Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Leisure Trap

An opinion piece by Tim Kreider in the New York Times warns us all about the "busy trap." Busy the author tells us is way to avoid emptiness and feel important. It deprives us of the fun of leisure, hours spent drinking pink alcohol with friends, looking at clouds, and whatnot.

I would seem to be a prime exhibit for his argument. I often have a list of chores a mile long, which I can't complete because I'm busy working and shuttling kids to chess, tutoring, piano lessons, and soccer. Once upon a time I had a thriving software company, which I sold, replacing my job with one far less demanding. In doing so I should have created lots of time for fun.

I look at busyness differently than he does, however. To me being busy just means that there are more interesting and important things to do than I can fit into the limited amount of time that I have. Sure, I could choose to be busy ogling girls but instead I choose to shuttle my children to music lessons, cook great food, workout, and learn new languages. Either way, I spend the same amount of time every day as Mr. Kreider I just choose to spend my time differently than he does.

Mr. Kreider, says he supposes that on his deathbed he'll regret "that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say," but goes on to say he'll probably regret not spending time on leisure more. My experience is different. Already at 47 I regret not having worked harder and learned more in college. Sometimes, when I see how meaningful my wife's work is (saving lives and pushing back the frontiers of science) I wish that I'd been willing to work hard enough to go to medical school when I had that opportunity. While I've heard that almost nobody lies on their deathbed bemoaning the fact that they had not worked one more hour I'll bet just as few lie on their deathbed wishing they'd played one more hour of Farmville or spent one more hour lying on their couch drinking lemonade.

Krieder does have one thing right, but he labels it incorrectly. Almost all of his examples of leisure are of things done with friends and there is no questions that time spent socially is superior to time spent alone, but being social doesn't have to mean doing things that are unproductive. Trying to spend more time with others is a laudable goal.

I spend plenty of time doing things that have no immediate benefit to myself, my family, or society, including checking Facebook and playing Jewels but in the grand set of tradeoffs that I make when deciding how to spend my time I hope that I can forgo the immediate gratification of leisure and spend more time doing things that improve myself, my family, and the world because I hope my life's meaning is based on more than how many cool, minty, pink cocktails I've consumed with friends.

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