Picks from Brain Pickings: How to Avoid Work

I have noticed that this site, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, has quite a few blog posts related to work and the themes of anti-work.

“Hey! That’s me!”

Here we have some choice quotes from William J. Reily’s How to Avoid Work:

Most [people] have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work — and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.


Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.

If you don’t get out now, you may end up like the frog that is placed in a pot of fresh water on the stove. As the temperature is gradually increased, the frog feels restless and uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to jump out. Without being aware that a chance is taking place, he is gradually lulled into unconsciousness.

Much the same thing happens when you take a person and put him in a job which he does not like. He gets irritable in his groove. His duties soon become a monotonous routine that slowly dulls his senses. As I walk into offices, through factories and stores, I often find myself looking into the expressionless faces of people going through mechanical motions. They are people whose minds are stunned and slowly dying.

Reilly also explores the relationship of ought and should when it comes to work:

To my mind, the world would be a much pleasanter and more civilized place to live in, if everyone resolved to pursue whatever is closest to his heart’s desire. We would be more creative and our productivity would be vastly increased.

Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.

Also included in this Bran Pickings article is a great quote from Neil Gaiman, here is an excerpt from that:

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

And although I would advise taking any general advice with big important decisions (such as where you want to go in life) with a grain of salt I can’t deny this one from Reilly doesn’t work for me:

No matter what your age or condition or experience, the sooner you find out what you really want to do and do it the better, for that’s the only way anyone can avoid work.


Try this approach. Suppose you were financially independent and were perfectly free to do anything you wanted, what would you do, if anything?

If your inclinations are at all definite, the answer to this simple question provides at least a general definition of the field which you would enjoy most.

For me the answer is almost instant: writing comics.

I’d really love to write comics for a living. I already have a few ideas (some big and some small) and someone I am trying to work with and another person who is may be interested in working with me. So it’s a slow but (hopefully) gradual process towards making it more and more a part of my life.

Reilly also discussions a general “division of labor” that includes people on the line, executive people, administrative people and creative people. I am not sure that I really like treating this situation as if it were normal or okay but inasmuch as I can do that I can certainly see myself as the creative type.

What’s more interesting to us perhaps are the reasons people give for why they haven’t done what they want to actually do with their life.

Reilly points out these:

‘I haven’t the time.’

‘I haven’t the money.

‘My folks don’t want me to.’

And then attempts to debunk each one, let’s have a look and see how he does:

Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

This is surely factually true but it is also surely the case that people who have more money can more easily take advantage of the time given to them.

For example, someone who has all of the resources all ready for them to make the big time versus someone in the street or someone in a lower-income neighborhood trying to make it on their own may have the same amount of time but this doesn’t mean they are able to as effectively use this time in the same way. In other words an hour of someone’s time who has all of the resources they need within the proper context is gonna have a hell of a better hour than the person who doesn’t.

So while I can in some respect appreciate this notion it’s more of a quaint one and something that relies way too much on taking the essence of time factually and without context to people’s abilities or resources.

Here is Reilly’s take on the second excuse:

Money never comes first in self-expression of any kind. Study the biographies of those who have built great fortunes, and you will learn that money came to them after they had produced or discovered something.


In a world marked by constant change, where the rich of today are often the poor of tomorrow, due to circumstances beyond their control, the only security is your ability to produce something of value for your fellow man, and your only guarantee of happiness is your joy in producing it.

True happiness lies in the pursuit of your goal, achievement in your chosen field. This must always remain primary. Whenever money becomes primary, you are on treacherous ground.

I am partially in agreement. Again, I can appreciate the spirit of it in some sense but I think it is unrealistic to ask poor people who are struggling enough with their money that they should just drop stuff and just do a long-term investment in what they love and hope it works out. This is a fairly risky thing for just about anyone to do who isn’t fairly privileged in today’s society.

And speaking of privilege, rich today and poor tomorrow? I mean I wasn’t alive around the late 1940s of course but even if that was the case then it surely isn’t now. A lot of the wealthy people are deeply entrenched in a system that subsidizes their costs and makes it easier for them to stay that way. This is especially true for big corporations and their state-granted privileges.

And finally:

What our friends and associates think’ influences us more than we realize. We like to live the life and stay in the role which others expect of us.


Each of us is somewhat like an electric light bulb, deriving its power from some central force. Just as the bulb accumulates dust and soot from the air around it until it is darkened, then blackened, so our individuality becomes dulled at first and then entirely blotted out from the accumulation of advice and interference which is superimposed upon us by family and friends. If you examine their advice, you will find that they are continually offering counsel based on their own experience in connection with a situation that is quite different from the one you are facing.


You will neither venture anything nor achieve anything if you permit yourself to be unduly influenced by others. . . . Remember this. Only one sound mind is needed to create an idea.


There is no one more colorless than the self-conscious, vacillating person who is neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, because he is always wondering what others will think of him and is always trying to please everybody.

I think there is a qualitative difference between seeking advice and wanting to please everyone or getting good advice from people you know and trust (which Reilly makes sound really difficult for some reason) and “wondering what others will think” of you.

So yeah, I like some of what this has to say. I’m not saying it’s all good advice and you should buy the book or something but it’s an interesting look at how someone a long time ago now (or at least it sounds it to me) thought we could all stop working.

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