Kendra Adachi's book The Lazy Genius Way: Embrace What Matters, Ditch What Doesn't, and Get Stuff Done, released about a year ago, has made some splash and received mixed reviews. Being a sort of mental version of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it teaches mindfulness, prioritizing, optimization, building habits, and being kinder to yourself. Something we could all use in life, but which can dramatically improve your life as a newbie college student overwhelmed with so many new responsibilities. I wish this book were written earlier, and I had read it before going to college and burning out trying to excel at everything.
The book is geared towards homemakers and mothers, but students often are in a similar position with too many new responsibilities at once, including taking care of their daily needs away from home and a familiar environment.
I wanted to review it for this blog for some time, but I've kept putting it away until it almost lost all its relevance. Something prevented me. Something bothered me about it.
Then I finally realized what it was. It wasn't the obviousness of some tips or even the repetitiveness of Kendra's examples. Sometimes we need to hear intuitive principles spelled out to us, especially as novices. Sometimes repetitiveness helps drive the idea home. These might not be everyone's cup of tea, but they weren't the problem.
The problem was right there in the title.
The eponymous "Lazy Genius" seems a very unfortunate name. The key message of Kendra's writing – letting go of the "all-or-noting" mentality and allowing yourself to fail – contradicts the very concept of lazy genius. And the concept itself is what bugs me most. It's unhelpful, dated, and… made-up in the first place.
The lazy genius concept has been criticized by many as very harmful in the educational environment. It devalues the achievements of hard-working students (as in "Math comes naturally to him/her") and, at the same time, discourages those who aren't really applying themselves. After all, why bother if you aren't "gifted" as your high-achieving classmate. Or else, why bother cramming for math or practicing your paper writing skills if you are gifted anyway?
How the myth came to be?
The myth of the genius, divine inspiration, and being chosen by muses is as old as the civilization itself. However, it was rampant in 19th-century Europe. The Romantics made Mozart their icon – posthumously constructing his image of god-inspired musical genius, untamed as nature itself and thoughtlessly creating great works of art just because he was born a prodigy.
However, letters to the family and other evidence show that Mozart saw himself as a practical worker. He was disciplined and entrepreneurial. He visited concerts every evening, studied other people's works, wrote and rewrote, met other musicians to learn from them. Mozart was a hard-working boy.
Does it mean that giftedness doesn't exist?
It does, but it's clearly overrated. Although musicality and other talents tend to run in families, the role of genetics in actual success is limited. For example, it accounts for only about a quarter of the differences in creativity test scores. The most important factor in the equation is the family environment.
That doesn't contradict what we know about Mozart. Talent and hard work aren't mutually exclusive. He was naturally gifted – undoubtedly. Yet without the right family environment, extraordinary dedication to his craft, and years of practice, he wouldn't be able to achieve what he did. After all, even if he did compose his first opera at the age of 12, he didn't really hit his stride until he was 21.
Why is the concept of genius lingers in our collective mind, even though we were told more than a hundred years ago that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration? Maybe because it's a comforting notion. "So what I'm not achieving at the highest level in my field? We can't all be geniuses!" As reassuring as this idea might be, it's fictitious. There is little evidence in cognitive science for any such latent superiority.
Lazy genius in education
The concept of the lazy genius also has strong sexist undertones, as pointed out by Andrei Cimpian, a professor of psychology at New York University. In his piece for EdWeek, he writes that boys and girls are stereotyped from a very young age as "lazy geniuses" and "strivers," respectively. Boys are praised for their raw intellectual power and allowed more slack, while girls are praised for being diligent, while their hard work is seen as necessary compensation for the lack of "natural talent." Cimpian gives Harry and Hermione as an illustrative example of this principle. If you swap magical powers with "giftedness," you will still see the painfully familiar dynamics.
Does that mean that girls should be treated more like boys and complimented on their smarts? Actually, no. As Cimpian succinctly puts it, "Girls don't need to be treated more like boys – rather, many boys would be better off if adults didn't use the "lazy genius" idea as an excuse for underachievement."
Indeed, many studies have shown the benefits of the growth mindset that encourages effort and praises progress instead of dishing out labels like "bright," "smart," and "brilliant" to students. Children praised for "being smart" more often struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, and fear of failure than students commended for the work they have done – and the latter achieve more at the end of the day.
So what about the book?
Getting back to Kendra Adachi and her book. I realize that she used the "Laze Genius" only as a metaphor. She says that we must ask ourselves what matters most to us and become "geniuses" at that while being "lazy" at everything else. Becoming a genius in the sense the author puts into the word includes setting narrow achievable goals, planning, knowing your prime hours, starting small, and building habits. Amen to that! I just lament that the title is unfortunate and seems to play into the stereotype that there is a magical way around the hard work (even if the book's actual content doesn't.)
Anyway, the book and Kendra Adachi's blogs on social media can be very beneficial for students. Also, wrapping up, I would like to highlight some of her advice addressed to college freshmen specifically:
- Build a routine – not necessarily a step-by-step order, but rather an on-ramp to help prepare you for an important task that needs a lot of effort or creativity.
- Schedule rest – pay attention to your energy and your personal ways to replenish it. Think what it takes to make you fully energized and ready for creative tasks. It doesn't necessarily mean peace, quiet, and solitude.
- Allow yourself failure – don't beat yourself up if you struggle in a class, want to drop it, and channel the energy into something that matters most.
- Say yes to new experiences, take the risk, don't be afraid to be bad at something or face rejection.
- Don't hide specifics about you in a new social environment. Don't try to become a lukewarm version of yourself without any rough edges. Open up to people.
- We want to challenge ourselves, do our best, and grow – and it's a beautiful thing. However, it is important to be kind to yourself.