On the Benefits of Doing Nothing: Some Reflections

I’m back in business after a short break, feeling replenished and raring to go. Nothing increases productivity like eleven days off work, however paradoxical this may sound. I’m writing a conference review, doing research for a new article, I’m looking forward to receiving feedback on the essays and abstracts I sent out before I left. Man, I’m on fire. I might even go for a run today!

I used to believe that holidays were for pussies. The only breaks I used to take were spent with family, and they were enjoyable, but work-free periods rarely lasted for more than a week. Looking back, I think I was a compulsive worker. If whatever I was doing didn’t feel productive for me, I felt like I was wasting my time. Missing out on opportunities. And being a student, then an academic, there was always more to be done. And whatever I produced was never good enough.

This attitude, I learned the hard way, is a great recipe for a stressful and unsatisfying life. I’ve been thinking a lot about work-life balance recently, and my reasons for becoming an independent scholar, and I’ll probably write a more substantial piece on this once my thoughts take on a more coherent form. But for now, let it suffice to say that I’m finally learning to do nothing. And I’m loving it.

Of course I’m not literally doing nothing. I spent the past two weeks partly in Brighton, where I stayed for the conference I’m writing a review about, and partly at home with my mum, who came to visit for the first time in years. Earlier this year I went to see my brother, who lives about a thousand miles down the road, I trekked to the coast to meet a seal colony, I got my brown belt in karate, and developed an interest in long-distance walking. Doing nothing, it seems, involves rather a lot of moving around.

Being an independent scholar means I’m no longer restricted by the academic rules and regulations that make me uncomfortable – the REF, exploitative working conditions, and a general absence of job security being just a few of them. But it also means that I have discovered, or rediscovered, previously underdeveloped aspects of my life and personality. “Academia is not a job, but a lifestyle”. We’ve all heard the expression, and I think it’s seriously toxic, but let’s not go there today. What its omnipresence did to me is clear now that I’ve wrestled myself free from its constraints. It instilled the idea that I’m not me when I’m not working. Which left very little time for anything else.

Of course, this idea is utter rubbish. My personality has not magically vanished now that I no longer have an institutional affiliation. My life has not collapsed. Quite the contrary. It feels richer. I’m having a lot more fun. Relationships with family and friends feel more meaningful. And while leaving the structure of academia behind felt daunting at first – what the hell am I supposed to do with my life?! – I now cherish the freedom I have gained. The possibilities are limitless. How marvellous!

In Brighton I caught up with a lot of old friends and acquaintances, most of whom I had not seen in years. I was puzzled when several of them asked me whether my current situation would be permanent. Who knows? I’ve learned the hard way that nothing is ever permanent. Jobs can be lost. People you love can pass away, or leave you, or unexpectedly come back. Life is unpredictable. All I can say is that I’m content with my current job and lifestyle, I’m not looking for a major overhaul, I’m happy. I’m taking life as it comes and it’s feeling pretty good.

Without the pressures that come with job insecurity, a competitive academic field, and the pervasive sense of inadequacy it brings, I’ve been able to flourish. My writing is much better than it used to be, a change not only reflected by my own opinion but also by my expanding CV. I’ve seen several dreams come true: publish a book, travel more, spend time with relatives I’ve neglected in the past because I was always working. The next project is to find a new place to live. A place I can make into a home, now that I’m no longer considering moving to the other side of the country for a short-time teaching contract.

I’m not saying I’ll never go back to academia, or urging others to follow my example. What is right for me may not be right for others and there are aspects of academia I still love – which is why I’m still writing and attending conferences. But I’ve realized that academia may not suit all of my needs and forces me to shoehorn myself into a box that makes me uncomfortable. And I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I’m not the only one.

Mingling at wine receptions – clutching a glass of water, because I’ve become teetotal, another radical change – I noticed how many young scholars seemed unhappy and strained. Each and every one of them was talented and each and every one of them was struggling through no fault of their own. I caught myself musing about talent being wasted, thinking that these bright people deserved better, but also considering that they should be allowed to make their own choices. I just wish people like me, who stray from the path, would not be considered failures. I’m not a failure. I just have a different notion of what constitutes success.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in a professional sense. Seeing my own book on my bookshelf fills me with pride. I can’t help feeling smug when showing it to people that used to be my colleagues and watch the condescending look on their face turn into surprise. But at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s all about. Success, to me, means living a productive and enjoyable life. It revolves around strong relationships with people I love, the opportunity to make a contribution to society, however small, to be creative, and to be free doing it.

In Brighton I watched actor Ian Ruskin perform his one man play on the life of Thomas Paine, the Anglo-American writer and social activist. The last lines of the play – worth spoiling – were: “Leave the world better than you found it.” I paraphrase, but then it seemed such an apt summary of my own beliefs. Sitting behind my desk in my hotel room on the Brighton seafront, writing up my notes, I concluded with a phrase that really says it all. Though I don’t remember writing it. “Everything is as it should be. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Image my own – View across Brighton seafront

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