We Learn Nothing

I learned about We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons by Tim Kreider through Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans. There’s a chapter by Kreider called “Lazy: a manifesto”. An earlier version is available at The New York Times titled “The ‘Busy’ Trap”.

Ferriss produced the audiobook of We Learn Nothing, which I bought alongside the Kindle version immediately after I noticed I was highlighting large swaths of text in Kreider’s chapter.

Last year, I read Deep Work by Cal Newport and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Both guided me toward thinking about eliminating busy work. They highlight the importance of identifying and focusing on what’s important. It’s a big ship to steer in a different direction, but I’m glad I’ve started.

“The ‘Busy’ Trap” is a great reminder of why it’s worth it to free up time in the first place. Increasing work efficiency to free up time only to fill it up with more work is a bit backwards. In We Learn Nothing, Kreider expands on the value of these regular good days. Some of that wisdom is expressed in a chapter about alcohol:

I’m more productive now, and more successful; for the first time in my life I’m supporting myself by doing what I’ve always wanted to do. But I laugh less than I used to. Drinking was, among other things, an excellent excuse to devote eight or ten consecutive hours to sitting idly around having hilarious conversations with friends, than which I’m still not convinced there is any better possible use of our time on earth.

Spending time with friends is a luxury we can likely indulge in right now. I’d wager that we don’t do it enough.

Jumping back to the other Tim, Ferriss’s 4-hour Work Week helped spread the idea that elements of a life of luxury is more attainable than you think. Delaying gratification until you’re too old to enjoy it seems backwards. When I think about my mom still not being retired, it sure makes retirement age seem far away.

It’s important to enjoy our normal days. Ferriss says he likes the feeling of being unrushed. I’m seeing that I value that also. Day to day, working toward being unrushed seems like a good way to approach things.

I notice that no one who works in a hospital, whose responsibilities are matters of life and death, ever seems hurried or frantic, in contrast to interns at magazines I’ve known who weren’t even allowed to leave for lunch lest they be urgently needed.

A lot of friends I grew up with work in hospitals now. Nurses, MAs, and a couple doctors. I can’t remember a time that they complained about work. If they did it was probably about not wanting to go back after having 6 days off.

In a previous job, I dialed into 2am conference calls to make sure holiday shopping links were working. That’s an extreme example, but urgency is always magnified by your bubble. If your day is spent at a desk, it’s never life and death. It’s rarely even a matter of being employed or not.

In living an unrushed life, one of the greatest enemies is a false sense of urgency. It’s not great to pull all nighters for weeks to reach a deadline only to learn the work won’t be relevant for a month if ever.

In the excerpt above, Kreider talked about drinking to express the values of spending time with friends. Here, he uses it as a way to consider our perspectives:

But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My own life has admittedly been absurdly cushy. But my privileged position outside the hive may have given me a unique perspective on it. It’s like being the designated driver at a bar: When you’re not drinking, you can see drunkenness more clearly than those actually experiencing it. Unfortunately the only advice I have to offer the Busy is as unwelcome as the advice you’d give the Drunk.

It’s important, but sometimes hard, to look at your situation from an outsider’s perspective. If you’re stressing out about something, there’s value in asking, “How important is this really?”.

My senior year I had a couple partners for an assignment in some EE analog class. We hit a wall and were sitting in the lab stuck for about an hour already. We took the final already, but our final assignment was due the day after. In so many words, I thought “How important is this really?” We were walking for graduation literally the next day. I brought it up to my teammates.

“Let’s look at the syllabus.”

The assignment was 3% of our total grade and I knew we’d get at least an F+ on this. Maybe it was the sun shining through the blinds. Maybe they remembered they had jobs lined up already.

“Have a great summer!”

It worked.