Does failure come from “fear or laziness”?

June 9, 2006 | By | 14 Replies More

The puzzle goes like this: young student actor Wiley Wiggins, star of the trippy, philosophical film Waking Life, walks into a bar. There he finds University of Texas Professor of Philosophy Louis Mackey, who muses on two kinds of human suffering: those that suffer from an “overabundance of life”, like Professor Mackey himself, and those who suffer from a scarcity of it. Mackey then poses a question about our world that often seems full of failures and underachievers: “Which is the more universal human characteristic: fear or laziness?”

When Professor Mackey asks this, he refers of course to those of us filled to the brim with abandoned aspirations, high goals to greatness that we somehow never meet. He means also those of us who live unfulfilling, humdrum lives with little exploration or adventure. The subject of the suburb’s despair, this middleclass rut, appears countless times in contemporary sitcoms, novels, and cinema. The depression associated with it runs the gamut, appearing in a wide range of films from One Hour Photo to Brokeback Mountain. The same idea even appears in the civilians in V for Vendetta, nuclear family dullards who dream of revolution but don’t seem to possess the true drive to carry it out.

The message sent by modern media seems clear: we cannot climb the ranks we wish, or live the way we want. Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections looks at this modern phenomenon through the eyes of an aging baby boomer, which I’ll paraphrase in the interest of length: We place in our children all of the high hopes and dreams that we never achieved ourselves. Only after our children grow up and fail to make us proud do we resign to simply hoping that they end up happy. In Franzen’s view, this cycle seems to go on for generations upon generations of underachievers.

So what element of the human condition makes us so prone to settling for less than what we once aspired to reach? To paraphrase Mackey, do we disappoint ourselves out of fear of the unknown or just insufficient motivation? Which makes us so pathetic? Fear or Laziness?

A trick question, the student of evolutionary psychology might say. “Fear and laziness” really just refer to one unified trait: self-preservation. The natural desire to keep oneself safe from harm or loss compels us to remain in the cramped confines of our present situation. Like a domesticated animal, we stay where we know we’ll find food, shelter and security rather than scouring the unknown. It doesn’t make sense to venture into uncertainty (fear), and it certainly doesn’t seem worth it (laziness).

Or maybe I have over-simplified the human condition by comparing all of us to house pets. Perhaps we don’t even have an entire class of quitters or cowards at all. Could these complaints of a scarcity of life indicate not that middleclass people have settled for less than ideal lives, but instead that humans have in their nature a fundamental refusal to find anything satisfactory? Even as many Americans enjoy the highest living standards in human history, depression and reported frustration seem to skyrocket. I think this begs a new question entirely: which human characteristic truly dominates: fear, laziness, or discontentment?


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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Evolution, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (14)

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  1. Mariann says:

    As someone with a poor background, I've been extremely frustrated with the societal assumption that people who aren't highly motivated are simply lazy. Sure, there are people out there who are content with minimal success- but to say that everyone who is destitute and hasn't picked themselves up by the bootstraps is lazy really undermines the roots of generational poverty.

    I'm one of two people in my entire family who has ever gone to college. It wasn't because my family is lazy, however. There is a deep level of despair amongst us- that since we had always been poor, why should we think it will ever change? Making ends meet and transportation was hard enough, so it was difficult to imagine ourselves going to college or landing a higher paying job. Hell, even saving up for a working vehicle seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

    Not that it's justified. I believe anyone, regardless of background, can be successful. However, to say that we were merely lazy and content with our lifestyle is… almost demeaning. It really trivializes the kinds of hardships many poverty-stricken families go through.

    As for fear, there's always this fear that you will try, only to be gravely disappointment when you don't succeed. For years, people (both family and friends) kept pestering me to go to school, get a better job, etc. etc. and yet I continued to make excuses. Was it laziness? Of course not. I worked my ass off trying to make ends meet- I was just so afraid of failure, afraid of not being able to achieve the most important thing to me (success), that I refused to even give it a try.

    For that reason, I think the evolutionary psychology student is, for the most part, wrong. While there is a level of emotional self-preservation that kept me from going to college and striving for a better future- wouldn't the self-preservationist jump at the idea of lessening their burden by "getting an education" therefore landing a higher paying job that won't leave them struggling to make rent? It's those who are unmotivated that put themselves in danger- don't even get me started on the issue of the uninsured…

    I know this is just one person's perspective, and that it certainly doesn't speak for all people- especially those of middle-class to upper-class backgrounds. But I do think that my experiences, and the experiences of the people I grew up with, lie at the heart of the issue.

    Perhaps the middle-to-upperclass experience a similar fear, except it's a fear of failing to find some sort of secure, deeply spiritual happiness? I'm just throwing ideas out here… any responses would be great! 🙂

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    In the American suburb, we've created a wonderfully inviting place that offers lots of conveniences that facilitate short-term survival. Yes, it's an environment where it's easy to get a bit of attention, which one can do by dressing up, learning a new dance or being hip enough to keep up with the latest movies, spectator sports and television shows. But it's not a good environment for creating heroes, it seems to me.

    This surfeit offered by the suburbs works as long-term poison, hence all the frustration and depression. It's not that we really need to have the staggering challenges that come to mind when one thinks of Nietzsche's "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger." On the other hand, if you want to make yourself into something heroic, you need to forge your character on significant risky challenges with real stakes. Modern American suburbs just don't seem to be the sorts of places where one is generally put to such tests.

  3. Erika Price says:

    Mariann, while the people in the lower class often find themselves in a situation with the socioeconomic cards stacked frighteningly against them, they do have a trait in common with the much more comfortable middle class: that kind of despair and resignation that you mentioned.

    But why? Why do the people that live a close approximation of the American dream suffer emotionally and mentally in a way just as bad as those who struggle daily to make ends meet? I don't want to invoke sympathy for the complaining middle class at all, but why do they set new records of depression, divorce, and so forth? What makes them so cushy, and yet so malcontent? I think this observation supports my last suggestion, that humans don't have a natural predispositon for contentment. And the nature of the suburban beast doesn't help in the least.

  4. Mariann says:

    I'm glad you responded! I thought about this after posting my comment, and in my opinion, depression and divorce and other terrible things happen to the middle class (hell, everyone) because they're not knowledgeable on the basic fundamentals of life and relationships. For example, couples who go to long-term communication courses are far more likely to stay married. It's not because of fear or laziness that they divorce- it's because they have problems with conflict resolution, dual perspective, things like that. You might say that on some level couples are afraid of the kinds of self-disclosure and vulnerability that is required to keep a marriage lasting- in that case you have a point. But from what I know, we as a society are just not taught how to talk to one another anymore. How to feel for one another.

    Depression often has links to fear, but in the case of middle class America it's more of a low emotional intelligence than anything else. Again, we have to be TAUGHT how to properly manage stress, have better communication skills with our loved ones, how to get our internal needs met, etc. We also eat like shit and don't exercise. It is a matter of not knowing how to keep ourselves emotionally healthy that is the key. The lower class is afflicted with this as well, but I think in the cases of the poor it's largely due to situational factors as well, which I already discussed.

    So yeah, I think it truly depends on what kind of ailments we're suffering from. For the poor, fear is an enormous factor- middle class, not so much. At least from MY experiences, which are completely subjective. 🙂

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Something that has not yet been mentioned is when failure comes from a fear of *success*. Social pressure, from both friends and relatives, can often have an enormous impact both on the extent to which someone wants to "be successful" and on the way someone defines "success." Often, this social pressure causes people to rise to the level of those they most associate with, and no higher. Rising higher can not only mean taking time away from those relationships, which has a cost, but can also mean leaving those relationships behind, as one moves into higher social circles. It can mean causing friends and relatives to examine their own choices about success and failure, which they might not want to do. Some dysfunctional friends and relatives will even resent the successful person, because it is a constant reminder of their own failure to achieve their life goals. Whatever the particular cause (and there are many), social pressure can have a big influence on a person's motivation to succeed — so much so that I would even suggest that it has more impact than do factors such as fear, laziness or discontentment. Or, perhaps what we label as fear, laziness and discontentment are merely symptoms of the underlying 'disease' of social pressure.

    I can site two well-known examples of how social pressure can impact success. First, we know that, on average, teenage girls have every bit as much aptitude for math and science as do teenage boys. However, girls (so I have read) receive so much pressure (mainly from their friends) to conform to "girl" behavior that many who are good at math and science never pursue careers that involve those subjects. Of course, this is much less true today than it was fifty years ago, but I believe it is still very much present, as demonstrated by the dearth of women in science and engineering fields.

    Second, social pressure can impact success in another way: I think we all know how the 'smart' kids in class gets teased for 'raising the curve' on exams. This has nothing to do with economic status (because your IQ often doesn't correlate with how rich your parents are), it has to do with smart kids taking opportunities away from less-smart kids, and less-smart kids resenting it.

    Bottom line: while I am sure that fear, laziness and discontentment are factors that contribute to failure, and I think it is useful to acknowledge them, I also think we should look beyond these factors and see if they might have deeper root causes — root causes that might offer more leverage for preventing or reversing failure. If we, as a society, want to succeed, then we must encourage success in all of our fellow members. Accordingly, we must get to the root causes of individual failure and work to change things at that level, not merely take for granted what we see on the surface.

  6. Erika Price says:

    You make an excellent point regarding low emotional intelligence. Lately I've read a book called The First Idea which deals with the development of emotional nuances in communication as a person matures. To properly learn emotional signaling requires years and years of subtle practice smiling, frowning, looking, pointing, signaling verballing, etc with an infant or young child. Unfortunately, some kids grow up essentially babysat by the television or other diversions. This leaves some of them as poorly off as children who lived in the deplorable orphanages of past centuries, and it probably has something to do with the development of Autism or Asperger's Syndrome in many youngsters.

    So in other words, yes, people definitely suffer from low emotional intelligence in our era.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    As Grumpypilgrim mentions, many young girls are gifted in math and science. When they hit the teenage years, though, something takes them over and they lose interest. Because I have two young daughters (aged 6 and 7), I asked my sister (a psychologist) to recommend a book that deals with this issue. I'd like to know how I can help them maintain their interest in academics throughout their teenaged years.

    She recommended a terrific book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross. To grossly oversimply, the problem is that adolescent girls "crash into junk culture." The solution? To "build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized and more growth producing." More specifically, need to resist the call of our culture to "become ultrafeminine." Young girls will better survive teenaged peer pressure to flounder if they work hard to become successes in ways that their peers might not necessarily value. In fact, "smart girls are often the girls most rejected by their peers. Ironically, "this very rejection gave them a protected space in whic they could develop their uniqueness."

    As I mentioned, it is terrific reading full of good anecdotes and down-to-earth suggestions.  This work could even save lives.  I'm not exaggerating.

  8. Mariann says:

    When I was 15 my therapist gave me Reviving Ophelia to read, to see if there were any stories I related to. I remember feeling a lot less alone in my situation, and became interested in feminism.

    Now, I don't necessarily agree with the idea that girls are more susceptible to social pressure than boys are- it's just a different sort of pressure. I think both sexes really lose a large part of themselves as they grow older- gender roles are constantly reinforced to the point where we can't be who he want to be without fear of being chastized.

    Hey- there's that word, fear. (Runs off to contemplate.)

  9. Erika Price says:

    Funny that Reviving Ophelia came up. I actually have a post a-stewing (in my mind at least) about the subject of modern feminism and how, exactly, society can move forward from here. Obviously we've made some major progress, but I think the time has come to really pressure girls to challenge themselves, and initiate change themselves whenever possible. Part of this requires an upbringing constructive to the development of identity free of gender constraints, like Erich mentioned.

    Also, Grumpypilgrim's comment on girls' performance in math and science has prompted me to note that boys, not girls, have begun to fall behind. This truly disturbs me because it means any attempts the schools have made to right the wrongs have just furthered educational injustice.

  10. Mariann says:


    I read that article you posted. Interesting stuff, although I'm a little miffed at the evidence they provide for this trend. I have no doubt that biology has a huge effect on a boy's ability to do well in school, but what about the sociological aspect? They attributed their behavioral problems to primate instinct as opposed to the more realistic cause- and that is our culture's intense pressure on boys to remain stoical and invulnerable to failure.

    At first I thought they were just using whatever evidence was available to them that made sense. But then I read their implication that boys NEED male mentors in order to succeed in school. What? To imply that it is a man's job to instill in boys a strong motivation for success is, to me, very anti-feminist.

    There were other problems I had with the article as well. Especially the part where the poor smart boy got a D because he had to read a couple female-oriented novels. Am I supposed to cry for him, because he had to read a total of two books that are based on the female experience? Considering the majority of required novels have male lead characters, I really can't sympathize.

    Plus, I hear that the majority of failing boys are actually lower-class, minority students. Which turns the entire issue into something more of a class problem, not a gender one. Of course, this is just what I heard. I need to look up the statistics.

    Anyway, I know this is off-topic, but I just had to respond! 😀

  11. hogiemo says:

    As a parent I consider that my chief duty has been to acknowledge the contribution that my children have been to my family, and society, since before they were born. I am not satisfied that I do this all the time, and find myself renewing my promise to them and myself that they be acknowledged. Sometimes the kids' contribution is to sleep in when I'm in a hurry, and other times to ask me 200 questions about heaven when all I asked about was how was their day.

    Our children, and we as former children, are a gift to the world as the world is a gift to us to be acknowledged, taken care of and cherished. If we see the gift that we are to the world, and the gift that the world is to us, there is no fear, no laziness, and there is compassion, mercy, generosity and love. If I have failed as a parent or in my business or personal life it has nearly always been when I have decided there is some other way of being. When I have succeeded, I see what power there may be in choosing compassion, mercy, generosity and love.

    That being said, I remember that G.B. Shaw said that "satisfaction is death" and continue to look for what is missing to set things aright. I think what is missing is an acknowledgement by society of children as a gift and all which flows from that in society shows up in gender issues, economic issues, and class issues (even in the burbs). I don't bundle my children up in my dreams for them, I teach them to find their own way as they choose.

    So far, I am in awe of them as they work out disputes peacefully or acknowledge a mistake and ask their friend's forgiveness, barely recognize color differences, and tell me what the clothes some friends or teachers wear because of their religion. My daughter has a number of friends which she knows are adopted from foreign countries and the kids are aware and ask me what I think. I tell them that "I'm stuck with my rotten kids" and they were truly lucky that their new mom and dad picked them out of the billions in the world. I'm holding my kids and giving them noogies as I say this and they know they are loved.

    And speaking of house pets, we all should let our kids have one. Nothing teaches compassion, mercy, generosity and love better than responsibility for a cat, another sentient being. But, that's another post….

  12. Robin says:

    Maybe it all lies in the fact that maybe we have lost the sense of value for the struggle. Why work your behind off day after day? What is the prize at the end of the rainbow? More of the same? What difference does it make in the "grand scheme of things"? And further more, what is the "grand scheme".

    There is no point to go through the motions and risk failure if your actions of little value to the way of the world.

  13. NoMorePoodles says:

    Suburban middle class culture is fraught with alienation, habits of over-consumption, and a working life which is extremely taxing. Our jobs require that we deaden our creativity for the sake of efficiency. We wake up an hour before work, commute for another 45 min, spend 8-10 (for many professions), then another 40 mins home. By the time we come home we are brain dead and exhausted. Our sedentary lives don’t offer much in the way of energetic living; and our foods are doused with chemicals and zapped of nutrients. We have become much like our food, efficient and comforting on the surface, yet vapid and toxic internally.

    Perhaps some of us tried to venture out and do something meaningful or idealistic, only to find we had to work shit jobs and live with questionable roommates to support a dream that grows less and less promising by the day. Sure we majored in art history, theatre, literature, and philosophy because we thought we were living a life of passion, a life worth living. Then, we find ourselves 29, relatively broke with no health insurance. We look at our friends who we once thought settled for mediocrity with their jobs in engineering and accounting, and in our darkest moments we envy them. We then turn from our elusive dreams of living out a biography that would become a best seller some day, and exchange them for some comfort and peace of mind. We have clever ways of labeling people who are successful with their lives as being deviant, or crazy, or lucky, or whatever; and this serves to reinforce our collective cynicism, our collective disappointment with life.

    I think your insight into humans inability to be content is quite profound. A few other philosophers have made similar observations (The Buddha, Plato, Lao Tse, Emmerson, Leo Tolstoy, William James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few). However, I think any way of life is largely a matter of perception. If it’s possible to free one’s self of illusory images of how life should be, if one can see through the processed and packaged view of a happy life, if one can learn to find beauty in the mundane, if one can stop striving for incessant vanity, if one can step outside themselves and see a world full of others who are just as vulnerable, just as scared; perhaps life won’t be so damn disappointing.

    On the other hand, suburban life is pretty convenient 🙂

  14. Erika Price says:

    NoMorePoodles: Thanks for the comment. I must agree that one's perceptions of life, or even of 'success' and 'failure' are key. Perhaps a really dedicated mind can face suburban humdrum life with nary a drop of ennui, even! I think you and I would both agree that the better option is to chase after one's passions- even if that entails a commercially 'useless' art history degree and a mountain of debt- and maintain the intellectual integrity to not slip into a less inspired life.

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