In 1993, Tom Hodgkinson and Gavin Pretor-Pinney, launched an annual magazine (more of a book actually), called The Idler, inspired by a series of essays, by Dr Johnson, which had been published between 1758 and 1759, in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The Idler campaigns against the work ethic and its stated intention is to return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling aspirational, rather than something to be criticised.
Hodgkinson, a self-confessed idle parent, recommends that, children should be forced to help around the house as early as possible. As he says: “Children are naturally busy creatures and parents are naturally lazy, so to me it makes sense for the kids to do the work.”
In June, 2005, journalist, Graham Burnett, made the trip to the Idler’s first (probably only) workshop, based in the Dial House, in a bucolic part of Essex. Here he learned that the Idler concept isn’t exactly about laziness, rather more a riposte to current outmoded ideas of ‘busy-ness’.
Victims of the protestant work ethic would like all work to be unpleasant, a curse we must suffer on this earth, in order to earn our place in the next. Whereas, the idler sees no reason not to use his brain to organise a life for himself, where play is his work and so to attempt to create his own little paradise in the here and now.
At the workshop Burnett was awarded points for his late arrival, but was in time for a ‘pointless tasks’ session, where participants were judged on their avoidance of particular assignments .The outright winner, of course, was the delegate who hadn’t bothered turning up. Burnett’s weekend reminded him of something an old Zen master taught; “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
We are living in anxious times of austerity, with massive job cuts; but, asking why we are clinging to outmoded aspirations of an ailing system, Hodgkinson turns the threat of impending unemployment into a positive, with his idler’s aphorism of; “You’re not redundant, you’re job-free.”
The Idler claims that having a job is like being a slave; your company is your master and your interests must be identified with its own (if you want to keep getting paid). Jobs are possibly today’s major cause of depression and mental breakdowns. A new job won’t get you out of this trap; you will just experience an initial euphoria, followed by the same old tropes of office politics, idiot bosses and invisible, overpaid board members.
Being made redundant can be liberating; perhaps someone released will travel, write a novel, set a up that once-in-a-lifetime, can’t possibly fail dotcom venture, or a series of PM-addictive apps, make a fortune and do whatever the the hell they want. Turn a negative into a positive.
Okay; if you lose your job, you will probably need to readjust, learn how to earn your own money, rather than depending on a statutary monthly salary and you’ll have have to become thrifty; but that’s actually quite easy.
Without traditional employment, you can save a lot of money; your job is probably your biggest financial outlay. Earn £25,000 and you lose £6,000 immediately in tax and NI. Travelling to and from work, daily lunch and after-work drinks will quickly account for the rest.
The Idler says that if you are made redundant, you should rejoice and that lusting after employment simply makes the captains of industry keener to introduce lower wages and worse working conditions. The Idler recommends striving for a job-free Britain.
While that particular dream may currently becoming closer to reality than most would like, and the Idler is obviously exaggerating for effect, I do believe they are onto something.
In 2006, Ray Bennett, an American doctor, wrote a book titled, The Underachiever’s Manifesto. It was, unsurprisingly, not a best seller, but has just been re-published as an ebook, so anyone who can be bothered, can download it. Is it something for people who are simply lazy, or is it actually a guide to a superior sort of achievement? As Bennett says; “Being alive is by far your greatest achievement.”
The book’s subtitle is, The Guide to Accomplishing Little And Feeling Great, but it does make some really valid points. Bennett says: “The achievement lobby is powerful and underachievement, surprisingly, is not as easy as it should be. Our world is so full of unrelenting messages about being the best you can be, that it might not have occurred to you to try for anything less.”
“How many talented, hard-working people smoke too much and exercise too little. How many fitness-crazed people tear up their knees running marathons?”
In fact, it is generally accepted that moderation is often the best way forward; Bennett’s underachiever’s diet involves avoiding bad fats and keeping treats occasional, his underachiever’s workout involves walking, doing something with your upper body and getting a lot of sleep. Essentially, life is a complex web of interacting variables and it is impossible to know how, when you focus on maximising one or two of them, you’ll end up distorting the others.
The naturalist, John Muir, said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” This was originally applied to environmental issues, but also to individual lives; tug too hard on one thread and the whole thing can unravel.
Deliberate mediocrity is a good strategy for beating perfectionism and Bennett evokes the Taoist philosophy, that knowing not to reach too far might be the essence of freedom; as Lao Tzu said: “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill; keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”
You need to know your limits in order to find the room to manoeuvre. Another Taoist writer, Bill Mason, said: “In knowing how far you’ll be able to reach, you’ll have perfect freedom to choose just how far within that range to reach.”
Bennett quotes Picasso: “You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two. In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.
If it’s good enough for Picasso, it’s good enough for me.
“Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler.”