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.