Upon receiving my decline to hang out, a friend replied, “I’m happy to hear that you are so busy, but I’m curious—what is it that is keeping you so tied up?” Her question caught me by surprise. For several years, “I’d love to, but I’m just too busy” has been my standard response to invitations to spend time with friends, join teams, plan trips or even attend weddings. To me, this response was both valid and justified; I was sacrificing fun for hard work. I was being responsible. My friend’s question, however, led me to further interrogate this auto-reply. What else might my proclamation of busyness communicate? Have I also inadvertently been proclaiming my own self-importance? Have I not—albeit unintentionally—been implying that others are not busy or that my time is clearly more valuable?
Apparently, I’m not alone in my frenzy or in my ambivalence about it. In a popular New York Times piece published last year, Tim Kreider critiqued what he called the “busy trap,” arguing that, as a society, we drive each other toward busyness in an effort to “hedge against emptiness.” Kreider puts into question the very nature of busyness; is it truly that idleness is self-indulgent and busyness is productive, or is it perhaps the reverse? It’s not an entirely new question. Thoreau was a strong advocate of idleness, and many creative and intellectual industries boast the value of providing “employee down time.” Yet, skepticism of Thoreau’s actualization of an idle life, as well of true “down time” within a workplace, abounds. And while this skepticism is valid, I would also posit that it is a symptom of the fact that, as a culture, we remain unconvinced of both the limitations of busyness and the benefits of idleness.
In this way, Kreider’s commentary is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. In the philosopher’s 1886 deconstruction of the essentialism of truth, he provocatively challenged the concepts of good and evil. Claiming that Christian “goodness” was motivated by revenge and resentment and, in its emphasis on the afterlife, resulted in a devaluation of life, Nietzsche not only turned the meanings of good and evil on their heads but also forced readers to think more deeply about the contexts in which meanings are defined. There is no universal good and evil; rather, the concepts are subject to the societies within which they are situated. Therefore, perhaps the next step in an examination of our obsessive busyness should be to explore the contexts within which it has developed.
While a true investigation into the contextual influences of the “busy trap” would require more time and space than I have here, I would point to three factors that I believe are relevant and worth further analysis:
First, the world is smaller. We are now aware of the existence of more information, places and ideas than ever before, and more importantly—through technological advances—we also have access to these things. While wonderfully enriching, this can also be overwhelming. I know I’ve felt it. On my first day of grad school, a professor began our class by telling us how we were already behind. It was an uncomfortable moment, but he was right. While scholars have always built on the work before them, they didn’t always have access to or knowledge of the entirety of literature and ideas that preceded them. Now, in large part, we do. With that access, also comes a responsibility to master that work and, further, a pressure to continually surpass it. Such feelings are not limited to academia; the same is true when it comes to current events, foods, activities and travel. As opportunity multiplies, so does the weight of that opportunity.
Second, there is an increasing belief that we are each extraordinary. Contemporary parenting styles—characterized by positive reinforcement, customized attention and an appreciation and cultivation of children’s individuality—feed such beliefs. So do (now rather infamous) rituals of giving every child a trophy. New media programming and channels provide a reason to buy-in to these beliefs; anyone, it seems, can become a reality TV star, a social media guru or a YouTube sensation. The only issue is, as David McCullough so succinctly put it during his Wellesley High commencement address, “if everyone is special, no one is.” High expectations of greatness can lead to an amplification of frantic activity undertaken in an attempt to grasp some level of exceptionality.
Yet, and this is my last point, measures of greatness–of success–are becoming more abstract, leaving many individuals seeking prestige, status or even accolades that either do not exist or are bound by time, space and knowledge. The workforce has shifted toward intellectual and creative labor characterized by its intangible value more than its quantifiable measures of success. How do you measure a good idea? Noteworthy art? The value of a business relationship? Further, with increasing specialization, it is difficult to translate the basics of one’s job, never mind its value. Even job titles have lost any sense of constant value—what exactly is a consultant, an account executive, or an analyst? With fields more specialized, organizations less hierarchical and careers more fluid, one’s title is no longer a concrete indicator of achievement. As a result of unattainable or short-lived recognition, there is a never-ending parade of effort. Efforts to demonstrate greatness sans clear identifiers of that greatness have led to a plethora of work; we are now bombarded with advertising campaigns, patents, publications, films, jam-packed resumes, etc. that must be sifted through. Thus, both producers and consumers are constantly occupied.
This was originally posted on the Ma’at blog on September 18, 2012.