Today in Tedium: Eighty-four years ago, two men set out competing visions of life in the twentieth century: get out and do things, or embrace the noble art of leaving things undone. One would become part of the cultural bedrock of America. The other was relegated to curio status, a dusty trinket rattling around in the drawer of humanity. Today’s Tedium pulls the lid back on an uncanny historical coincidence, the eternal battle between strivers and idlers—and a forgotten invitation to do less, and do it well. — Fahad @ Tedium
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The lesson I learned from my pandemic read
What’s been your lockdown indulgence? What softened your world and made the bleakness a little more manageable when things were at their worst?
For me, it was The Importance Of Living. In the cold wintry depths of the pandemic, it was my solace, my escape, like a twinkly-eyed grandfather giving counsel after a lifetime of observing human foolishness.
Set down in that sprawling 450-page treatise are one man’s simple lessons for living, as he saw them in 1937. A linguist, philosopher, novelist, and inventor, Lin Yutang was an intellectual that despised the term, a man that went out of his way to tell you he was nobody special. His writing is often contrarian, sometimes mischievous, but never inelegant, and there’s barely a page without a pithy quote—one of my favorites: “Writing is always better when it is one’s own, and a woman is always lovelier when she is somebody else’s wife”.
It is hard to do justice to the broad scope of The Importance of Living, by turns an apologia for idlers, an observation on life in the 1930s, and a distillation of several millennia of Chinese philosophy. But there is one recurring character that Lin clearly holds in high regard: the ‘scamp’, or as writer Mark Cyzyk puts it, the “amiable loafer who wanders through life, learning, loving, living... a good-natured Renaissance Man, connoisseur of nothing, dilettante extraordinaire.”
“You’re harshing my gig, cruster.” A very 90s update to the “lovable scamp,” Pauly Shore in Encino Man was the face of slacker culture for an entire generation.
If that sounds familiar, that may be due its brief, ill-advised revival in 90s slacker culture—think Stoney in Encino Man. But with a slightly less buzzed protagonist, Lin revisits and revives ancient ideas—ones that have lost currency in the modern world.
The sum of money, per year, that economic historian Robert Skidelsky ventured to name that John Maynard Keynes would have considered “enough” to live a good life—$57,000 or €46,000 at today’s exchange rates—an update to Virginia Woolf’s £500 a year driven by data. The basis of the calculation appears in Keynes: The Return of the Master, though the number varies according to age, circumstances, and nationality.
An older conception of leisure
Lin forces us to confront some hard questions: why do we work? Are our jobs intrinsically rewarding, or do we use the paycheck to pursue intrinsically rewarding things? And what does it mean to live well? He is not the first to argue that we have lost some guiding value, and that our current trajectory is unsustainable. That cause has been taken up countless times, including by philosopher-historian duo Robert and Edward Skidelsky in How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life.
They argue that endless economic growth is not only unwise, but self-defeating. Public discussion of any idea of ‘enoughness’—the good life—is completely absent, and they say this is to blame for our interminable addiction to consumption and work. For Virginia Woolf, having enough meant £500 a year and a ‘room of one’s own’. Now, that same threshold depends largely on what you see on your Facebook feed. Keeping up with the Joneses has never been so relentless.
The Skidelskys put forward seven basic goods that tend to constitute a good life, among them health, security, harmony with nature, and leisure. We should aim to reduce toil and increase leisure, they say, as that word used to be understood:
In contemporary parlance, leisure is synonymous with relaxation and rest. But there is another, older conception of leisure, according to which it is not just time off work but a special form of activity in its own right. Leisure in this sense is that which we do for its own sake, not as a means to something else.
Leisure need not mean three-hour lunches and mojitos by the pool. It might instead mean taking up bike repair, writing a novel, learning to dance, helping in your dad’s company, or volunteering at a shelter. It might mean starting the business you’ve always dreamed of. But it might also mean nothing more ambitious than taking care of your kids and tending the garden—perfectly satisfactory goals that have somehow morphed into a red flag that you’ve thrown in the towel.
Why is leisure a basic good? The reason is clear, they say: “a life without leisure, where everything is done for the sake of something else, is vain indeed. It is a life spent always in preparation, never in actual living.” You could have lifted that sentence out of Lin’s seventh chapter, The Importance of Loafing. “Time is useful because it is not being used,” he muses. “Leisure is like unoccupied floor space in a room… it is that unoccupied space which makes a room habitable, as it is our leisure hours which make our life endurable.”
Lin’s ideas never made it into the mainstream. If they had, as a teenager I might have been spared the endless seminars on workplace leadership, confidence, and entrepreneurship. All the same, one can detect glimpses of barbed attacks at this paradigm in The Importance of Living. Something about the year 1937 triggered a memory, so I took my copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People from the bookshelf and dusted it off. And there it was, “first published in 1937.”
How odd that the two books were published in the same year. A big cosmic joke, or an invisible hand trying to maintain balance in the universe? On one hand, the doyen of idling, and on the other, the master of career advancement: Dale Carnegie.
Chances are you already know enough about Carnegie to have an opinion. A rancher’s son from Missouri, Carnegie was inspired by the performance of the Chautauqua movement to become an actor. Though acting success was not forthcoming, he channeled the same influence into evening classes on human relations, bringing a touch of evangelical vigor to the art of handling people. Pamphlets from these classes eventually grew into a book.
That book was an overnight success. Reprints couldn’t match the speed at which it flew off the shelves; the book became a meme, a self-parody, and a flourishing franchise. By the time 1948′s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living came out, Carnegie was a household name. Now, over 15 million copies later, Carnegie has cast a long and enduring shadow on Western culture that is hard to extricate from Western identity itself.
How to Win Friends has been called the granddaddy of self-help books—a kind of Aesop’s Fables for the business high flyer. Carnegie contends that everything, whether public or private, business or friendship, falls within the purview of sales. Smile! Give praise! Remember names! Each principle has a stream of anecdotes showing the power of these behavioural hacks beyond any doubt. The entire book rests on the premise that the reader wants to get ahead in the workplace, make more money, and achieve higher status. And Carnegie promises to deliver.
The two visions of life couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Carnegie’s stentorian voice, barking injunctions from on high, stands in total contrast to Lin’s armchair observations, playfully thrown out between puffs from his pipe. The two men represent the dichotomy at the heart of civilised life: work or play, status or obscurity—East or West, Orient or Occident. One can’t help wondering if they ever met.
The battle between strivers and idlers
The tussle between Lin and Carnegie was just one battle in an eternal war, for strivers and idlers have always had a fractious relationship. One side believes, like Dr Johnson, that by being satisfied with little, the idler not only escapes “fruitless” labours, but sometimes “succeeds better than those who think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.” On the other side, figures like eighteenth-century Methodist John Wesley preached the virtue of early rising with misplaced scientific confidence: “By soaking so long between warm sheets, the flesh is as it were parboiled, and becomes soft and flabby.” Clearly, this fleshly cooking did wonders for Dr Johnson, who used to lie in bed until the early afternoon and still found time to produce the first English dictionary, alongside a literary career that would embarrass most writers today.
But work needed its advocates. How could the industrial revolution be carried out without minions? After Wesley, the nineteenth-century thinker Thomas Carlyle took up the Methodist mantle to promote the dignity of toil. “Man was created to work,” he blasted, “not to speculate, or feel, or dream. Every idle moment is treason.” Some have pointed out the convenience of the narrative to the rich, who were often happy, as Bertrand Russell put it, “to preach the dignity of labour while taking care themselves to remain undignified.”
Loafers didn’t take this lying down—or at least, they didn’t let that stop them. Victorian writer Jerome K. Jerome took the idler banner into the twentieth century. He complained of symptoms of an illness, primarily “a general disinclination to work of any kind.” But science hadn’t caught up to the problem, he said, and uncharitable neighbors put it down to laziness. “‘Why, you skulking little devil, you,’ they would say, ‘get up and do something for your living, can’t you?’—not knowing, of course, that I was ill.” Thus the creative art of the serial skiver was born.
But a watershed moment was on the horizon for the cause of hard graft: the Great Depression. It was the first time that labor was marketed as self-help, at the same time that the individual was conceived of as another product in the market. Sociologist Sue Currell has commented that self-help literature of the 1930s showed “an intensified demand for more efficient use of energies and skills, arguing that ‘recovery’ was only possible by improving personal efficiency and streamlining oneself for new market conditions.” Currell points to the self-help guru Walter Pitkin as a prime example of this, a man who commanded Americans to recast themselves as a “business proposition”: “You should begin by analyzing yourself as a human product in the market for a buyer ready to pay a right price for the proper commodity ... Do try to sell yourselves as a better product.” Though the language sounds rather crude to a modern ear, couched in more acceptable language, this formula for self-help still persists.
And today, the entrenchment of the Protestant work ethic is deeper than ever. There is an unwritten assumption that one must always aspire to higher office, a higher salary, and more of everything. Dropping lucrative work for more leisure time invites quizzical looks wherever you go, despite the fact that nearly half of all workers don’t like their jobs. In an age of ambitious go-getting, prestige, self-presentation, and just plain being the best, it feels like Carnegie’s book is the choreography to which we’re all unconsciously shuffling.
The proportion of Americans that are unhappy at work, according to the Conference Board. Since the inception of the job satisfaction survey in 1987, the proportion of those satisfied with their jobs has been on a steady decline, from 61 percent in the late 80s to a low of 42 percent in 2010.
This isn’t a call for luxury communism, or anti-tech utopian bliss. Social and scientific progress undeniably improve lives, minimise suffering, and make resource allocation more efficient. There is plenty to like in Carnegie, and it is hard to ignore the fact that some of Lin Yutang’s views are desperately outdated. But the point is that we too readily adopt an inflexible attitude about the virtue of hard work while doubting the right to loaf.
We might be able to have it both ways. Lin Yutang talks of the “philosophy of half-and-half” adopted by Confucius’ grandson, Tsesse, as “that spirit of sweet reasonableness, shown in the ideal of half-fame and semi-obscurity.” E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, outlined what that might actually look like in practice, in a rhythm of work that is potentially as old as humanity. Before the Industrial Revolution, work was less apt to be structured, and workers could pick their own schedules. He found the same striking patterns of behaviour in all pre-industrial workers, whether English weavers or Mexican miners: “The work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness, wherever men were in control of their own working lives.” He adds:
The pattern persists among some self-employed—artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students—today, and provokes the question of whether it is not a “natural” human work-rhythm.
Whether or not he was right, that rhythm is a lot more appealing than the nine-to-five.
Thanks again to Fahad for the great insights. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! See you next week.