Thursday, July 12, 2012

Busy vs Ambitious

Stop and smell the... mushrooms?

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times opinion piece by Tim Kreider, The 'Busy' Trap, and it struck a cord. You may have already seen it - it's been passed around a bunch and, to be honest, I'd been meaning to blog about it for a while, but I couldn't find the time. Yes, I see the irony in that statement. Apparently I still have a lot to learn. 

The gist of the essay is that we (which I understand to mean fairly educated, well enough off people, who have the time to read NYT opinion pieces while surfing the Internet and drinking their morning cup of coffee) are too damn busy. We have too much to do, work is piling up, we're stressed, we can't relax, and just forget about reading for pleasure or hanging out with friends. "I'm too busy" has become our collective battle cry. But what, Kreider asks, are we actually doing?
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.
Well, when you put it like that...

I've read this article a few times, and I think that Kreider has a point. I know I'm guilty of making myself long lists of goals, full of self-imposed deadlines and arbitrary outcomes, and I know that I then proceed to stress about those goals, to the point where I even - yes! - complain about being so busy. 

But part of the reason I make goals and deal with the stress that comes from them is not because I want to convince myself that life has meaning (though that is a nice thought). The reason I push myself is because I'm ambitious - there I things I want to accomplish, and they require hard work and self-motivation. Listen: my novel isn't going to write itself. My stories aren't going to publish themselves. My students aren't going to teach themselves. I need to make those things happen, and as busy as I am, I enjoy the work. A huge part of making sure your life isn't trivial, meaningless, or empty, is to fill it with things that matter.
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.
I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.
I think there's a balance to be struck between enjoying your idle moments and making ambitious goals. I know that I'll always be busy, because there are a million things I want to do, and I'm not happy if I'm not making progress towards those things. But I can work on enjoying the idle time I've earned - sitting on the beach without feeling guilty about the unedited pages at home, taking a weekend to go camping even though the house is messy and the yard needs to be mowed, emailing far away friends and writing a blog post instead of logging more hours with my part time job. Because Kreider is right about one thing - we need those idle moments to recharge and rejuvenate ourselves, so that when we return to our busy lives, the world we do is better.

8 comments:

  1. Very well said! Working hard makes those idle moments even better, so you can say "Look at what all I accomplished! I deserve this nice break." :)

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  2. This is definitely something I struggle with. I seem to either binge on work or binge on watching episodes of reality TV in my pajamas. I have a hard time finding a middle ground. But ideally yes - the moments of idleness would be that much sweeter knowing I've accomplished the most important tasks of the day.

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    1. This is exactly my problem. I just can't find that middle ground!

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  3. I think the key to having both ambition and time to play is focus. To get anything done, we need some drive, something pushing us to perform, but there is a world of difference between getting SOMETHING done and having some time to do nothing. My mind demands rest, in the form of sleep and in the form of relaxing. I don't want to busy every evening and every weekend; I need time to be in the "off" mode. Since I started my current job, I definitely feel that internal pressure to work more, but I deliberately say no to it so that I can have a life beyond my work. Life is not the same as being busy--life includes quiet time.

    Great post, my dear!

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  4. I've been struggling with how to approach the article mostly because I'm sitting here with a full time job going, "yeah writer dude, idle moments are so easy to come by. Thanks for reminding me that I squandered them during my MFA." So frustrating! But I like the way you balance the two. Still need to find my balance--kudos on being able to digest the essay well enough to talk about it :)

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  5. I believe it depends on the individual, really.
    If I could only be "busy" to better myself, that would be easy.

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    1. That's definitely true. The ability to chose how you spend the majority of your time is, unfortunately, a privilege we don't all have.

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  6. There is definitely a balance to be struck. I go through extremes that last months at a time. For the past couple of months I've been ridiculously idle and have had just about 0 ambition. A lot of the things that I've been blogging about lately were things that could have been accomplished in far less time than it actually took to do them. But then I have periods of time where I'm a machine driven by ambition and get a ton done - like when I had three jobs and got all As the semester I took 24 hours of coursework. Or when I was training for triathlons. Even though I have two part-time jobs, am working on a house and am pregnant, I spend a whole lot of time doing absolutely nothing. Too much time. At some point I'd like to become better at striking that balance that you mention. :) Cool mushroom pic.

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