Work As Idleness

I don’t speak French nor do I know my way around France. That’s mostly why I was happy to find myself fending for myself alone, by car, in the southern part of the country. There were a good number of navigational lessons to be learned — navigating unknown roads with the only way of communicating involving gestures and illustrations — but what struck me most was a kind of sign I saw.

Signs, generally, tell you where you are. That’s kind of the job we’ve assigned to them. So that’s why these signs were particularly interesting in that they communicate not where you are, but where you are not. They direct you by saying, “You Are Not Here.” As you leave a town, they state a positive by using a negative, forcing you to think about context and make connections you wouldn’t otherwise have to make.

Inspired by this idea of positives through negatives, I realize that I do my best work this way. I do my best work when I’m not working at all — when one might say I’m being idle.

Road signs in France tell you where you are *not,* rather than where you are.

Idleness is not to be confused with relaxation. It’s not about catching up with TiVo or even lying in a hammock. Idleness is the absence of activity. Nothingness. And like the French signs, idleness reminds you of what you’re not doing. These reminders and lack of movement force me to put where I’m going in perspective. And making these kinds of connections, at least for me, helps me think more broadly and in a more grounded way about my projects.

Scott Berkun touches on idleness in The Myth of Innovation with, “The best lesson from the myths of Newton and Archimedes is to work passionately, but to take breaks.” If Newton hadn’t been content to sit under the tree, the apple couldn’t have fallen on his head. Berkun suggests that observation, watching your surroundings, then reflecting back on your work, might lead to better results. And, in the case of the former, it led to a nontrivial eureka: gravity.

I think there are other ways we can use the definition of a thing through what it’s not. Christina Wodtke, for example, recently proposed the idea of the Anti-Tag on the IAI mailing list, a way of tagging items by what they are not rather than what they are. I’m excited to see more of this as we grow comfortable making connections in this Steven-Johnson-endorsed, multi-layered-narrative world. In the meantime, I’ll be busy being idle.