It was a morning like any other. I arrived on time, to my well-lit, newly built office, in the most beautiful district of the International City of Peace and Justice, prepared and ready to put my nose to the grindstone. I was working on an exciting program, where with a team of six sprightly men, we were woking on the final stages of Europol’s (European Law Enforcement Agency) transition to a European Commission agency. The program was running smoothly. We were on track, even slightly ahead of time (and much below budget). My evenings were dedicated to an Executive Masters at Erasmus University and to a generally good personal life.
Things changed that morning.
I remember blinking incessantly, trying to make out an email I had received from the Italian supplier who was building our new website. Nothing was wrong with my eyesight, I could see the words, I just could not make out what they meant. It was a total brain blackout. An hour later, when my blackout wouldn’t go away, Mr Boss sent me to the company doctor.
Now, I don’t know what your opinion about company doctors is, but I was one of those people who was unsure of that ilk. I always thought that they were there to protect employers from lazy people who invented fake ailments to avoid work. Sort of like herding dogs, there to fetch the straying sheep and drive them back to where they belong: zealously grazing, masticating and getting nice and fat. With that thought I came to Europol’s doctor expecting to be given an aspirin just as I had come to expect from Dutch doctors and be barked back to my desk.
I was very surprised when he told me, and these were his exact words, “You’re going home.” And, I almost fell off my chair when he added, “And you’re not coming back for three months.” The year was 2011. The diagnosis was, “Burnout.” In a broad sense, as my doctors explain it, burnout is “a negative work-related state of mind that is preceded by chronic work stress.” To this day, I am not sure whether I am able to relate to this definition. I was indeed working long hours, but I did not feel particularly stressed. The only changes I began to notice were some troubles with sleep and some weigh gain. But for the rest, I felt I was in control.
To someone else’s ears, a three months long paid sick leave might sound like music, but I saw my entire life flash by in front of me, the same way I imagine it happens to people before they die. I simply could not afford to be on sick-leave, not at that time in my life. The project I was managing was two steps away from the finish-line and by then, I was half-way through my executive masters’ thesis. I needed to work!
So, there I was, obliged to follow doctor’s orders, which meant: no computer, no telephones, no reading, no TV, basically — the end of life. Other than a mandatory 25 minute run every day, talking to a therapist and a daily meditation whenever I could harness any energy for it, I was forbidden to do anything else.
If you’d ask Gallup they’d tell you that my main strengths are being a “problem solver” and an “achiever,” and thus by definition – not working was not a welcome prescription for me. According to ‘StrengthFinder,’ I take a great deal of satisfaction from being busy and productive.
Until that morning.
I’d heard of ‘La Dolce Far Niente’ — the sweetness of doing nothing — before. But what I found, is that contrary to how it is depicted in Eat, Pray, Love, ‘far niente’ was not ‘dolce’ at all. To me, it was pretty bitter.
In ‘War and Peace’ Leo Tolstoy wrote:
“The Bible legend tells us that the absence of toil – idleness – was a condition of the first man’s state of bliss before the Fall. This love of idleness has remained the same in the fallen man, but the curse still lies heavy on the human race…. because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace.”
Burdened by this curse, in the whirlwind between idleness and restlessness, I sat, in the boring room, on just another rainy afternoon, I was wasting my time, had nothing to do, hanging around… just like in the song. But nothing ever happened and just like Fool’s Garden in ‘Lemon Tree’ – I wondered; I wondered why I wondered how. Why do people work so hard? What would life be worth without work? Repeatedly, I played in my head all those inconceivable, frightening scenarios. After about two weeks of pointless rumination, something happened.
I remembered that my iPhone had dictation features. And just like that, everything made sense again – I rediscovered the purpose of dedicating a third of your life to a job: you can afford nifty gadgets with loads of great functionalities! Of course, you end up never using about eighty percent of them, but the same stands for eighty percent of possessions, the knick-knacks and gewgaws that people like to own, but that’s beside the point.
Dictation allowed me to try my hand at writing, without having to break the rules or disobey doctor’s orders. I wasn’t straining my eyes in front of a screen, I wasn’t sitting at a desk. I kicked back on my leather couch and talked, recounting events — just like I would with a therapist. And my phone took notes and didn’t talk back — just like a therapist.
On the radio, I’d heard about a literary contest that Prada was running to discover emerging writers. The topic was on ‘eyewear’ – it doesn’t get more boring than that, I know! But hey! Beggars can’t be choosers. Even seasoning spectacles with magic literary dust sounded better than doing nothing at all. “And like a phoenix from the flame, I will rise again and spread my wings to prospering breezes. I’ll be more stern this time, perhaps more cautious, but hope and love will still glow through my lens,” I dictated in closing and emailed the piece off for the jury’s verdict. I didn’t win the competition. That was the downside. The upside was that I came to realize something during those months.
Having spent the first decade of my life behind the grey and impenetrable Iron Curtain, I was taught very well how to work hard, follow orders and obey rules in the interest of the collective. Growing up in such a setting by the way also equips one with X-ray vision where systems that are decaying from within are concerned.
“Учиться, учиться и еще раз учиться,” or “Study! Study More! Study Forever!” Lenin’s words framed our entire classroom wall. And study we did. We’d spend nine out of twelve months “gnawing the books” — as the teachers liked to call it, and then spent the weekend and summers on unpaid work on kolkhoz (collective farms), mostly on the vineyards, harvesting the grapes that made Moldova known for her wines. This was part of our mandatory, “work education”. We got graded on how well we did. The more we slouched up and down the vine-rows, the more we stooped over, the more crates full of grapes we dragged and emptied out in the collective pile, the better the grade. Sweat on my brow, dirt under my fingernails, body all tensed and racked with pain, I have been ‘harvesting grapes’ for the intoxicating pleasures of our society in one way or another, ever since.
Lenin may be dead, but his ghost keeps speaking through the voice of my managers, that “grape harvesting is a great challenge and good for the collective”, and that I should “Work! Work More! Work Forever!” “Пионер всегда готов!” – a pioneer is always ready, Lenin told us; there’s no room in life for indolence and if we quit working, our life would be devoid of use and meaning and that we’d be an embarrassment to society.
I remember a couplet from the song we used to sing at the top of our lungs when I was a kid:
“А у пионера основное дело,
Только в путь и смело в трудный бой идти.
А на пионера вся страна смотрела,
Как душа горела в молодой груди.”
Which basically translates to: “Your only purpose in life is to work your fingers to the bone, and you better do so thoroughly because the whole country is watching!”
So, I did, I obeyed. I worked until my engine went kaput; until I burned out. This brings me to the sinful epiphany I had during those three months when I was cultivating a new expertise, mainly idleness:
Lenin was wrong! Very, very wrong! Indolence is lovely!
Like an inviting, cool lake on a scorching summer day, indolence can be entrancing to an overworked man. The cold water, like the first stages of idleness, is a hostile hostess at first. It shocks, hits, bites and cuts you. But you know that the quickest way to get the lake to warm up to you is to surrender to it, to take the plunge. And then, when you reemerge, on the other side of the shivering cold, after you’ve let out all the shrieks of discomfort, delight settles in. Icy is replaced by balmy; ache is overtaken by relief; agitation melts into serenity. Your achievements, successes, finished projects and degrees, all fade into the background; they lose their glamour. All your “coulds,” “shoulds” and “musts” are weightless here. And then, only one question remains, “How could I have spent 31 years of my life in any other state than this?”
“God never intended for me to work hard. I can see that now. My true calling is to live unencumbered and follow the fleeting impulses of my heart and take a nap around 2 p.m. whether I want to or not.
I worked hard for years out of plain fear and ignorance and also to impress women and have the funds to take them to restaurants that serve poached salmon with a light saffron sauce on a bed of roses and then bring them home to Tara and when they say, “Wow! What a big house you have!” to say, “Come in and let me show you my art.”
Work is what sets us apart. You are what you do. People ask, “What line of work did you say you’re in?” and if you say, “I am a brain surgeon” to someone who washes dishes professionally, he backs up, bowing. But a man who spends five weeks lounging in his pajamas is a plain old bum like the ones at the bus depot. There are not varieties of bumhood, some more creative or distinguished than others. Indolence is, like all religious experiences, totally self-effacing.
You efface the self you’ve worked hard to assemble over the years and you feel a new you emerge, a nicer you, calmer, cooler, easier-going. The you you really are and not the guy you constructed at the U and from Gary Cooper movies and tailored to the needs of Hubbard, Buttrick, Bickford & Barnes and re-tuned in therapy with Dr Koren. Now you become the you you were afraid the world would find out about. Goombah, homeboy, cowpoke, or hobo, or, in my case, a limericist, but the sun shines on me still and like any other poet I am gathering rosebuds while I may for the glory of flowers too soon is past and summer hath too short a lease and here it is, already gone, alas, alas.” Garrison Keillor, Time Magazine 9/10/2001.
It’s hair-raising to think that Keillor’s article was published in TIME Magazine the day before 9/11. One could not orchestrate a more dramatic finale to a manifesto ‘In Praise of Laziness’ than the collapse of America’s “dream come true,” even if he tried.
I left the comforts of the salaried-race-up-the-career-ladder in 2012, in the aftermath of the aforementioned burnout. I gave up a tax-free salary and my dream job at Europol to become independent instead. I dedicated my life to freedom as I was convinced that the 9-to-5 was eating my soul.
If you’re imagining me by the pool, cooling my heels and sipping margaritas, you’d be bitterly disappointed. I work harder now, although not more than I ever worked for a boss. Besides tripling my income, my labor now buys me something much more valuable than gadgets, knickknacks and gewgaws. It buys me TIME (not just the magazine)! And freedom to choose what I want to do with that time. For every month that I give to an employer, I give myself a month off. My clients, the companies that pay for my services, are mostly requiring my skills to cover for an employee who’s on leave or a sabbatical. My labour sponsors other people’s freedom. It’s a win-win.
We’re conditioned to believe that impoverished are only those that lack food or money. Humanitarians around the world bridge gaps in geographies, mobilizing people and resources to bridge the gaps in food and income. But who’s bridging the gaps between work and meaning, freedom and service, drudgery and indolence? Our peoples’ souls are famished, their motivation barren, their passion reserves — empty. Who’s coming to their aid? I render my services to corporates and earn profits, but my work is not a bit less noble compared with the work of a humanitarian. Nobility relates to notability; noble is something that’s worthy of notice. This cause, the cause of reclaiming our freedom, is worth being known. Relief is required not only when natural disasters strike, help is needed not only when it is asked, humanity is called forth not just in remote developing lands, conflict doesn’t always rise in the form of gunshots and wars. More than a third of people all over the world are in a state of inner conflict, quietly screaming out for help, asking for relief from the heavy cross of stress and work. Neither this article, nor the book by the same title it lives in, would exist if I was still working for a boss. Not only because I wouldn’t have the time to write, but because I wouldn’t have been inspired to. Inspiration doesn’t come to cluttered minds.
I never really made peace with La Dolce Far Niente. I found out that indolence is not what the critics make it out to be; that in many ways, it is even more challenging than a job.
Indolence doesn’t come with a manager who tells you what to do with your life. Indolence doesn’t safeguard your day within the familiar boundaries of 9 to 5. Indolence doesn’t keep you away from your mirror long enough to avoid the monster that it reflects to you. Indolence doesn’t cloak your lack of self-worth in inconsequential achievements, promotions or rewards. Indolence doesn’t dole out bursaries for the labor and pain that comes from a commitment to self-knowledge. But most importantly, indolence does not make excuses for shallowness, once you dive in, you’re bound to go deep. With every layer that I peeled back I unearthed more than just a nicer, calmer, cooler, easier-going me; I unearthed a more purposeful, service-driven me. And purpose doesn’t come with the luxury of being able to call in sick; it does not give you the weekend off, it doesn’t give you permission to use a Covid-19 lockdown as paid leave.
Jane Austen was right when she wrote in ‘Mansfield Park’ that indolence and love of ease are, “A want of all laudable ambition.” For indeed, laudable, and honorable ambitions they are.
We’ve got it all wrong judging candidates based on how crammed their curriculum vitae is, ranking them based on how intensive their pursuit of external validation and money has been. If you want to take the true measure of someone, observe how he handles doing nothing. Give him time, and watch what he does with it. I used to pride myself on having the endurance of a farmer and being a productive worker before. But I know now that I was mistaking being productive with persistence. Growth can’t thrive on barren soils. Only weeds can. No amount of fertilizers will revive dreary ground, no amount of swinging your hoe at it will either. The only way to get to the fertile layers is to start digging. And that takes time and patience. Self-efficacy cannot be delivered on demand. There is no Netflix channel for self-knowledge. It doesn’t briefly stop by on the weekend. It doesn’t lay stowed away in your suitcase, waiting patiently for your annual leave to arrive. It doesn’t squeeze in between your obligations and family time on crammed and orchestrated holidays. There’s nothing you can do to expedite the journey from a burnout to a breakthrough but self-growth. And there is nothing better that you can do to expedite self-growth but do nothing at all.