Leisure - a waste of time?

Today I've been binging articles on the topic of "total work"; a culture or state of being wherein everything is subordinated to the credo of getting important stuff done. But what justifies leisure?

What does Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates have in common - other than the money thing? They all work a lot. Elon claims to have a 120 hour work week, which is astounding. Counting housework, my week is probably in the order of 20 hours, the rest being filled by reading, watching anything and everything on YouTube and hanging out on social media. I really don’t do a lot of useful stuff. A simple assumption is that if I spend more time working, I’ll raise my chances of success. While this is probably true, the logic of more work = more success is not water-tight.

There is something fishy going on with cause and effect in the stories we tell about success. Working hard does indeed raise your chances of success, but what comes before hard work? While happy accidents of genetics and environment may cause some people to be more prolific than others, there is nevertheless a context to the manic drive we see in the most impressive self-made people.

Most people don’t try to change the world. We go to work, make dinner and spend our leisure time pursuing a hobby or gawking at a screen. Our plans reach no further than paying down mortgages, helping our kids to become decent people, and finding a sustainable income. Within total work, leisure time has the function of either making you a more attractive hire or getting your stress levels down to a tolerable level. This is depressing enough, but the mistake lies not in the constant hegemony of work but the notion that having fun must be justified.

It doesn’t and shouldn’t.

Richard Feynman has this famous account of how his path to the Nobel Prize in Physics began with him giving up on science and deciding to just have fun instead. While this story communicates the right advice (kinda), it also invites the totally wrong attitude: Have fun so that you can succeed. It’s total work all over again.

After writing my piece on children’s rights, it occurred to me that, just as defending free expression requires us to stand up for repulsive utterances, defending leisure means taking on the burden of defending wasted time. Even embracing it. This is not just because we may learn something from the experience, or because an aversion to unproductive activities makes you unable to enjoy them (making the time doubly wasted). It is because time spent doing what you want to is never wasted.

I am aware that this is an oxymoron. It’s supposed to be. The very concept of wasted time assumes an impossible knowledge of alternative cost and cries out for self-coercive interventions. We should abandon that framework and look at the entire question of time management from a different angle.

When I was in training to become a teacher, our class was split into groups and told to outline a lecture on the history of democratic values. Every group except one started with Athens (duh). The last group argued that there was some 200 000 years of human history before that, filled with persistent political failure, and any serious history of anything human should take note of that fact. In the same way, histories of success tend to begin late. People with soaring careers often begin their tales at the moment of inspiration, or alternatively at the modest first steps of what was to become a momentous project.

But something important must have happened before that. Inspiration doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We rarely hear of the false starts, the expensive hobbies that didn’t really pay off in any way, or the periods of desperate inactivity that may have preceded an awesome and unlikely career.

David Deutsch has a concept he calls the “fun criterion”, which is quite simple: Follow the fun. His theory is that what we call fun is a state of harmony between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. And I guess it’s connected to flow. This solves the oxymoron of wasted time because it takes into account the fact that, in the long run, wasted time is indistinguishable from time well spent. An illustrious and profitable career may seem entirely wasted in hindsight, and two years obsessively playing an old Nintendo game may be the start of a rewarding career. The only viable strategy to make the most out of your time is to make sure that it’s fun.

This is not just because fun time is inherently more rewarding than boredom - though it surely is. No: It is not just that learning new things is fun; it is the only way to have fun, and the only way to learn. Having fun is how learning feels.

So: Chasing the fun is not guaranteed to reward you - at least not in the way you think. But it is the best strategy to have a life worth living.

So if you waste your time, make sure you enjoy it.

See you tomorrow.