January 22, 2008
News & Opinion: Rethinking Work: An Interview With Tom Hodgkinson
The following is from an email interview I conducted with Tom Hodgkinson after many years of joyfully reading his words (I first picked up The Idler in '94). Now, you might be thinking, "Why would 800-CEO-READ be talking to someone about the virtues of idleness?" Well, read on, and I think you'll understand. There's something very important in his words. As we pore over business books, we're essentially looking for ways to make our jobs easier, our work more fulfilling and our accomplishments more personal. Tom Hodgkinson just might have all the answers.
8cr: First off, please clarify the difference you see between idleness and laziness.
Tom Hodgkinson: Idleness for me is not a giving up on life but a spirited grabbing hold of it. I was idle when faced with wage slavery, i.e., doing boring work for somebody else at times of their choosing, in return for money. In that situation, I would become very lazy. But idleness really consists of doing stuff which is not really recognized as productive behaviour in our profit-driven economies. I might look as if I am lying in bed, but in fact I am turning ideas over. Often I get good ideas in the bath, when I am perfectly relaxed and my mind is flowing freely. And now that I am in control of my own work, I find that I am quite productive. Since retiring from the world five years ago, I have written three books, edited twelve more, written countless articles, run a small magazine from home, and had time left over to play a role in our local community, teaching ukulele at the local school, for instance, and to play with our children. In general I work from nine am till 1, and the rest of the day is for sleeping, outdoor work, walking, playing, cleaning, etc.
8cr: You started publishing The Idler in 1993, and have since turned it into quite a remarkable literary publication - which is no small feat! How does being idle allow such activity to get anywhere, and what can others learn from that?
TH: Idleness leads to good work! To me idleness is a bit like the punk ideal: do it yourself. A band is a good example. Here is a bunch of people motivated by a desire to escape the world of boring jobs and get out of bed when they feel like it. But they end up practicing hard, touring, recording, etc. Paradoxically, the more I have embraced my own idleness, rather than rejecting it as before, the more productive I have become. If work is self-directed, autonomous, and creative - then it does not feel like work. It feels like play. And that is the goal of the idler, to create work for oneself that does not feel like work. To play.
8cr: "Productivity guilt" plagues many. How might people overcome this and possibly see more productivity in the process?
TH: Guilt is a waste of energy. I used to waste a lot of time in beating myself up about early rising or whatever. We are constantly telling ourselves to "do more." But who does this guilt serve? Does it really help us or is it just a useful tool for our employers? Is guilt an innate emotion, or one that is planted in us by conditioning? I would argue the latter, and when we recognize that there is nothing natural about guilt, but by contrast it is a man-made emotion, then it becomes easier to cast it off. And is "doing more" necessarily a good thing? What about doing less, but with more pleasure?
8cr: What do you feel is the most profound thing that can happen in times of idleness?
TH: A feeling of being joyfully in the present, rather than worrying or regretting.
8cr: Talk about the paradox of work being fun and fun sometimes being work.
TH: We resent work when we feel it has been imposed on us. When we choose it for ourselves, it is fun. Take vacations. Actually, they can be a lot of work: sightseeing trips, water-sports, horse-riding. But because we have chosen and paid for them, we see them as leisure. The same things, were they imposed on us, would feel like work. So there is a question of mental attitude here. Is doing the dishes actually unpleasant? Or is it our mind that makes it so?
8cr: How do you think idleness helps develop a person's true interests without turning them into a bum? When balanced appropriately, what do you see as the ideal outcome?
TH: Well, first let me defend bums. Bums are independent. Think of the Beatniks, think of Walt Whitman (who wrote: "how I love a loafer"). Layabouts are good for society: they are there to help out when things go wrong, when everybody else is busy working. They provide a commentary on the vanity of human wishes. Bums in old Europe were welcomed: they were called wandering monks, or musicians. Bums can bring a lot of good into the world. It is not true that "hard work" is the only appropriate approach to life (although if you want to work hard, I certainly won't stand in your way - I'd love to watch). Having said that, I think an increased portion of guilt-free idleness is a useful and healthy addition to anyone's life. Work kills us, you know. The ideal outcome is for each of us to do work that he or she enjoys and make a reasonable living from it.
8cr: Companies scramble to design systems that address work/life balance issues with their employees. What's it like at your office?
TH: I work in my study at home which is generally in a state of chaos. There are two desks - one with computer and one without, where I write, with an ink pen, and read. There is also a deckchair for napping. I think the ideal office would house three or four people. There would be a fire burning in the grate and books around the wall. There would be a sofa in the corner for after-dinner naps. The trend towards open plan - i.e., observable at all time - fills me with horror. I think staff should be allowed to create their own working environments rather than being forced to fit the vision of some idealistic architect maniac or profit-hungry CEO.
8cr: The West works pretty hard, but mostly by choice. What are your thoughts about countries where this is more of a cultural act (Japan), or necessity (China)?
TH: My thoughts are sad. In fact, in those countries you mention, the old traditions were against hard work. Taoism is the idea that you should not strain or stretch, but go with the flow. In China till recently, they all napped after lunch. For some reason they have decided to compete and work hard. I suppose that's up to them, but I wish they would set us a better example.
8cr: What role does technology play in idleness? Technology is supposed to make work and life easier for us. Is this really the case?
TH: I'm afraid not. It seems to create more work. Right from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, technology has promised to free us from toil. The steam-powered machines were supposed to do all the work. These days, digital technology is always telling us that it makes our lives easier. But does it? The Blackberry, for example, actually ties us to work 24/7. Ditto mobile phones. Email and computers suck time, and waste it. What happened to dancing, and singing? People have more fun in societies with less technology. Technology actually makes us dependent. When our broadband connection went down last month for a couple of days, I initially felt bereft. Then I read a book and picked up the phone and wrote some letters. That was much better. Labour-saving devices just make us try to cram more pointless activities into each day, rather doing the important thing, which is to enjoy our lives.
8cr: Your latest book, The Freedom Manifesto has a chapter about competition. How can a company apply the ideas therein to perform better by not competing?
TH: Well, they can't! You would have to prioritize other issues over mere performance, things like quality, pleasure in work, creativity. Once you have a company that is publicly owned, its priority is going to be share price, and all other considerations - quality of product, customer service, and employee welfare - become secondary. But the old-fashioned system of business stressed community and fairness in dealings. For example, strange as it may seem to apostles of the free market, the old way was fixed prices. You were not allowed to undercut another guy in the same business because that was unfair (a cynic might point out that oil companies do a similar thing today). Businesses were arranged on a principle of brotherhood rather than competition. Overwork was frowned on because it might give you an unfair advantage over your brother. And this system worked: there was a huge amount of global trade in the 13th and 14th centuries, with fantastic innovative products flying around the world.
8cr: Consumer debt is out of control in America, and causes tons of people to work more, at things they'd rather not be doing, in order to address this. Is there a better solution?
TH: Yes, being thrifty. Don't buy anything. Strip down your expenses. Throw away the credit card. Don't commit yourself to $500 monthly payments on an automobile. Buy an old wreck instead. Take fewer trips. Reject holidays. Make bread at home. The new aspiration will be towards a self-controlled, creative, pleasure-filled life where the home becomes productive and we don't buy rubbish that we don't need. Throw away the television, don't buy the newspaper. Try and cut down on the amount of advertising that you take in.
8cr: If practiced on a large scale, this could drastically affect the economy, employment, etc. Thoughts?
TH: I think that would be good. I'm not a big fan of conventional employment and conventional economic thinking anyway. In any case, what of the alternative? We are seeing a lot of value being wiped off Wall Street right now. Banks are failing in the US and Europe, with a direct effect on employment and the economy. This meltdown and loss of confidence is a direct result of greed, sometimes called "the free market." But now even the most fervent free marketeers are beginning to wonder whether we need to introduce more restrictions on trade, etc. I think people are beginning to question the wisdom of "greed unrestricted" which might describe the financial philosophy of the 80s-90s-00s.
We need to reinvent the principles of economy and put well being and quality of life at the top of the agenda. We need to abandon the notion that the markets, left alone, will sort out all the ills of the world.
We need to ask ourselves: has the Puritan/Enlightenment programme failed?
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.