Today I filed for unemployment. It’s been over six months since I left my full-time job, during which I sustained on part-time teaching and coaching. Now all my paychecks have ceased. I knew this was coming, but, as Tim Kreider concludes in “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” ”life is too short to be busy.”
Cripes. What a cop-out.
This theme has been showing up a lot in the last couple years: we (Americans) are too busy, we need to relax, we need to spend more time with family, we need to take vacations. And yet we have lots of other literature about the secrets to greater productivity, increased creativity, accelerating up the ladder, and simply working harder. What are we to do? Who are we to believe when the US holds the top slot for anxiety rates in the world? Taking Kreider’s concluding statement at face value is a cop-out, but he elaborates quite well on the complexities of his aphorism.
“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.”
As a Mainer surrounded by a significant population of SAD sufferers, the simile resonates strongly. I hit a wall with my creativity about two years ago, which, you can probably guess, affected my professional performance and ultimately my personal satisfaction. I know how I landed in that position: in my holy-crap-here-comes-the-real-world panic post-grad school I concluded that working 50-plus hours a week wasn’t enough, so I piled on more responsibility. It worked for a while, but the day job became more demanding and some of my priorities shifted when I met someone.
“Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”
The day I left my job was…a relief. For sure, I thought, that relief would evaporate and I’d feel the full force of the shit creek that is unemployment. For months, though, it didn’t happen. Even this day of filing for official unemployment, while it was rough, wasn’t catastrophic. In fact, abandoning what society said I should be doing was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve checked off more goals in the last few months than I ever did when I was overemployed. I carried out my teaching and coaching with care, precision, and creativity—a trio that just wouldn’t sing without my undivided attention.
Jonah Lehrer (published in Wired and The New Yorker, and interviewed numerous times for WNYC’s RadioLab) reported on the value of daydreaming and discusses it in his latest book Imagine: How Creativity Works. (No, I haven’t read the book yet.) He shares study after study that shows some of the biggest ah-ha moments were a result of unorganized, unexpected, fall-in-your-lap experiences that wouldn’t have been possible in a sterile work environment.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
Kreider’s words hit home more than some others because, well, there’s a question that I know certain people are going to ask and I need to be able to answer it. People are going to wonder what the hell I’ve been doing the last few months. I’m prepared to answer—and with confidence. I’m sure some people out there will think I’m full of crap, but that tells me two things: 1. They need some regular downtime and 2. I don’t want to work for them.
Update July 18, 2012. Lulu Miller at RadioLab blogged about “The Benefits of Playing Hooky” a couple days ago. Of course she talks about the science of relaxing; there’s actual brain chemistry!
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