What is the right relationship between work and idleness, calm and aggression, &c? I’ve been thinking about carnivores and herbivorous animals. Carnivores seem to have a lot of leisure time. Their food is dense with nutrients, so they can afford to go longer periods between eating. They use this time for idleness and development. Because of the high density of nutrients, they’re able to have explosive expenditures of energy to get their next meal. By contrast, herbivores seem to eat constantly. They are able to be explosively aggressive, charging bulls or antelopes, but those don’t seem to fit my mental picture of their behaviour.

from my reading of history, the thing you have to have to use knowledge is leisure. Where everybody has to work hard just to get a living and there is leisure to think, knowledge stagnates, and people with it.

Coker, The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

In Day of the Triffids, Coker, one of the main characters has a great quote about leisure. Without doing any kind of real study, leisure seems to be well correlated with progress, whereas periods of hard graft feel stagnant1. This may be too much of a tangent, but in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he suggests that certain tasks are only possible once you’ve found calm or peace of mind and that they are completely unatainable to a stressed mind2.

Leisure is needed to get into the mindset of calm. Excessive busyness causes a mindset similar to the World War I attitudes that kept sending men over the trenches to their deaths. In this case, we’re dealing with a much smaller percentage of human life, but wasting time when time is finite, is just a matter of degree3. Being too busy to put the round wheels on because the square ones are okay and we have a deadline to hit, comes up far more often than I ever expected it to. The very fact that people are tired of the axe-sharpening parable shows how common it is.

The cheetah has a very simple set of motivations: eat and mate4. Perhaps our motivations are the same, but our methods feel more complex. The cheetah’s food is our money. A medium to enable freedom. The freedom is the goal, not food or money. This feels like a preachy conclusion, and perhaps the result isn’t the important part. It’s more of a mindset, being idly ready to be intensely active, or plainly lazy - it’s the way to be.

I’ve been mulling this idea over for some time now so I turned it into a toastmasters speech5. It went down reasonably well; well enough to justify redoing it some time. This is what I planned to say, the reality was a bit different:

Picture yourself on the savannah. Relentless sun beating down on grassland as far as you can see. For the whole time you have been watching, a herd of zebras have been busily munching the dry grass. They’ve been doing it all day, and I’d imagine all of every day in the past and into the future.

In the distance, with your binoculars, you can see a cheetah and her cubs. They’ve been lazing in the shade of a tree. The cubs are play fighting and exploring. A leisurely life that’s punctuated by bursts of intense effort.

I won’t go into the details of that effort, but it ruined one of the zebra’s day.

The cheetahs are able to have this lifestyle because their diet provides a lot of value.

This is a thinly veiled metaphor for one of society’s greatest ailments – busyness. The habit of cramming one’s life full of tasks and events, without really thinking about the value that they bring.

Busyness, in its current form, is a recent invention. Before the 19th century (this is a very blurry date) there were a lot of people who look ‘busy’ to us. They were really just surviving (like the zebra). The other, much smaller, group was the leisure class, the aristocrats.

Bertrand Russell has a line in his essay “In praise of idleness”: without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism. For a while this was true, but not because the leisure class were better people. They had inherited a lifestyle that gave them the ability to discover new things. They were like pet cheetahs, fed without hunting.

Lots of great things came from the leisure class, the pet people. For example, The whole idea of science!

In that essay Russell proposes a 4 hour work day, John Maynard Keynes wrote a piece called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” that predicted that we’d have 15 hour work weeks by now. More recently the New Economics foundation called for a 21 hr work week and some Swedish companies are experimenting with 6 hour days. (The optimism has scaled back a bit.)

All these smart people think that we should be busy less, and spend more time thinking, discovering, and strengthening social ties. If that’s really true then why are we so likely to get the answer “I’d love to but I’m too busy” when we ask people things?

For the leisure class, being busy was a failure of one’s ability to run one’s household. For everyone else idleness led to starvation. At some point this flipped and busyness became a mark of success.

Busyness has become an end in itself; we have become the zebras.

Some of this is because of puritanical values, “the devil makes work for idle hands” but more convincingly we’ve been “shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods, to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals.” as some researchers from the Harvard business school wrote two years ago.

We, today, have choices. Survival takes up much less of our time. We need to decide if we want to spend the time left over doing low value busy-work, or spend every second doing something that allows us to flourish.

If I had my way we’d shift from signalling our worth by how busy we look, to our legacy. Will people remember us as good people who made a valuable contribution.

If we gave the cheetahs a big freezer they could work hard and hoard. Maybe they will in a few million years. But that will be because their leisure time allowed them to discover science and engineering, and art and poetry.

But even then, the zebras will still be eating grass.

Cheetah at Whipsnade Zoo, Dunstable.jpg

By William Warby, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30359264

  1. The obvious counter example to that is of wartime innovation rates. However there is also the possibility that they can be explained by manufactured leisure to some extent? I.e. you guys stay here until you’ve come up with something useful

  2. Meditation seems to be a key part of almost all of Tim Ferriss’ guests; far more than I expected. 

  3. There’s a nice Steve Jobs story about making the mac boot faster.

    “Well, let’s say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and thats 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that’s probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives. That’s really worth it, don’t you think?”

  4. So I’ve got an antelope hanging in my tree; dinner for the next few days is sorted. Now I can devote some time to leisure! 

  5. It was Speech 4: How to Say It