(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)
(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River.)
From the 18th-floor homestead
A popular topic these days is speculation about the duration and the extent of the damage of the pandemic. However, perhaps an equally important topic for examination should be what your ideal post-pandemic life should look like. I don’t mean the “new normal” public behaviors; I am referring to your personal lifestyle choices. This pandemic was unexpected and the ultimate number of deaths and the accompanying economic destruction are, at this point, incalculable. However, we can use this situation as a golden opportunity to consciously design a better, more sustainable version of The Good Life.
Below is an excerpt from an article published a few months ago – so recent yet so distant. How many of those ideas and proposals still resonate today? How have your ideas changed because of recent events?
Everyone wants to live a good life. But, when we begin to describe just what constitutes that “Good Life” (when capitalized), we quickly get entangled in vague generalities and highly subjective terminology. Specifically, almost everyone who is living above the poverty level would agree that a Good Life begins with a safe, comfortable environment, then adds their personal mix of the elements that constitute a high Standard of Living and a superior Quality of Life. (My own version involves a view outside my window of a warm, golden tropical beach – tropical flowers, tropical fruits, tropical breezes, tropical girls, etc.)
To begin my reflections on this subject, I want to introduce a short conversation from a famous book, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, in which the world was introduced to Sherlock Holmes. The relationship between the two characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, has been called the most famous friendship in literature. In this exchange from A Study in Scarlet, the two characters have just met and are considering sharing a flat at, that’s right, 221B Baker Street. Before reaching a final agreement, Watson insists that they should each disclose any personal weaknesses and failings that might irritate a roommate. Holmes mentions some of the characteristics that later made him such a fascinating character and Watson reciprocates. “I keep a bullpup and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours and I am extremely lazy.” The two characters decided to become roommates and the literary world is richer for it.
But to return to this article’s topic…
“I am extremely lazy,” Watson said. What’s wrong with being lazy? This is exactly what I wish to explore here, especially in light of my own perpetual busyness. Like many people today, I have always idealized the busy person, the person who gets up earlier than others, the hard-charging leader, the person who works “smarter, faster, better” as Charles Duhigg puts it in his book of the same name. Indeed, in our modern lexicon, “success” is more synonymous with the result of that work (money) than with mastery.
We speak in glowing terms of people who are eternally busy, filling up every waking moment with something “productive”. We are admonished to use the little windows of time sprinkled throughout our days as opportunities for increased productivity and of furthering our education by making our cars, buses, trains, and planes into “rolling universities”. There is a huge industry devoted to educating us on how to make tiny, incremental changes to become more efficient, more productive.
I am not exempt. For example, I have long had the habit of carrying a Kindle with me everywhere I go… in case I am stuck somewhere for five minutes. Borrowing a phrase from an ancient American Express card advertisement, I “don’t leave home without it.” Recently, thanks to the wonders of Bluetooth headphones, I have also begun listening to educational podcasts whenever I am walking or riding public transportation to further ensure that no moment of my day is “wasted”. Our technology now allows us to literally fill every second of our waking hours.
Yet, as I strived to occupy every moment of my day with something meaningful and valuable, I found that it wasn’t making me happy. Was I irredeemably flawed, unable to focus long enough to make myself a master of something – and, by implication, become a happy, self-actualized (i.e., rich) person?
Upon reflection, I find this compulsion to be sad. On deeper examination, I find myself unable to justify it. What’s so wrong with Watson being “extremely lazy”? Why is that phrase such a damning description? It certainly didn’t make me happy to feel it was necessary to fill every moment with some kind of work. Actually, it has the opposite effect. As I create pressure to cram some meaningful, carefully chosen activity into every minute, I often feel guilty that I failed to discipline myself to achieve that unattainable 100% efficiency. But I also feel resentful that I never had time for relaxing and doing nothing more “productive” than watching an old movie, listening to music, spending irreplaceable family time with my young son, baking something that would fill the house with wonderful aromas, or just reading more Sherlock Holmes stories.
The conclusion I finally reached and which seems to be the proper balance (for me, anyway) is a blend of thoughtfully planned productivity and guilt-free spontaneity. I still have my regular routines, the urgent/important activities on my calendar each day, and my highest ROI projects – currently, self-publishing my book. But, after I finish my each day’s essentials and consider the activities I will pursue during any discretionary time for the remainder of the day, I now interspace those tasks with what I call my Watson activities – whatever I damn well wish to do.
And I am happier for this division of my time between focused, meaningful work and guilt-free, unplanned activities which includes but is not limited to unabashed relaxation. For I, like John Watson, find my nature to be “extremely lazy”.
(Back to July 2020 and the 18th-floor homestead)
I certainly envy people with money to purchase almost anything they want. Yes, and I confess to experiencing sensations of pure avarice when I encounter some of the more refined and exquisite material possessions and experiences in life. However, age and reflection have convinced me that success in terms of mere money is not enough. Raising my Standard of Living must be tempered with improving my Quality of Life. As one wag put it, despite unrelenting efforts, “Your inbox will be filled the day you die.” Working until we complete everything which we have on our written plans for the day and week is probably an impossible dream for most people anyway, especially if our activities involve depending on the cooperation and efforts of other people. Maybe a more efficient way – and, probably, a smarter way – would be to plan our days with specific limits to the amount of time we will devote to achieving various objectives that day. Then, when we have reached that time limit, the amount of time we ourselves selected, the remainder of the day can be enjoyed without guilt or stress.
We followed our plan; now, we can enjoy some time off. That would include the freedom to engage in pure sloth if we wish. But it could also mean being busy but not following a carefully crafted plan. I watch my son, age 7, at play. He has no plan; he just plays at whatever gets and holds his attention for a brief time. My son is certainly happier than me with my compulsions. Maybe I can learn from him. Maybe the best use of my day – after I finish working on my various projects – would be unplanned, unstructured activities, i.e., whatever catches my eye under the current circumstances. As Gordon MacQuarrie wrote in his classic short story Nothing To Do For Three Weeks, “I used every day for what it is best suited. Can anyone do better?” Using Mac’s wonderful imagery as a standard, ask yourself if you are using each day – and each portion of the day – for what it is best suited? Or, are you sacrificing Quality of Life for a tiny increment of a higher Standard of Living?
What is your vision of a Good Life ? Are you taking steps to get there? In your plan, are you also taking steps to ensure a Quality of Life that does not depend upon first achieving a certain Standard of Living? Are you seeking a more peaceful life right now, today? We have learned from the pandemic experience that there may not be a tomorrow so we should enjoy today. In addition to filling each day with meaningful work for a better tomorrow, don’t forget that, sometimes, the most suitable use of a day is relaxation and spontaneity. Today, after I get my more serious work completed, I think Chester and I will bake some biscuits and hang the new shower curtain. With his bumbling seven-year-old assistance, it usually takes a little longer than working alone but the father-son time for bonding is priceless. Can you think of a better use of my time?
P.S. In that quote, Watson said, “I keep a bullpup and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours and I am extremely lazy.” Whatever happened to that bullpup?
最近一个流行的话题是对大流行病的持续时间和损害程度的猜测。然而，也许一个同样重要的考察话题应该是你理想中的大流行后生活应该是什么样的。我不是指 “新常态 “的公共行为，我指的是你个人的生活方式选择。这场大流行是出乎意料的，最终的死亡人数和随之而来的经济破坏，在目前来看，是无法估量的。然而，我们可以利用这种情况作为一个黄金机会，有意识地设计一个更好的、更可持续的 “美好生活 “版本。
每个人都想过上好日子。但是，当我们开始描述什么是 “美好生活”时，我们很快就会陷入模糊的笼统和高度主观的术语中。具体来说，几乎每个生活在贫困线以上的人都会同意，”美好生活 “始于安全、舒适的环境，然后再加上他们个人的元素组合，构成高标准的生活和卓越的生活质量。(我自己的想法是，在我的窗外有一片温暖、金色的热带海滩–热带鲜花、热带水果、热带微风、热带女孩等等。)
“我非常懒。”华生说。懒惰有什么不好？这正是我在这里想探讨的问题，尤其是针对我自己永远的忙碌。和今天的许多人一样，我总是把忙碌的人理想化，比别人起得更早的人，勤奋的领导者，像查尔斯-杜希格在他的同名书籍中所说的那样，”更聪明、更快、更好 “地工作。事实上，在我们的现代词汇中，”成功 “更多的是指该工作的结果（金钱），而不是掌握的同义词。
我们津津乐道于那些永远忙忙碌碌的人，用一些 “有成效 “的事情来填满每一个清醒的时刻。我们被告诫，要利用每天的小时间窗口，作为提高生产力的机会，并通过把我们的汽车、公共汽车、火车和飞机变成 “滚动的大学 “来继续我们的教育。有一个巨大的产业致力于教育我们如何做出微小的、渐进式的改变，以变得更有效率、更有生产力。
我也不例外。例如，我一直以来都有随身携带Kindle的习惯……以防我在某个地方被困5分钟。借用古代美国运通卡广告中的一句话，我 “足不出户”。最近，得益于蓝牙耳机的神奇，我也开始在走路或乘坐公共交通时随时收听教育类播客，以进一步确保一天中的任何一刻都不会被 “浪费”。现在，我们的科技让我们能够真正地填满每一秒钟的清醒时间。
经过反思，我发现这种强迫症是可悲的。深究起来，我发现自己无法自圆其说。华生 “极度懒惰 “有什么不好？为什么这句话会是如此不堪的形容？我觉得有必要用某种工作来填充每时每刻，这当然不会让我高兴。其实，它的效果恰恰相反。当我制造压力，要把一些有意义的、精心选择的活动塞进每一分钟时，我常常感到内疚，因为我没能约束自己达到那无法实现的100%效率。但我也感到愤懑，因为我从来没有时间放松，除了看一部老电影、听音乐、与小儿子共度不可替代的家庭时光、烘焙一些能让屋子里充满美妙香气的东西，或者只是多读一些福尔摩斯的故事之外，没有其他更有 “成效 “的事情。