Why it’s good not to be busy, busy, busy

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 13, 2017

I never cease to be amazed by people. Ironically, even though I am sometimes thought of as wearing a relatively black hat, the truth is that I love people — just not all the time.

Recently I learned a new word — a “humblebrag.” This is a person who complains about not having enough time, while also mentioning that they are doing an Ironman, publishing a second book, giving a dinner party for 12 and leaving for Nigeria next week to help build a new water supply, and on the way home stopping in New York City just long enough to be on the “Today” show.

In the social status and wealth-perception world, this person ranks much higher than if he or she said they were going to a yoga retreat for a week to think about the future of mankind.

I have a friend whom I like a great deal. He is very, very busy. I mean every moment of the day is packed and scheduled. I recently read an article by Harvard Business School associate professor Anat Keinan, and the single line that jumps off the page is this — “some people boast the lack of spare time as a status symbol — even as an aspirational lifestyle.” In other words, I am really busy and thus I must be important and in demand — but of course, the reverse hook is maybe you are afraid of down time, having an afternoon with no meetings, no phone call, nada, zilch. What does that do to your self-esteem? Your self-belief mantra of “I am the scarce resource and therefore I am valuable” is clearly challenged.

It used to be that leisure time was the mark of success, a round of golf, a late lunch, take the bride out to dinner etc. The way you used to show off power and wealth was to buy a luxury item (Rolex / Lamborghini). Now it seems that you show it better by being “crazy busy”— and deeply overcommitted, because everyone wants you — in fact they can’t live without you.

I will tell you that my best ideas come when I am riding my bike or playing golf — alone. I can talk to myself and no one thinks I am crazy. I think the process of creativity needs space —room to wander. Look, we all know that Einstein took naps.

So maybe William Wordsworth was right: “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Pretty good stuff for 1802.

Keinan conducted an experiment about status. One group of subjects orders food to be delivered from Peapod, and the other group goes to Whole Foods to shop. Perceived status — you guessed it. If I don’t have time to shop, I must be really valuable and I am perceived to have more status, more so than shopping at the high-end market.

And finally, let’s take a look at happiness — which as you know, I think is highly overrated. But here comes another study, this time by Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer. He finds that if you are really happy — and if you show it by being chipper and upbeat and optimistic – “you are perceived as naïve, not paying close attention and easily exploited.” These people can be taken advantage of, because they must not understand the reality of the basic misery of the human existence. (This last comment is courtesy of my best friend, Sigmund Freud.) Imagine the fear of being too happy.

As my readers know, I have been seeing a shrink for close to 45 years. Not the same one, of course. One was convicted of malpractice, one left me — packed up in the dead of night and went to Oregon of all places — one died, I fired one and I have been with the last one for 24 years. So I am getting pretty familiar with this happiness thing. According to Schweitzer, the bottom line for team building in a company seems to be that it is OK to be happy, but try to avoid being “very happy” — it might adversely impact your advancement. (You don’t see many CEOs with a goofy smile and laughing out loud.)

Rule No. 501: If you keep your head while all around are losing theirs, you have no idea what is going on.

-Rudyard Kipling (revised)

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