Idle is the New Ambitious

Scribblerist is a Senior Fellow at the Ida May Gurkis Institute for Idleness. He has not published since 1983. [Note: Originally posted on One City]

For graduation last year I was given Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle, a somewhat-revolutionary, pseudo-intellectual, rather-Marxist treatise on idling, creativity, and how to live life. My friend bought it for me because, he claimed, “you kinda look like the guy on the cover.” Translation: you’re the type to hob-nob at cafes, chatting about whatnot, procrastinating that novel you’re endlessly writing about Small Town America. He was, of course, dead on.

In the frenetic haze of post-graduate life, How to Be Idle was tonic. It often gave me that particular sensation that comes only from reading a good book, the feeling that “this book gets me.” I’ve zealously defended my idleness ever since.

At it’s core, How to Be Idle is a critique of capitalism in Western societies (what I heard Thom Yorke refer to as “Advanced Capitalism,” which made it sound like some kind of terminal illness that had nearly run it’s course). Hodgkinson is saying: industrialization came along and robbed us of leisure time, and all our various and sundry problems with stress, obesity, depression, and lack of agency could be solved with a little idling. Work, particularly in an urban office, is de-humanizing drudgery and should be avoided. We are so caught up in acquiring, scheduling, meeting, climbing, envying, and wanting that we have forgotten the art of simply doing nothing.

In fact, idling enables you to accomplish fewer things better, with a greater sense of reward because you have time to enjoy the doing of the thing. Dear recent and striving graduates: Idle is the new ambitious.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Hodgkinson lays out the basic tenants of his philosophy of non-doing, and I highly recommend it. He says:

MJ: When I first picked up the How To Be Idle I thought it was a self-help book, which in a way it is–but it’s actually more of a social commentary and a look at the history of overwork.

TH: I gave it that title slightly deliberately because it sounded more commercial. I didn’t want to call it A Disquisition on the Benefits of Idleness. The title How to be Idle, as you say, is self-help, but it’s a slightly satirizing self-help. The self-help thing always seems to be something like, “Ten Ways to be More Efficient,” and it’s so depressing. I used to try to do those things, and could never remember what the ten ways are. A lot of that adds to your pressures: now there’s a whole new set of rules you’ve got to try to remember and live up to.

MJ: Can you offer some practical first steps on how to be idle?

TH: Part of this individualism is you feel this pressure that you alone have to conquer the world, and if you don’t work all the hours God gives then you start feeling really guilty. If you can stop feeling guilty, then I think it’s easier to start doing what you want to do. The way to stop feeling guilty is to read stuff–I’m not saying my book, but works by Bertrand Russell or Oscar Wilde, people who weren’t losers but who didn’t believe in the work ethic, and argued this thing about guilt or wrote philosophy about idleness.

And I like his vision for an idle society:

TH: Hopefully it would be full of people bicycling along the streets and whistling and raising their hats to each other [laughs]. Going for long walks in the countryside, and mucking about each day. What would it take for that to happen?

It struck me that Hodgkinson’s thoughts on idling dovetail nicely with the hoped-for consequences of Buddhist meditation, if not the actual method. Idling is a gateway to a restful mind, where inspiration has space to arise naturally; Strolling in the park lends a connection to the natural world; sleeping in and waking slowly sets the tone for a calm day; free time lets you become involved in local politics or activism; myriad simple pleasures, instead of material or chemical stimulants, become paramount.

I’m taking up Hodgkinson’s banner. I urge you all to quit your jobs (or take a day off), spend a week in bed (or sleep late on Saturday), and devote yourself a simple art, such as playing the lute (or stay in tonight and cook dinner with your partner instead of seeing another big-budget Hollywood Suck-a-Thon).

Opportunities for idleness are all around – you just have to stop and take notice.

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One response to “Idle is the New Ambitious

  1. We love Stillman because he is handsome and tall and Sits like a mountain!

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