In Defense of Idleness

It is difficult for us to slow down. To allow for open space in our lives in which, quite simply, to do nothing.

Nearly 50 years ago, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote of the danger of becoming “mentally indentured servants of the industrial system” if we do not take care to distinguish our own personal values from the goals that propel this system forward:

“These are that technology is always good; that economic growth is always good; that firms must always expand; that consumption of goods is the principal source of happiness; that idleness is wicked [my emphasis]. (Markets and Morals, 1967)

Chrissy Butterfly

For in idle moments we may realize that a relationship no longer serves us, that unfulfilling work is consuming our lives. That by working so hard to give our children every “thing”, we have inadvertently led them to believe that all these “things” are what matter most.  We might experience pain and loss as we chart a new course towards a life that is more authentic, more in keeping with our deepest values.

On the ligher side, we may also discover that accomplishing things that are worthwhile doesn’t have to be so difficult, time-consuming, or stressful.

Recently I was in Santa Fe, NM, with my business partner. Our meeting schedule for the first day had changed and we were suddenly: idle. Upon hearing this news, we both filled a good 20 minutes checking emails and phone messages. Time passed. As we sat on the hotel porch, we began to notice the bright sound of birds chirping, the coolness of this summer day and the gentle breeze in the air.  At some point, we put the cell phones away. We began to speak more deeply about our lives, what mattered to us. For a while we simply sat in silence. Then my colleague – an adrenaline-driven executive – decided to go take a nap. I went for a walk in the hills nearby.

In the days that followed we were both more relaxed and engaged, connecting more fully with our clients. Exciting ideas and possibilities emerged, work was more like play. Two weeks later, new business has blossomed from this trip, in a way that feels natural, without struggle.

In A Summer’s Day, the poet Mary Oliver reminds us that idleness is a blessing, an opportunity to perceive – in life, in work – what matters most:

“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life? “

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sound, deep and admirable (like the author).

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