How Devon Price redefined ‘lazy’ and turned his Medium essay into a book

An interview with the author of “Laziness Does Not Exist,” the essay that started a conversation about the psychology of procrastination

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Dr. Devon Price is a psychology professor whose 2018 Medium essay, “Laziness Does Not Exist,” was shared by over 3.6 million people around the world. In it, Price unpacks the “laziness lie” — the belief that productivity is inherently more valuable than relaxation. He advocates for a more nuanced, curious, and empathetic approach to understanding ourselves, each other, and anyone society labels “unproductive” or “lazy.” “If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you,” Devon writes, “it is because you are missing a part of their context.”

I remember coming across the essay, sharing it with a few friends and co-workers, and then watching it ricochet around Medium and the internet at large. Since then, teachers, students, parents, and countless overworked professionals have found comfort and solace in its message. As one reader commented, “You opened my mind to a new way to look at people. Thank you for that.” Over 1,200 comments and thousands of reader emails later, Devon turned the essay into a book.

To coincide with the launch of book author verification on Medium, I spoke with Devon about the story behind that essay and its journey into book form. We had a fascinating conversation about creativity, millennial burnout, and what happens when your Medium post goes “viral.” The result of our conversation is below — I’ve edited it for concision and clarity.

Harris: I’ve been reading your work on Medium for years, and I’ve always admired your ability to get to the heart of complex issues — whether it’s healthcare, neurodiversity, or the history of social structures and biases so ingrained in our culture many of us take them for granted. I know lots of your readers value that perspective, too. What initially brought you to Medium?

Devon: I started writing on Medium in 2015. I’d been blogging super casually on Tumblr up to that point, but the community there didn’t feel as vibrant as it had in the past, so I was looking for something else. I first began using Medium as a place to archive some of my Tumblr posts, especially those I was a bit prouder of.

Those initial essays got some traction on Medium, so I decided to take things more seriously. In early 2016, one of the first pieces I wrote with Medium in mind was about trigger warnings. I received my first media interview request based on that essay, which was thrilling. As I continued to write on Medium, I connected with other writers who used it, and we became mutual fans of one another’s work.

It was a really clean, simple, straightforward place to write. It was so easy to post my writing on Medium. I could work on something for a while and really polish it, or I could get the instant gratification of firing off a rant about some current event (which I definitely did in those days, to some success!). It’s the best of both worlds, publishing-wise: You can work with publications, which feels a little more like a conventional magazine-style process — but you also have the freedom to write casually on your own, like a blogger or newsletter writer. You can make your writing whatever you want it to be.

And because Medium has a metered paywall, people can access your writing for free — but you can also earn money for it through the Partner Program. In other words, I didn’t have to paywall my work completely for it to earn. Anyone and everyone could still find it. I’ve continued to write on Medium because nothing else hits that sweet spot for me.

Harris: Let’s talk about “Laziness Does Not Exist,” your most popular essay on Medium which eventually became a book. [NOTE: “Laziness Does Not Exist” was originally published on Devon’s profile, not in a publication; we curated it into Human Parts in 2019.] I remember seeing it take off in 2018 — I just checked back in on it, and people are still leaving really thoughtful responses. How did that essay come about?

Devon: I was teaching psychology part time at this evangelical Christian college, where almost all my students were working adults, and they were dealing with a lot. They were working full-time jobs, they had kids, they were immigrants. They were dealing with trauma. The ethos at this campus — and in the psychology department — was that our students shouldn’t expect too much of their own futures. We were supposed to manage their expectations, because none of them were “grad school material.” They didn’t always use these words directly, but it was clear that the faculty at this school saw students as unintelligent, lazy, not good enough, and not having what it takes to succeed.

I was the only person in our very small psychology department who would give students extensions on assignments. I understood that sometimes people couldn’t come to class because, for example, they’d just had a really triggering therapy appointment. I accommodated their needs and unique circumstances. As a result, I was seen as the softy of the department, because heaven forbid I extend some compassion! But honestly, I empathized with them. That’s why I did it — I’d been through tough times, too.

It was so frustrating for me to see how my students would get treated by my fellow professors. I was really bitter. I had this axe to grind in my mind of, like — when we say people are “disappointing” us, or they’re “not trying hard enough,” or they don’t “have what it takes to succeed,” we’re being so incurious about their life circumstances. How dare we, as educators, just write people off like that?

I’d been sitting with that feeling for a few years before I sat down to write the essay. And then one day, I was at my friend Jess’s house for our weekly writing date. For years, I’d had this idea in my head that laziness does not exist — that we don’t need to fear this “evil” force inside of ourselves (or in other people) that makes us unmotivated. I’d mentioned this idea to a few artists I knew, but I’d never really done anything with it. It was just something I believed, and something that other writers, like Mik Everett (who I cite in the original “Laziness” piece) had already published a lot about.

When we say people are “disappointing” us, or they’re “not trying hard enough,” or they don’t “have what it takes to succeed,” we’re being so incurious about their life circumstances. How dare we, as educators, just write people off like that?

So that day, for whatever reason, I decided to try to tackle the idea in writing. And after years of thinking about it, it was ready to come out, and I wrote the essay in a couple hours. Getting it out felt powerful and cathartic. It came out in one go after years of reflecting and having these conversations. I felt pretty confident about it right from the jump, and I think I published it that same day.

Once I hit publish, “Laziness Does Not Exist” got a nice response from readers — and it just kept growing in momentum. Teachers, parents, and disability rights activists spread it throughout their networks. Frustrated students, people with mental illnesses, homeless folks, and addicts reached out to me in the comments and via email, telling me the essay had struck a chord with them. I also got messages from people I didn’t expect: Tons of managers, tech workers, and overworked professionals DM’d me to say the essay helped them silence the berating voices of disappointed parents and former teachers that echoed in their heads.

The momentum just never stopped. For over a year, I was getting emails about it basically every day. I published it in March 2018, and the emails lasted through the end of that year at least.

I think it was a testament to how many people needed to hear they weren’t screw-ups — they’d just been mistreated or not gotten the support they needed.

Harris: Wow. I didn’t know it lasted through the whole year!

Devon: Yeah. And that was when I was working my part-time teaching job, and a bunch of little side hustles. Writing was just a creative outlet for me then, and I was like, Wow, it’s really nice that this hit for so many people.

Harris: I think lots of writers have this fantasy of going “viral,” and when it does happen they react to it in different ways. How did the success of “Laziness Does Not Exist” inform your creative process going forward? Did you feel pressure to write more on that topic, or to replicate that success in any way? Did you feel like your readers expected something from you?

Devon: Luckily, I didn’t really get in my head about it. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, now I need to achieve something like this again.” I don’t think that’s a helpful line of thought for most creatives. I wrote about this, actually: “It’s better to just keep on writing what you want to write, and creating the art that moves you, rather than trying to catch a wave that won’t last.”

My philosophy with creativity has for the most part been: Just show up and do the work you think is worth doing. The more you do that, the more opportunities you create for lightning to strike. I also think I could be relaxed about it because I’d been writing for so long before anything hit like that.

Harris: That makes so much sense. I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of, “X worked, so let me churn out more stuff like X.” Which is fine if you actually enjoy it, but it’s so easy to lose your intrinsic motivation that way. I can tell, when you write, that you’re pursuing what actually interests you — not just what you think will please people.

Devon: Yeah, and I think that works out in the long run. You can’t hack good writing, and people can tell when you’re just replicating a formula.

I mean, I certainly got some pressure from my publisher when the book came out — they wanted me to write all of this stuff about laziness or about productivity to market the book. So I’ve certainly been affected by that kind of thing. But, for the most part, writing is more fun (for everyone!) when readers can tell there’s true passion behind something you’re creating.

My philosophy with creativity has for the most part been: Just show up and do the work you think is worth doing. The more you do that, the more opportunities you create for lightning to strike.

Personally, I just want to keep growing as a writer. That’s what I was always more interested in — growing intellectually, and in the breadth of my ideas, rather than thinking, Oh, I need another viral story.

Harris: So, tell me about the book. How did you find a publisher, and what was the process of expanding that essay into over 200 pages?

Devon: It happened so fast. Usually, it takes two or three years to find an agent — if you’re lucky. I wasn’t expecting to turn it into a book when the piece popped off. I didn’t form any agenda around it, I just really enjoyed getting all of the feedback. And I thought, if this is the biggest thing I ever do in my life… that’s huge! Getting to bring that many people comfort was amazing. I was grateful just to be able to do that.

But then, at the end of 2018, I received an email from an agent who asked me if I’d ever thought about turning the essay into a book — especially because the topic applies to so many people, in so many different aspects of life. I thought there really was some potential there, and that it wouldn’t just be me capitalizing on the essay’s success (which certainly happens with some book deals). It really did feel like something I had more to say about. So, I got on the phone with her, and we hit it off immediately. Then we spent a couple of months drafting a book proposal and pitched it to major publishers. It went to auction because there were, I think, four editors interested in it.

From there, I started writing it. And my life completely changed.

Harris: How so?

Devon: To suddenly have writing become something people wanted me to do, and that I was good at… that was huge. I’d been really burnt out on my job, honestly, and that’s part of why I’d written the essay in the first place. I was disillusioned with academia. So, suddenly having this creative pursuit validated was incredible.

Harris: That’s huge. And I feel like everything in your essay (and book!) is so important for people to hear. It’s a really important message.

Devon: Yep, and it’s an idea whose time has come. “Laziness Does Not Exist” synthesized ideas that were already bubbling up in the culture — there was Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” (which also became a book), Tricia Hersey’s “The Nap Ministry,” and countless writers and thinkers interrogating long-held ideas about capitalism and productivity. It was all going to come to a head eventually, and now I get to be a part of that movement.

I mean, you and I are both millennials. We both grew up in a horrible job market and were told we had to bust our ass and take whatever work we could get. We grew up in an era that glorified productivity, side hustles, and scraping by. And now, thanks to these discussions, we’re entering a totally different moment. We’re questioning everything we’ve been taught about productivity and our worth as human beings. We’re learning to advocate for ourselves. Unionization is on the rise. It’s a huge cultural shift, and I’m just part of it. I think my essay came at the right time, is what I’m saying; these ideas were already out there, I just gave voice to them.

Harris: I think that’s what a lot of great essays do — they say the thing everyone’s thinking but no one has crystallized in words. Related to that, I know your second book, Unmasking Autism, came out last year, right? Did that book also originate on Medium?

Devon: Yeah, that one’s also completely because of Medium. Around the same time I published “Laziness Does Not Exist,” I wrote my first piece about being openly autistic. It’s called “My Autism Checklist,” and it lists all the ways mainstream autism diagnosis overlooks anyone who isn’t, you know, a four-year-old white boy who’s obsessed with trains. That post had a really passionate response. I’d get really lengthy emails about it from readers who were trying to make sense of their own neurodivergence, or who thought they might be autistic themselves.

An editor at Audible reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in turning it into an audio memoir. My agent and I negotiated, and it was going to happen — but because my publisher for Laziness was afraid the memoir would compete for attention with that book, I wasn’t allowed to release it at that time. So I just sort of kicked the idea around for a while until I was free to start pitching it to publishers again. I ended up getting a deal with Penguin Random House to turn it into a book. It’s a good thing it worked out that way, because instead of being an audio memoir it became a much more deeply researched book. It’s about all erased autistic people, not just about myself.

And it’s been doing really well lately — it’s going around on TikTok, apparently.

Harris: Glad to hear it found its way onto BookTok! And now that you have a few books under your belt, you’re verified as an author on Medium. How does featuring books on your Medium profile change your experience of writing here?

Devon: A lot of my essays on Medium build on ideas that are already in my books — especially with Unmasking Autism and all the writing I’ve done on that topic. If I just publish an essay in a vacuum, readers sometimes lose out on that context. I think readers want to go deeper (especially on topics like autism and productivity), but they don’t really know where to go. So just having a tab where they can find more resources from me is huge. It really helps. I’m also proud of these books! So it feels good, personally, to be able to show them off.

Plus, it’s really helpful for continuity’s sake. It’s rare to find continuity on the internet, right? We’re always posting the same few takes and having the same fights over and over. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of the pandemic and just reading a lot is every fight we’ve ever had… people have had it before. If we would just read books that were published in the past about these things, we would learn so much more about our history and move forward. It’s nice to be able to take the ephemeral nature of online content and marry it with scholarship that’s more long-lasting. (At least, I hope my books will be long-lasting!)

Harris: Absolutely. That makes total sense, and I haven’t really thought of book author verification in those terms — but I love that way of putting it, marrying ephemeral content with scholarship. Based on your experience here, what’s your advice for writers who are new to Medium?

Devon: I’d give the advice I always give creatives: Just write a lot. Make a lot of things! Obviously, as the “Laziness Does Not Exist” person I can’t tell you to work yourself super hard. But just… let the ideas be imperfect. Get your ideas out there, try things. I started writing online at 16 years old, and it took decades of working out my ideas in obscurity before I became the “adult” writer I am today. You have to write a lot of mediocre stuff before you get good.

Medium is a great place to start sharing your own stories and opinions. It’s fine to fail and muddle around in that sandbox.

I think people self-censor a lot. They tell themselves, “I’m not the person to tell this story,” or “I’m not good enough to stake my opinion in the sand,” or whatever. I think that’s the biggest barrier to growing as a creative person. And Medium is a great place to start sharing your own stories and opinions. It’s fine to fail and muddle around in that sandbox. That’s really the only way to get good at expressing yourself — by, you know, muddling through.

Harris: Are there any writers on Medium who inspire you? Anyone you’ve followed recently — or a long time ago — and want to shout out?

Devon: Oh, gosh! You know, right before this conversation I was reading one of Jude Ellison S. Doyle’s pieces on parenting. Of course, Jude has been a well-known writer for a long time, but I love that writers of his caliber are here. I was reading his piece about family abolition and parenting — and it’s just so good. It’s the perfect kind of Medium post, because it’s talking about big social issues through a personal lens, and sharing the author’s own biases and reactions. It’s one of the best things I’ve read on Medium in a while.

Also, James Finn and I are buddies. We’re always in each other’s comment sections, and I love his personal writing. I can’t follow all of his political writing because it’s too upsetting for me to sit with every attack on queer people’s lives that’s happening right now, but he’s very consistent on that beat, which I appreciate.

There’s also Jesse Meadows, who has a Substack too. They’re writing about ADHD and neurodiversity at a really high caliber, and I just love it.

Harris: Anything else you want to share?

Devon: I just want to say… before Medium, I never had much success as a writer. I enjoyed writing on its own merits, my work only connected with a handful of random strangers at a time, and I was thankful to get even that much attention. I had friends who had sought out literary agents, and secured publishing deals, but the conventional publishing world did not appeal to me. I just wanted to write! I didn’t want to have to “sell” my words. I wanted my words to be their own best advocate.

Medium provided the perfect outlet for exactly that. I could write and publish entirely on my own terms. I didn’t have to pitch editors or fight to convince people that my words deserved to be read. And to my delight and surprise, I found that a large audience of interested readers (many of whom are also talented writers in their own right) awaited.

Eventually, I was able to transform from an insecure part-timer to a confident professional. This was the true mark of creative success for me. Though I’m proud of my book deal, and happy with where conventional publishing is now taking me, self-publishing online has always been what’s felt like home, and it always will. Nothing else grants me the creative freedom, the flexibility and dynamism, and the ability to directly connect with people who have felt moved by my words. Every time a commenter tells me that my work encourages them to see a controversial topic in a new light, I’m reminded that I’m doing something important.

Want to write on Medium? Get started.

Read “Laziness Does Not Exist” and browse Devon Price’s books on his Medium profile.

Also in this series:

Who should we interview next? Let us know in the responses.

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