Un­con­ven­tional Wis­dom

DWIGHT GAR­NER makes the case for STOP­PING—or at least slow­ing down—to SMELL THE ROSES

Esquire (USA) - - Contents - By Dwight Gar­ner

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.


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