Doing Nothing or Nothing Doing

Posted by jlubans on October 11, 2022


In this era of the Great Resigners and the Quiet Quitters we are encouraged to do nothing. Why?
Doing nothing, we are promised, could result in a much happier mindset.
One advocate advises: “Doing nothing can be a waste of time, or it can be an art form which improves your life, melts away the stress and makes you more productive when you actually do work”.
Examples abound of great minds wool-gathering and having eureka moments.
So, is doing nothing just a trick we play on ourselves to get a leg up, to get ahead?
Could be.
A colleague wrote me: “I like the idea of doing nothing, but am too aware of how that does turn into something. But perhaps that is a character flaw, always seeing/knowing the next thing to be done. … My doing nothing is known as a Free Day.
We all need to take a free day to enjoy more why we work so hard/diligently on our non-free days, and to give us energy to deal, make good on other days.
So you see, free days have a purpose, and are not nothing days, but are really disguised perhaps as a free day, but are still a something day.”
When I took part in Outward Bound wilderness adventures, I got to experience a truncated version of doing nothing, something called a “solo”. Essentially, you got to be alone in nature for several hours.
No phone, no smokes, and no food, only water.
Luckily, it was a sunny day.
The solo may well be a greater challenge than the other segments of the week-long adventure which includes climbing cliffs and navigating an open boat in a Maine fog.
I was told, some soloists sleep; apparently it's better to zone out than to confront one’s self.
One participant in a month-long OB class became legend during his three-day solo. Nightly he made a clandestine swim across a stretch of water between his small island and the larger, populated island of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay.
After a night of partying, he’d swim back to his solo shelter.
Was he that bored with himself or was he just as silly an ass as I was at that age?
Caption. Solo in Maine. Photo by Devin Shunk.

I did not sleep.
After settling - in dog-like circles - into my isolated 30 square feet of the pine forest with a few granite outcroppings, I started to pay attention to what was going on in the dirt - the detritus of the forest floor. Ants, as I recall, and other creatures were busy pulling and hauling. Nearby, swarming in a puddle of sparklingly clear water, were some tiny shrimp-like creatures. I gazed at them minutely like a Gulliver peering at a crowd of Lilliputians.
Time passed. It slowed down. I felt calm and refreshed.
Back at work, I tried replicating an abbreviated solo with a team during a corporate “day in the woods”.
Alas, it did not go well.
Maybe it was the two bow-hunters in camo who made their way past our camp just before we went off into the brush for our solos?
What was that twanging sound?
I use a children’s book (depicted) in my leadership workshops.
Two industrious boys, Frankie and Sal, are bored.
What's left to do?
Nothing! They challenge themselves to do ten seconds of nothing! Can they do it?
Be a stone statue? Not easy, as pigeons cluster on their heads and shoulders.
Be the Empire State Building? King Kong crawls to the top.
They soon conclude, since “we can never do nothing, let’s do something!”
In Lao Tzu’s book of sayings, The Way, the leader “leads” and the people exclaim, when all is done, “We did it ourselves!”
Isn’t that really the leader’s “doing nothing” which leads to something, something grander?
My book, Fables for Leaders is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

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