As the northern hemisphere limps to whatever summer tourism it can muster, I am starting to dream of the epic holiday I will enjoy when I am finally able. What will yours be? And will you truly live your holiday — and indeed your life — to the max? Will you see dawn break over Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo? Will you savour the freshest tamales in the market at Oaxaca? Will you sing karaoke into the early hours in Roppongi? (If so, I hope you capture it all on Instagram.) And if you do see dawn break over Florence, won’t some part of you wonder if it shouldn’t have been Oaxaca or Roppongi instead?
The world is wide and full of wonders. On this point, a recent New Yorker cartoon is worth a thousand words. It depicts a man sitting in bed, sheets tucked under his chin, haunted insomniac eyes staring, the bedside clock reading 2.37. The thought bubble reads, “Once again, I have failed to take full advantage of all New York has to offer.” The pressure to be productive is everywhere, even in time off. Once you’ve cleared your inbox, you can start ticking off the list of galleries in Paris, or Thai islands, or Great Novels To Read Before You Die. But is it not always thus? How often can we honestly look back at our day and say that not a minute was squandered? It is exhausting when it happens. We cannot burn brightly every day. Yet it is so easy to become regretful.
As Oliver Burkeman points out in his new book, Four Thousand Weeks, we risk holding ourselves to standards of productivity and achievement that no human could ever reach. A related but distinct problem is what the writer Adam Gopnik called the “Causal Catastrophe”, which is that we risk judging every action not in its own right, but by its long-term consequences. Gopnik was writing about parenting and the idea that how you feed, comfort or play with your baby should be evaluated by what sort of adult that baby becomes. Alas, the consequences of snuggle time are imponderable, uncontrollable and effectively unobservable. Meanwhile, there is a real baby in front of you. Don’t blink and miss it.
The Causal Catastrophe lurks everywhere. Why do you want to go to university? To improve your job prospects, to earn money, to pay for retirement. Why do you want to learn to run 5K? Because then you’ll be able to run a marathon, and the marathon will let you raise money for charity. Why do you want to go on holiday? Because you need to rest and recharge so that you will be able to work more productively when you return. It all sounds so reasonable, except that if everything is done as a means to something else, nothing is worthwhile in itself.
In Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, in a conversation between embittered former friends, the protagonist Sula declares,
“I sure did live in this world.”
“Really? What have you got to show for it?”
“Show? To who?”
Exactly. Life is not a rehearsal, but neither is it a performance.
I find that one of the most relaxing moments of the holiday is often just before it starts, and this is because it forces clear decisions. Suddenly every task on the To Do list can be divided into “have to do this before I go” and “this can wait until I get back”. This productivity guillotine has been blunted by the ability to work on the move, but it remains sharp enough to bite. A good time-management system offers the same promise of clarity every day, the same inner peace that comes from feeling confident that you’re spending your time wisely. But while the promise is not completely hollow, there is a trap in waiting for the moment when all the decks are clear, everything is under control and the rest of life can begin. The trap is that such moments can only ever be fleeting. There is always more coming in — whether it’s small, such as a new email or a new neighbourhood restaurant, or as life-changing as a cancer diagnosis. The decks will always be messy and we should not wish things otherwise.
The best holiday I ever had was my honeymoon, in 2003. We walked for nearly a fortnight, coast to coast across the UK. Honeymoons are supposed to be fun, of course, but I think there was more behind the bliss of this one. It was that the holiday was enough, and we were enough for each other. There was no anxiety that we should be doing anything different. The wedding was joyful, but also represented the completion of a very long To Do list. The thank-you letters couldn’t be written until we got home. I’d just quit my job (and was looking forward to an internship at the Financial Times). The decks really were clear. There were no choices to make. We had committed. There was no point in looking for shortcuts or distractions. There was nothing to do except enjoy the journey.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 August 2021.
The paperback of “The Next 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy” is now out in the UK.
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