Doing Nothing as an Alternative to Doing Something! [Text Version]

This essay was presented at AltExpo #19 at Liberty Forum 2015. Audio should be coming in the next few days.

Doing Nothing (1 of 2)

Yours truly presenting the following essay! (PHOTO CREDIT: John Blithe)

Introduction

My name is Nick Ford and I do a lot of things even though I profess to be a slacker and a lazy good-for-nothing. One of those things is a blog called AbolishWork.com. Some people hear this and say things like, “he just wants to do nothing!” or, “what a lazy person he must be!” and at least one of those statements are true, for the record.

Abolish Work revolves around the concept of work not as effort but as a form of labor that people engage in. Not because they want to but because they only want the external reward involved. The job doesn’t make them happy, they have no internal motivation to do it and it isn’t actually what they want to do. So your stereotypical low-paying retail job or at a fast food restaurant are good general examples. Though that’s not to say nobody could enjoy them.

For instance I’m sure some managers really enjoy the job because it gives them a sense of control that they may not have elsewhere in life.

Regardless, some people clean their room not because they want it clean or they want to do cleaning but to, for example, live up to someone else’s expectations of who they are as a person. Would I consider that “work”? Maybe. It strikes me that the person involved would probably be feeling pretty miserable about the activity, wouldn’t be wanting to do it to begin with and really wasn’t doing it for themselves but for others. So it seems to me, especially on that last point, that libertarians may have something to say about this sort of altruistic (in the objectivist sense) activity.

But the title of this talk still seems to imply that I do want us all to do nothing because, as I say, it’s a better alternative to doing something. It’s important to keep in mind though that part of the reason for this title (and indeed many titles) is its abrasiveness or ability to surprise others. I do probably think there are some situations where doing nothing is preferable to doing something but it isn’t an absolute preference or value.

There is, however so much busyness in this world. One of the worst cases for me is running on other people’s schedule. When I’m trying to travel and have to go on the bus’s schedule as well as the train’s schedule it is a real hassle for me to actually do what I want and in the time I want to do it. This is basically the same situation except perpetually if I’m working under someone in a given job.

So I certainly think there are some circumstances where doing nothing is better than doing something.

To give another example, there was recently a protest against cops for the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson happening in Boston and I was near the area and could’ve gone. But there were things against me: I didn’t know it was going on until it actually was happening. So I was mentally unprepared to go to a likely very intense protest. I also needed to consider the potential risks of getting arrested and however slimmer those are because I’m white it’s also a lot more costly to me personally than a middle-class white person with good healthcare because I’m lower on the economic spectrum. I also didn’t have a place to stay for that night so that was a big risk too just to go to one protest.

And what were the potential benefits? Well I’d maybe meet some cool people who could maybe give me a place to stay. But this would require me to find someone and talk to them enough that they’d trust me and vice versa. And in general there was the more basic problem that I just wasn’t convinced that the protest would do much.

The sad truth I concluded was that the cops are going to keep killing other people. It felt like that just waving signs and yelling in the streets wouldn’t do anything radically different or cause anything big to happen. Appealing to the public, the cops or the state house or whatever just seemed like a hopeless endeavor and that my time was better spent elsewhere.

So what did I do?

I did nothing.

I felt guilty, I felt like I should be there and helping in some way but I wasn’t sure how I’d help, what I’d even be helping or why I should do it. Other than this intuitive feeling of guilt that I had I mean. That alone wasn’t exactly compelling me to risk my head getting beat in by a cop and then not having good enough insurance to pay for it.

In situations like that there are a lot of costs and benefits to go through but in the end, when you know so little about everything and there are some big things like housing and health-care uncertain it may just make more sense to do nothing.

What is nothing?

So let’s back up a little bit because a lot of our dialogues these days sort of preconceive the notion of “nothing” as being bad. If you did “nothing” all day then you’re likely to feel bad about yourself.

But what does “nothing” mean?

Before you laugh at how inane this question sounds, really think about it for a second.

Does “nothing” even exist?

Sure, people say there’s “nothing” in there when you tell them object X is in location Y. But by “nothing” they actually just mean object X. And when people tell you that nothing is wrong when you feel like it’s otherwise…well it’s probably something.

As such the concept of nothing seems much more of a relative nature than an absolute one. We can’t say that there is nothing inside of us though that may be how we feel if we’re feeling depressed. Physiologically that’s just not true and anymore than that I don’t feel qualified to speculate about. But it’s worth pointing out that when most people use the term “nothing” they’re using it very relative to whatever else something is supposed to be.

So for instance when I didn’t go to the protest and instead went back to Worcester so I could better guarantee seeing my partner that night. I suppose an angry activist could say I did “nothing” about oppression that night.

But that presumes that going to the protest would’ve been a something in the sense that it would’ve been a useful act that would’ve furthered the ends of people who were against oppression. Since I wasn’t sure that that was the case I’d probably respond that I’d rather do “nothing” than “something”.

And therein lies the rub.

People are throwing around “doing nothing” carefree without thinking about what it actually means.

Those people on OK Cupid who think about “doing nothing” in a day as a bad thing aren’t thinking about doing nothing but rather doing nothing productive or meaningful for themselves. Maybe that means lying around on the couch and binge-watching a new series on Netflix. Or maybe it means watching movies, doing a lot of drugs and then maybe eating tons of junk food food before sleeping for the rest of the day.

Whatever exactly they think they mean by “nothing” it probably amounts to something but it just isn’t a lot of something to be more precise.

That isn’t to say that they don’t get anything out of those movies, bad foods or excess sleep. But perhaps not what they want to get out of their day. In that sense their day may be more filled with “nothing” than “something”. But is that state of affairs always objectionable? Is it always a bad idea to do “nothing” in that sense than “something”? I wouldn’t say so.

For example there’s the notion of taking some R&R (rest and relaxation) days for yourself. Usually these are not only containing activities that’d contribute to a day being filled with “nothing” typically but instead that is those sorts of days primary purpose. So in such a case you could argue that you’ve turned nothing into something!

If a lot of this seems obvious or just inane to you I’d argue that inanity is sometimes useful. Consider your average/not-so-average Monty Python sketch. Some of them are great particularly because they are inane.

And just as with “nothing” people are said to be engaging in “inane” things when they’re engaging in something very much like nothing. Or at least nothing relative to whatever the person who is doing the judging is doing. Nothing wrong with judging in of itself, but you should keep in mind that inanity seems less of an absolute and more relative, just like with nothingness.

There’s also a point to discussing nothing and something in a philosophical sense which is to explore our value systems. Why do we think some things are “nothing” and why do we think other things are something? Answering this question helps us reevaluate our actions throughout our life or even on a day to day basis. When we decide what we want to do and decide to do something else instead have we done nothing instead of something?

All of this boils down to what is meaningful to us and what we derive meaning from.

If I want to write an essay and instead decide to watch a bunch of awful 80s music videos I’ve certainly done “nothing” in the sense that I’ve negated my previously held goal. But what if this negation leads to creation? What if this form of procrastination, active creation of “nothing” or what some people might call “laziness” is actually a good way to do something?

I’ve argued for this before on my blog Abolish Work on a post called Laziness – A great Way to Get Stuff Done:

In it, I suggest that the reader thinks about a time that they’ve (among other things) lost something.

I posit that often what helps people isn’t constantly thinking about it until you want your head to explode. Instead, I suggest that it was more likely solved by giving yourself a minute (or maybe much more) and just stopping to think. Maybe you even turn your attention to something else. With the point being that you went and did something else or, within the category of searching at least, nothing to find it.

Because sometimes after doing (or not doing) than it all comes back to you. The solution hits you, the thing you forgot comes into your head as quickly as it had left. The lack of effort you put into it in such a case is definitely a factor. This is why people often suggest that others sit down, take a breather and maybe focus on something else for a bit. Constantly worrying yourself about something you lost is a much better way to unnecessarily stress yourself out then to find what you’re looking for.

Trust me, I’m an expert on getting crazy about things I lose, especially if they’re important. I try to remain calm and focus on something else or sit and try to relax. But in practice, at least for me, it’s certainly not something I’d say was easy.

Within this same topic I also mention that we often have goals in our mind that we’re always striving towards or trying to do something about. But it’s helpful to keep in mind that sometimes we’re wrong about our goals. Or even if we’re right that our goals are causing such a disproportionate amount of unhappiness in ourselves that it’s good to at least be self-critical about whether we should keep going or not.

There are certain situations where doing “nothing” won’t be useful such as in time-sensitive events that cause a lot of temporary unhappiness and stress but in the long-run will make you better off. That’s definitely a bit more of a tricky area and I wouldn’t claim there’s a fast and hard rule for that sort of situation. But being self-critical and recognizing your limits for enduring unhappiness aren’t usually bad things to undergo, especially if you’re in a tough situation.

What does it mean to do “something”?

So conversely there’s this idea of everyone wanting to do something in their life. You hear this in TV shows, movies and sometimes even in real life. Someone has finally had enough with being dissatisfied with the way their life is going and exclaim that they just want to do something.

This internal drive to feel like you need to create and investigate values and meanings in life, are what drives a lot of people out of bad situations, into better ones. To give a rather personal example, I’ve been living in New England almost all of my life and I feel like the time is right for me to do something else. This desire for “something” comes from this notion that what I’m doing now is actively sabotaging any new or interesting meaning or values from coming into my life.

That may be a bit hyperbolic but I think you get my point. People usually break down and change their lives or sometimes even change it little by little as time goes on because their values change and they want to live more in accord with their more current values. Sometimes they involve beloved hobbies of theirs they want to take more seriously but haven’t been doing so. Other times they are more social in nature and require the individual to seek out others who may share these values and better help them realize them.

All of these internal conflicts are a lot of the reasons why I just don’t buy arguments that if we reduced the amount of time people had to spend at their jobs they’d just sit around and watch Netflix all of the time. And hence nothing would get done, society would be in shambles and so on.

I think John Danaher of Philosophical Disquisitions counters this point in his, Should we Abolish Work? blog post:

It’s not clear to me that things will be any worse in a world without work. People have basic psychological needs — e.g. for autonomy, competence and relatedness — that will drive them to do things in the absence of economic reward.

Even when I don’t have a “day job” in the traditional 9-5 cubicle sense I still have a to-do list I give myself every day. I busy myself with writing, video-editing, debating, talking to friends, etc. I find ways to make myself busy but most of the things I spend my time with I want to do in some sense. It means something to me and I derive pleasure and good outcomes  from these activities. Many of these activities such as writing, playing music or debating I also value for their own sake.

So even though my life isn’t centered around any institutionalized form of work that most people find themselves in, I somehow manage to not binge-watch all of my favorite shows all of the time. Sure, my greater flexibility added to my penchant for laziness at times sometimes means I take a bit longer than some other people might. But on average if I start a given project then I’m going to have way too much invested in it to let it die or to stop doing it just because I hit a roadblock.

For most people I know it seems like a lot of them struggle with deriving meaning from the universe rather than just giving up and doing whatever first comes to mind. Anecdotally speaking, most people don’t seem to just fall over themselves once they’re given greater control over their lives. They instead try to fill their lives up with important things to them that make them feel like they’re really contributing to the world around them. And that world need not be the literal or global world but maybe just the communities they inhabit. For me that’d be the libertarian community, or the Worcester MA community or maybe other communities.

The point is is that people aren’t inherently good or evil. It makes no sense to say that people, if not given a structure by some external authority, are just going to do whatever they want. Or that they’re going to necessarily do whatever gives them the most pleasure instead of what makes sense given the costs and benefits, etc. We see a lot of people sitting around watching TV or doing things we think are wasteful largely because of the structure that is imposed upon them by others.

I know when I worked in retail I’d be much more likely to spend my money on things that (at least in the short-run) got me away from the fact that I had a job that I didn’t like. I didn’t really want to think about it too much and I also didn’t want my lack of pleasure for around eight hours of my day to have no bouts of pleasure that’d outweigh them. If I couldn’t find anything after work to make me feel happy or anything I could derive pleasure from I’d usually just go to sleep (the highest form of nothing one can do) so that I could try to have a better day tomorrow and sooner.

When I was working I never felt like I was doing something in which case meant that I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything in line with my goals. You may be shocked to know, for instance, that folding a lot of messy clothing didn’t exactly inspire me to feel good about myself. But that’s no secret and most people would say that that sort of job isn’t meant for fulfillment. But rather for the external goal of payment, promotion or maybe even networking if you could somehow do that.

But that’s exactly my point. A lot of the most open jobs to other people are these sorts of jobs where we’re doing a lot of something but come up feeling like we did nothing instead. And this “nothing” is more along the lines of not reaching your values rather than subverting ones you don’t care about.

There’s an essay by the egoist and nihilist anarchist Renzo Novatore called Towards the Creative Nothing. In this essay, Novatore rallies against many popular forces in society such as democracy, Christianity and morality. He contends that in enacting these sorts of oppositions in our lives we can then leap towards this “creative nothing” in its stead. What Novatore means by that is a condition or context whereby life is celebrated rather than denied.

And it is celebrated first and foremost by denial of things that are deemed sacred. Denying these things and going our own ways in developing what our desires look like rather than depending on things that give us reasons to subjugate ourselves to phantoms of the mind. The creative nothing is filled with laughter, delight of the absurd, large amounts of passion and struggle. It is a place where any and every individual sings their own melody proudly and loudly.

One could then describe the “creative nothing” as more than just a condition or context but a community of free spirits who decide to do something by engaging with and opening themselves up to the possibility of nothing.

To be clear, I’m not a nihilist. I do love Novatore’s prose and his switching of roles with the ideas of “something” and “nothing” but in the end it can only serve as a vague artistic vision. All it seems to do is show what we might be after, should we desire a world where people’s ability to grasp at values is much more straightforward.

Now, the philosophy of nihilism is actually worth considering a bit more deeply. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means but one interesting thing I’ve learned in the last several months is that there are different forms of nihilism. Which may sound weird for a philosophy that centers around nothing or no values holding any inherent meaning. But it seems true nonetheless.

When nihilists talk about nothing they’re talking about it in a vein more of meaning and value systems not retaining any useful content in practice. The world has no inherent meaning and while our lives may be full of struggling to create meaning or derive some meaning from other people’s work, in the end, it doesn’t mean anything. This goes further than the French philosopher Albert Camus who, in comparison said that such a struggle is absurd but is worth doing precisely because it’s absurd.

To divert for a second, the only thing that keeps absurdism from being nihilism is in the name, the belief that these things do mean something, but it’s often something not very useful or meaningful. That’s not the same as their being no meaning or no use. There’s still meaning and use but it’s one that’s totally alien to our intentions and just ends up looking a lot different then we’d want.

Camus counsels three possible ways to deal with the world: suicide, abstract belief in the theological or acceptance of the absurd.

Suicide, you’ll be happy to know, was dismissed by Camus as just reinforcing the absurd and doing nothing to actually engage with it.

The second option is a bit more contentious There are some Christian absurdists like Søren Kierkegaard who would say that the absurd requires there to be a form or plane of existence with a being who transcends the absurdity of life and thus would help give meaning. Camus deemed this the equivalent of “philosophical suicide” and so he also dismissed this as viable.

The last option, as you might’ve guessed from the beginning, Camus agreed with. Camus thought that by accepting the absurd one might be able to better live with themselves and live more defiantly and freely in the face of such uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a big part of absurdism and value creation. Its uncertainty is a big part of why absurdism isn’t nihlism because both nihlism and existentialism (the prospect that one first exists and then creates what that existence means) are much more certain about the prospect of value creation or finding meaning in life. Existentialism says (and I am pretty much in agreement with this) that value-creation is not only possible but it is an integral part of our lives. Nihilism says that such a process is inherently futile.

But this is where the various forms of nihilism come into play because so-called political nihilism limits that futility to the governance structures that come into play. Anarchists may actually overlap a lot with political nihilism because anarchists tend to see no inherent meaning to politicians decrees that are set in motion.

In any case these sorts of nihilists thinks that meaning could come from our activities if the political establishment was in some way or another taken apart. Maybe they support anarchism or maybe they support a monarchy, anything is possible.

There’s also the notion that the nihilism in practice for some people is just a general tearing down of all value systems so that we can then build and reconstruct better ones. I believe such a version of nihilism is confusedly called positive nihilism but don’t quote me on that one.

Regardless I agree with the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre on meaning and value-creation and think that “existence precedes” essence”. Or, in other words, that who we are isn’t decided from some sort of nature but rather our conscious actions as we go through in life.

The point of this presentation though isn’t to convince you of anything of the sort. Just to examine the different ways we look at “something” and “nothing” and maybe help you figure out how you weigh each sort of decision.

I suppose it’d make sense for me to refer to Sartre’s magnum opus Being and Nothingness but honestly I’ve never read it. It’s worth noting the the one time I tried to read it I ended up taking a nap instead. Not because I was bored by it but because I happened to be very tired. What can I say? Reading huge tomes of philosophy isn’t always breathtaking.

Lastly, I just want to delve into the language behind “something” and “nothing”. More particularly how it relates to the workplace.

Now, there’s all sorts of ways people represent nothing or something in what they do.

For example, when workers feel disinclined to what they’re doing and think it doesn’t have much value then sometimes they slack off. Or they’ll give mediocre results instead of the optimal results expected of them by their bosses. If, on the other hand, they feel it has a lot of weight and meaning to their life then their likely to give all they’ve got towards the job. They may even go above and beyond what’s expected of them. Either by the expectations they set for themselves or the expectations laid out in the contract they signed with the boss.

This, in turn, makes bosses want to represent value to their workers so that the workers will reciprocate. But this is a bit trickier than you might initially think it to be. Some bosses think they can simply raise wages and then the workers will be happier but this isn’t clearly going to result in long-term satisfaction with the workers. This is especially the case if the workers aren’t entirely happy with the job they’ve got and don’t want to be there to begin with. Giving them more money may, in the short run, help them feel more at ease about working there but it most likely won’t relieve them of that gnawing nihilistic feeling in the pit of their stomach or in the back of their head.

Slate writer Ray Fisman wrote back in 2011 that:

In one of the first gift-exchange experiments involving “real” workers, students were employed in a six-hour library data-entry job, entering title, author, and other information from new books into a database. The pay was advertised as $12 an hour for six hours. Half the students were actually paid this amount. The other half, having shown up expecting $12 an hour, were informed that they’d be paid $20 instead. All participants were told that this was a one-time job—otherwise, the higher-paid group might work harder in hopes of securing another overpaying library gig.

The experimenters checked in every 90 minutes to tabulate how many books had been logged. At the first check-in, the $20-per-hour employees had completed more than 50 books apiece, while the $12-an-hour employees barely managed 40 each. In the second 90-minute stretch, the no-gift group maintained their 40-book pace, while the gift group fell from more than 50 to 45. For the last half of the experiment, the “gifted” employees performed no better—40 books per 90-minute period—than the “ungifted” ones. The goodwill of high wages took less than three hours to evaporate completely—hardly a prescription for boosting long-term productivity.

Though, as Fisman implicitly acknowledges from the get-go this was a new experiment and so replication should be done to make better certainty of its validity. Still, it certainly poses questions for bosses who want their employers to derive more meaning from their work. It doesn’t seem like it’d be as easy as just adjusting wages a bit higher and this study seems to back that notion up.

There is also the possibilities that the workers in the situations of low-meaning or low value-creating work will just take Camus’ approach and accept the absurdity of the situation while inwardly trying to rebel in various ways. Some ways will be less effective than others of course and I don’t know that Camus would promote rebellion just for the sake of it rather than based on its merit.

Either way though there’s certainly different approaches workers can take to deal with the existential absurdity of modern day work.

If you want some tools on how you might deal with that absurdity I recommend TJ Webb’s The Efficient Slacker which you can find on AbolishWork.com.

Conclusion: Saving the Universe

To wrap things up let’s get practical for a second and talk physics and how lazy people are gonna save the world.

A popular Youtube channel for learning about science and a lot of other things called Vsauce recently had a video titled Did the Past Really Happen?

Around the 8 minute mark the host, Michael, starts talking about entropy:

Entropy is often called “disorder”, “chaos”. But entropy is very different from macroscopic messiness.

[Michael then goes on to use a deck of cards explaining that shuffling the deck and making it disorganized doesn’t actually increase its energy output]

However, entropy in the greater world around us has increased because in order to shuffle the cards my body has to do work. It has to take energy concentrated in my cells and change and disperse that energy into kinetic energy, movement, and a little bit of heat from my body and from the cards, friction, and a little bit of sound energy – that rustling noise.

So there’s your real legacy. Your contribution to the universe’s growing entropy. No process will be able to undo the net increase in entropy you accomplish in your life. … The ripples you leave behind may get redirected but the universe will never be able to forget the entropy you add. That’s the law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Many scientists believe this means that eventually energy – heat – will be completely spread out evenly throughout the universe. It will be the same temperature everywhere, and at that point nothing will be able to happen. Because in order for something to happen entropy needs to increase, energy needs to spread, to move to change.

This may be the ultimate fate of the universe – thermodynamic equilibrium. The “Heat Death” of the universe. It’s been estimated that at the rate things happen this end of the universe will occur a googol years, and you’re contributing to it by simply existing.

A funny consequence of all this is the fact that people who aren’t very active, people who don’t do much but lay around aren’t just being lazy. In a way they’re being considerate. Sloth maybe a vice, but to the universe it’s a fountain of youth. Choosing to do as little as possible means consciously limiting your contribution to the inevitable dispersal of energy and thus in a teeny-tiny way postponing the “Heat Death” of our universe. Relaxing adds time to the universe’s life: in an amount of time, to be fair, almost indistinguishable from zero, but still theoretically real. Being lazy will make the universe last longer.

So thanks for chilling out.

Thanks for taking it easy.

And workers of the world, relax!

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