“I have long been of the opinion that if work were such a splendid thing the rich would have kept more of it for themselves.””
—Bruce Grocott, British Labour politician
I, and many others, labor under the weight of a solid work ethic gone awry. Actually it’s more than awry, it’s a mutation that threatens to devour us.
Socializing with a few friends at a dinner party recently, I was engaged in the usual conversations about what each of us has been working on. The diners were a collection of creative baby boomers engaged in the pursuit of their passions. Journalists, lawyers, activists, producers, writers, photographers and other fields were represented by the talented, the accomplished, the successful. In a scene suitable for the alternative society pages, we comfortably flowed from conversation to greetings and back while not spilling a drop of wine—except for the moment when, in a fit of animated expression, I christened my half of the room with a flying glass of burgundy. But we won’t go into that.
We were verbally lounging in our comfort zones when, in the midst of overachiever chatter, I heard the words “I’m not going to work that hard and I don’t care. I like to relax. I like to stop working at five o’clock, or before. I sometimes spend whole days accomplishing nothing but enjoying myself.” Did I hear that correctly? I looked around to see if others were as stunned as I was. Heads were raised. Conversation had stopped. What a declaration! How could something so simple, so elemental, completely derail an entire room?
This was perhaps the most profound statement I’ve heard in…months at least. Delivered with such forthrightness and in such downright crisp tones, it was as close to a divine message as I’m likely to hear. It’s as if the eleventh commandment had finally arrived: Thou shalt not work thyself to death.
The most amazing aspect of this, though, was that the smug chatter of an entire room of somewhat self-righteous whetstone nose-grinders ground to a screeching halt. I was not alone in being fascinated by one of our close friends being able to calmly and comfortably declare his intention to accomplish absolutely nothing…for perhaps days.
The tone of the conversation turned completely. We, one by one, shifted from being effective to feeling afflicted. Accomplishments became giant balls on tight chains clinging to our ankles. Our work ethic became somewhat unethical. It wasn’t as if the anti-workaholic in our midst was a slacker on the accomplishment front. I assumed that having recently earned his doctorate while working full-time qualified him for admittance into the kingdom of the exhausted.
I looked at the doctor of a techno-science-too-complicated-for–me-to-understand in a whole new light. The world as I accepted it to be had just undergone a small seismic shift.
I wondered, when did I make this turn into frenetic chaos?
Many of us were hard chargers from the minute we entered the workedforce. For some it was the addition of children into our lives that catapulted us onto the inner racetrack. Some, I’m sorry to say, were born this way. Perhaps you are a sane working bloke and don’t fully appreciate the plight of the self-indentured servant-to-commerce. But I’ve come to realize that the business I thought we owned, actually owns us. Whether by nature or nurture, a great many of us measure our lives by each packed nanosecond. Workaholics, overachievers, habitual overextenders, midnight-oil consumers and all others locked with a death grip on your hamster wheel—take note. Could there be another way?
But I like to work, my brain declares. I like doing and accomplishing, my conscience pleads. But now a simple line at a dinner party has given voice to the heart that remembers rolling in the grass, swaying in the hammock and languishing in idle conversation. This inner debate has reached a fevered pitch. To just stop seems so simple yet proves so elusive.
Personally I think the industrial revolution was the beginning of our demise. For all the luxuries it has brought, we have replaced the toil of past centuries with faster toiling. Sunup to sundown was one thing. But my computer doesn’t care that the sun has set. In another time, commerce might have driven some to continue in darkened fields but beasts of burden would guide these afflicted souls to the barn. Now we are burdened beasts guided by lights that never dim.
I can’t say I’ve mastered the art of slowing down, much less doing nothing. But I have spent time contemplating doing nothing. I’ve been studying the possibilities, reading up on the techniques, charting my course to accomplishing nothing. I’ve been reviewing my schedule for possible do-nothing dates. I’ve even held household strategy sessions on how we, as a family, could do nothing together. I don’t have complete buy-in yet but I’m confident that we can accomplish this. Perhaps a retreat to focus on the task at hand is called for. I think I’ll schedule one over the holidays.
I hope your life is filled with joy and periods of absence of accomplishment.