Being Idle

I finally got around to reading “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” a NYT article that’s been making the rounds. I particularly enjoyed this quote:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

This is something I used to write about with greater-than-normal frequency at HackCollege. Though the author of the NYT piece is talking about busyness as a specifically New York thing, I think it certainly manifests in universities like my own. Busyness–pulling all-nighters, not having time to do anything but eat, sleep a little, and study study study–is next to godliness for a certain kind of American college kid. And why wouldn’t it be? We’re never asked to consider if our work is valuable before we’re in college, and so we don’t once we’re there, either.

I do think the author is correct that this is in part to mask the futility of our work. If I just stuck to schoolwork, I would have produced basically nothing tangible since I was 12. If you’re going to be participating in this very arbitrary system, you want to be participating really hard. The students I know (including myself) have moved away from doing that as we’ve started jobs and good internships and companies.

That sort of thing is frustrating to me, because I think a lot of folks are bragging about busyness to hide poor time management and a tendency to take on eighteen commitments when there’s not investment in them. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter in part because I have a pretty regimented schedule during the year and I plan my homework out six weeks in advance, and most folks consider that justifiably weird, but it is also very doable.

So in that regard, the author and I disagree. I think pretty regimented scheduling (and then very focused, enjoyable activity, rather than just hanging out) is really helpful to get the most out of life while still sleeping eight hours a night. There are contexts in which idleness is difficult to maintain.

But for those who are interested in a philosophy of idleness, I absolutely recommend one of the three books I always take with me to college: The Freedom Manifesto*. The author, who also runs The Idler, makes a compelling point (one that agrees with the NYT piece) that constant work is a very Puritan concept. He then goes one step further and starts pulling out inspiration from medieval philosophers as a model.

Though the life he proposes is not for me (at least not at this stage of my life), it certainly seems to work for him, and there are worse things in life than owning a country pub and spending most of your time playing the ukelele.

On that note, hopefully everyone had a happy Fourth and got to take the day off, play the ukelele, and set off some explosives.

* The other two are Franny and Zooey and Making Stuff and Doing Things.

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