DWIGHT GARNER makes the case for STOPPING—or at least slowing down—to SMELL THE ROSES
Is ambition overrated? A case for stopping— or at least slowing down—to smell the roses.
“All this work,” I complained, “is fucking with my high.”
—Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
Afew years ago, Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, gave an interview in which she set a new bar for grinding it out in the upper reaches of America’s hustle culture. It’s no problem to work a 130-hour week, she explained, “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.” It was the kind of pronouncement that allowed you to imagine her best-selling inspirational memoir (soon to be a six-part docuseries on Hulu), Tired, Dirty, and Holding in a Bowel Movement.
I don’t mean to pick on Mayer. Men have too often vilified women for daring to be forceful and assertive. (“Nevertheless,” as
Mitch McConnell belched about Elizabeth Warren, “she persisted.”) But Mayer’s indelible quote came to mind recently when I was reading a different interview with an overachiever, this time the legendary magazine editor Adam Moss. Moss, who’s also surely worked 130-hour weeks in his time, was detailing why he was stepping down from New York magazine, which he’d edited for fifteen years. “I want to see,” he said, “what my life is like with less ambition.” That line struck a chord with me, and with more than a few other people I know. It sent a little dart of both recognition and envy into many hearts.
How hard do you work? Me, I’ve been a fairly maniacal reader, writer, and journalist—a careerist, if you want to get personal about it—since I was in my teens. It’s all I’ve done and all I’ve wanted to do. I mostly work seven days a week. I work when I don’t have to. I rarely seem to do things that don’t have a high literary return on investment, although when you’re a writer, as Nora Ephron put it, “everything is copy.” I’m lucky to do what I love, believing what Bob Dylan supposedly does, that “a man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” But I’ve been running like a maniac for going on four decades, and sometimes I worry about myself. I find myself thinking about the inspired bit of doggerel that Philip Larkin wrote in a letter to Monica Jones, a woman he loved: “Morning, noon & bloody night, / Seven sodding days a week, / I slave at filthy work, that might / Be done
by any book-drunk freak. / This goes on till I kick the bucket: / FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT.”
I’ve never been the sort of irritable cretin who pushes the “close door” button six times in every elevator he enters. (Why are those always the guys smelling of Hai Karate cologne?) But workaholism and a certain impatience feel scorched into my DNA. My grandfather Archie worked full days in the Marion County, West Virginia, coal mines and then came home, showered, put on a tie, and ran his real estate office in the late afternoons. My father, a banker and lawyer, regularly worked
six or seven days a week. He did well enough that he got his family out of West Virginia and into the fresh salt air of Florida’s Gulf Coast. I’m proud of both of them. But I sometimes fear their legacy. I fear for my own health and sanity. It’s hard for me to loosen up. Maybe this is why the ceremonies of an evening— good cocktails, a better dinner, perhaps some healing candlelight—are so necessary to me. As I grow pink on gin, I’m also drawing a line across my day and definitively putting the workday behind me. I’m committing a small nightly suicide, as Charles Bukowski said of his own drinking. Let’s stop the person you are, alcohol sometimes whispers, and hope for someone better the next day.
If you believe a tall stack of recent articles, the millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 1996, demographers say) looks to be composed almost entirely of miserable bipeds with a debilitating addiction to overwork and what one journalist has dubbed “toil glamour.” For many of those born into an era of insecure jobs and crushing student debt, success at the office seems more important than anything else in life, friendships and kindness included. I feel for them, yet they appear to be taking their bearings from the wrong landmarks. They’ve neglected John Waters’s dictum that real wealth is “to never be around assholes.”
When I imagine living, like Adam Moss, with less ambition, I recall two great friends of mine, Ellie and Will (not quite their real names). They’re the baseline-happiest people I know, and I don’t think it’s an accident that neither one of them has ever been unhealthily devoted to their work. They’re not the sort of unhappy souls who, to borrow a line from the wildcat critic Seymour Krim, “never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their soul.” It’s just that Ellie and Will have always looked for meaning elsewhere in their lives, primarily in friendships. Ellie took so much time deciding what she really wanted to do that when she found it— she slowly became a master woodworker— it felt like a revelation, the exact thing she was meant to do. Ellie and Will were content to let their lives meander a bit, living more like the easygoing Huck Finn than like Tom Sawyer. They are connoisseurs of friendship, and I’m lucky to have them in my life.
Pretty often, when I’m in need of some breathing space, I look for inspiration in a small book that was published in 2005. It was written by an admirable British man named Tom Hodgkinson. Its title is How to Be Idle. I suggest you purchase a copy. Millennials, give it to each other for Christmas. (Hodgkinson, send me 10 percent of the royalties.) In the book’s preface, Hodgkinson lays out his belief that we need to “recover an alternative tradition in literature, poetry, and philosophy, one that says not only is idleness good, but that it is essential for a pleasurable life. Where do our ideas come from? When do we dream? When are we happy? It is not when we are staring at a computer terminal worrying about what our boss will say about our work. It is in our leisure time, our own time, when we are doing what we want to do.”
How to Be Idle takes us on a tour of a perfect dawdling day—sleeping in, dealing with a hangover (learn to enjoy these, he advises), eating a long lunch, napping, fishing, smoking, walking, drinking, having sex, and making conversation, to name a few perfect pastimes. The book reintroduces us to some of the leading idlers throughout history, such as John Lennon, whose song titles included “I’m Only Sleeping,” “I’m So Tired,” and “Watching the Wheels.” He once stayed in bed for a week with Yoko Ono for world peace.
Another idler is Walt Whitman, who wrote:
How do I love a loafer! Of all human beings, none equals your genuine, inbred, unvarying loafer. Now when I say loafer, I mean loafer; not a fellow who is lazy by fits and starts— who today will work his twelve or fourteen hours, and tomorrow doze and idle. I stand up for no such half-way business. Give me your calm, steady, philosophick son of indolence . . . he belongs to that ancient and honourable fraternity, whom I venerate above all your upstarts, your dandies, and your political oracles.
I debated honoring Whitman and Hodgkinson by going day-drinking this morning and not filing this column to Esquire at all. Surely they would understand. My editor told me to get it done, even if I was tired, dirty, and holding in a bowel movement.
THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION IS ADDICTED TO OVERWORK AND WHAT ONE JOURNALIST HAS DUBBED “TOIL GLAMOUR .”