Being Idle As a Sign of Success

A friend and I were discussing what it means to have success the other day and she was telling me how difficult it is to demonstrate success in her profession, a clinical psychologist. I had thought about that myself a while back when I realized that success to a mental health professional means that a patient no longer needs their services. It is a quiet affair to end one’s therapy; it is something private between clinician and the patient. There are no awards, promotions, publications, or other signs of success that might accompany positions in business or academia.

It got me thinking about ‘what is success’ anyway, particularly as it applies to work or career? Then I came across an article in the June issue of Harper’s magazine by Mark Kingwell, entitled “The language of work”. Kingwell makes the case that ‘work’, the fundamental idea of capitalism, is the “dominant value in far too much of life”. He argues persuasively that the language of the value of work “naturalizes and so makes invisible some of the very dubious, if not evil, assumptions of the work idea.”

He continues by highlighting that the word ‘idle’, a word we might associate with laziness or a negative state, was originally used by Aristotle to mean “the cultivation of the most divine element in us through the exercise of leisure: spirited but serious reflection on who we are and what we are up to, free from the base demands of mere usefulness.”

To Aristotle, being ‘idle’ would be a sure sign of success.

My psychologist friend’s work helps people remove barriers that might block them from addressing the questions of “who am I’ and ‘what am I up to’. Psychotherapy and contemplation or meditation are methods for facilitating that sort of personal inquiry; these activities may increase during times of leisure, but they are not effortless nor synonymous with leisure pursuits. Personal inquiry is an active process requiring effort that may or may not be practiced in times of leisure. As work has become dominant in our culture, leisure time has lessened. And when we aren’t working we are often too tired to practice anything requiring effort or we are determined to do more things — vacation, sports, cinema, etc. — so there isn’t time for active personal reflection to take place.

When the idea of work consumes us as Kingwell’s article suggests it does, it contributes to a sort of thinking that the measure of success is the collection of more things — money, awards, property, fame — way beyond the necessity of work for the sake of usefulness.

A recent Pew poll of high school graduates noted that their number 1 and 2 goals in life were to be rich and famous while goals of spiritual growth and community involvement shrank in collective compared to previous generations. In light of these changing interests, we must ask ourselves, what is it to be successful?

Perhaps the true sign of success is the ability to free oneself from work to engage in the active process of what Aristotle called idleness, the effortfully investigation of life to ‘know oneself.’ What if we were to cease ‘work’ when it no longer was for necessity; perhaps it would increase the ability of others to secure work toward a similar vein and allow for an increasing collective to investigate those age-old questions of ‘who am I’ and ‘what is the meaning of life’.

Perhaps the post-50 sign of true success is living the Idle life.