culture, look to Japan. Their school system pumps out brilliant, hard-working geniuses faster than ours. Not per-capita, but in total. That's because their 'bar' is a lot higher, and requires that the really intelligent children also work hard to get good grades. Not so intelligent children are simply sent to 'lesser' schools, where hard work is rewarded, but brilliance isn't part of the equation (as all of the really bright children who aren't also naturally lazy have already been filtered out of the system).

Mory said...

I think you're reading too much into this. A more intelligent person will be more skilled at rationalizing his laziness. There is naturally a separation between him and the rest of the world, so he will be less likely to listen to people trying to get him to do things. And so the more intelligent the person, the more likely he is lazy.

Duncan said...

As one of those who kept well above the average without much work... I agree almost wholly with Craig's assessment. There were few rewards fro working harder, the motivation does not materialize.

As I approach the upper limit of the age zone Craig has defined, I'm slowly shifting to a harder working phase. Part of this is due to that fact that I've done more self-realization in the last 5 years (since graduation high-school) than I did within. I've come to realize my flaws and begin working to eliminating them. They are not easy, due to programming and habit forming, but I am conscious of them. I am becoming less lazy because I know that I can, and I want to.

Reading stuff like this also helps me to focus on what cause/effect cycles existed in my past, and how I redirect my internal rewards for better effect.

Craig Perko said...

George: I can't prove or disprove that there's a biological tendency there. Since I can't modify biological tendencies, it is more useful to propose a cultural tendency.

Kestrel: I don't really agree with your assessment of Japan, but that's another topic entirely and the rest of your post is right on.

Mory: That might be right, but I'm not actually sure it's a different theory. It sounds like it's just an extension of this one in which the person devaluing work is the smart kid rather than the environment.

Well, I'm glad whatsisface asked me to post this, it's gotten a surprising number of responses!

Jason O said...

I agree with this completely. I actually did pretty bad in school, but always got an "A" in a subject I was interested in. To be honest, I was just bored with school after awhile.

I think that is why I look for challenges at my job. When I get bored, I do it with a vengeance. I am a horrible bored person.

Now I look at my oldest son, who is in an advanced learning class. The class he likes the most is also his hardest. Go figure.

Craig Perko said...

More data for the mill, thanks!

Patrick Dugan said...

I'm commenting just to prove I'm not lazy.

Bradley Momberger said...

I'm commenting just to prove I read this.

Craig Perko said...

Damnit, now you've gone and ruined the mystique of being Whatsisface.

ian schreiber said...

Interesting idea. I originally read it and something resonated -- true, once you're getting an A in a class, extra work can't improve your grade so extra work is "wasted". Unless you get far enough ahead to skip a grade, which I suppose is a reward in a sense, but a mixed blessing since it's socially awkward to be the young one.

My wife points out that you're technically incorrect by saying that rewards are capped. The REAL rewards for the hard work have nothing to do with grades, they have to do with building skills and gaining power that you'll be able to use for the rest of your life. Levelling up when you're young is a massive benefit because it just compounds over time. The brilliant+hardworking kids are the ones who figured that out (or more likely had it told to them, which is why you're likelier to see it in home-schooling).

I guess the trick is to give the smart kids challenges at an appropriate level outside of school, and take care to make sure the educational system doesn't squash the love of learning out of them :)

Matt said...

Just wanted to post and say that I enjoyed reading your theory. I think that while the skewed reward system is definitely a large part of why the bright become so lazy, I'd also say that with schools being structured and oriented toward the lowest common denominator, it simply takes the brilliant people that much less time to do the same amount of work.

Additionally, the excessive emphasis on grades eventually is lost on the brilliant, who more often than not figure out what they need to do to get by (rather than what they need to do to excel), and as such pull off the typical bored student act to a T. I know that I didn't really give a rat's behind about my grades until I started grad school, because to be honest I didn't really need to care about them

Craig Perko said...

Thanks. I like being told I'm right. :)

Thomas said...

hi im a 16 year old male, ive been told that im smart but dont feel like i am. im very lazy and am bored with all my classes the only class that i actually try in is my math class. im currently trying to get independent study, but i just feel like if i do get it ill screw my whole life up by not being as smart as i thought i was, any advice

Craig Perko said...

Sure. Here's my advice: get used to not being as smart as you think you are.

You're only sixteen, so you don't have very much experience. Smarts are a multiplier, not a miracle: a genius sixteen year old is still going to be less knowledgeable than your average old guy on the vast majority of subjects.

We get used to feeling like intelligence is an absolute, but the truth is that young people, no matter how intelligent, have massive blind spots. It's best to recognize that.

It may sound like this is not very related to your question, but I think it is applicable.

The only other advice I have is to find something rewarding to do. As I said in the essay, the biggest problem is that the rewards for doing well in school are so pitiful. If you can find something that gives you a real sense of accomplishment, you'll find that you're becoming very, very good at it surprisingly fast.

Because intelligence is, after all, a multiplier.

Pierre said...

Society tends to recognize achievement, not intelligence for it's own sake. Money and fame come from being athletically dominant, exceptionally pretty, or (most often) from producing something commercially useful. Being 'lazy' is to be indisposed to meet those standards.

Having genius level intelligence generates none of these things by itself. The closest it comes is to give you great creative problem solving abilities, which has the potential to generate something that will be recognized subsequently. By itself non value generating intelligence creates no value for the society that judges it's value.

Smart people can get by more easily by doing proportionally less.

They're lazy to begin with, and have learned that they can get by with especially minimal effort because of their brains.

It's the motivated, hungry, and dedicated individuals that end up achieving.

They are by their very nature consantly pushing themselves to achieve more than the bare minimum. Often, they get an intrinsic excitement purely from achieving their self imposed challenging goals. That's what gets recognized.

So, in conclusion; lazy is a value judgement. (un domesticated primates spend half their waking hours foraging and the other half playing).

If you don't want to be 'lazy' forget about how smart you are and go do something productive.

Otherwise, accept that being smart directly contributes to being lazy since you can do more things with less effort via your brain power.

Anonymous said...

Ive noticed alot of lazy people are pretty smart to though for instance at any job i have ever had ive noticed this, you find the laziest person that works there and i will almost garuntee you they have figured out the easiest way to do every thing. they will do it in away that is real slow pace but acceptable with little movement as possible and only claim to know just enough to get by. If someone was aware they were smarter than they put off, well that could posibly lead to more work, the #1 enemy of lazy people.

if you havent noticed this just sit back and watch one day.

if you thinks about it smart and lazy run hand and hand.

Mels said...

I had just the same talk with someone recently.

Now, I'll unashamedly admit that I am quite brilliant, in my undergrad course at Uni and exceptionally lazy, but I don't think there's any kind of reward aside from personal interest that can make me work hard, because it's not really about reward, it's about the effort.

Why should I pretend to care and work all year (for example) making notes and yadda, yadda, if I can study for 2 to 3 hrs before exam and get the same mid-level grade that most of the class gets, except they did work all year.

I suppose the difference is in principle and understanding of the subject, but if I (for example) find the subject to be utterly boring, what then?

It's not the reward in itself, because everything is attainable in multiple ways. The laziness gets kicked aside only when there's something that one can be fascinated with.

In short - if one were to wish for more hard work, it's not the reward system that needs adjustment - it's the whole system of education and approach (note - I am not from US) so that studies can be far more focused. Sure, it's a good thing to be versatile, but there's a fine line between broadening the horizons and just falling asleep from boredom.

Noxious said...

First off, I agree with your general assessment of the rewards system being skewed. I grew up in a shifting environment, bouncing between public and private school, and, in my own experience, there was little to no difference. The only notable one was that teachers were more likely to remember your lackluster attitude from previous classes and continue with that same attitude later on in your school career.

As far as your response goes to the 16 yr old dude, I think you are confusing wisdom and intelligence. Just because someone is older does not mean they are smarter anymore. Maybe back in the day when wisdom and intelligence went hand in hand. You grew older because you were intelligent enough to avoid doing stupid things that got you killed and, in turn, you gained the wisdom of life passing around you.

Nowadays, when I see some 40 yr old rolling down the street in her little electric scooter with all her grocery bags attached to the side, I think to myself, what horrors has modern medicine accomplished to allow that monstrosity to continue roaming about? I would rather stick my head under the front wheel of her scooter than ask her for advice on life matters.

That being said, you all seem like a bright group of people, and I need a little advice. I'm 21, about to turn 22, and I already recognize my own faults and issues. The problem is finding a viable way to rectify them. I know I'm lazy and won't get things done. I'm upfront about this. The main issue is trying to work with the whole 'self-motivation' stuff people put online.

I look at things like that and I see right through them. I know what I'm doing to myself so how can it possibly work? Yet at the same time, I'm unhappy with the course my life is taking. I feel stagnant despite having a decent job with a respectable paycheck for a 21 yr old who didn't bother to go to college.

Do you have any ideas on how to motivate someone who has the issue of being able to rationalize laziness?

Craig Perko said...

Well, hell, I'm freaking six years older than I was when I wrote the post.

If you're able to rationalize being lazy, then the only sure thing I've found is to get human feedback every day.

For example, a webcomic which people comment on every day. Or a game dev thing or a blog or a youtube song thing or, well, anything.

Finding an audience can be irritating, but once you have even one person who will be disappointed in you if you fail to deliver, you may stop rationalizing it away.

It worked for me. These days, the projects I can't get feedback on die and the ones I get feedback on continue.

Anonymous said...

very true,im 17 and ive been the top of my year for every year since i entered highschool, with very little effort. in school im smart (145iq) but my parents are way smarter than i am, which kind of motivates me to be smarter. i noticed that almost everyone in my family including me tends to take the easy way of doing work.

Anonymous said...