David Cogswell | October 27, 2015 1:01 PM ET
Equal Time for the Play Ethic
With so much emphasis on The Work Ethic, it seems only fair that we pay some attention to its equal and opposite force: The Play Ethic.
In American it took a nearly inconceivable amount of labor to build an industrialized nation across a continent of wilderness. That kind of concentrated, almost frenzied effort underlies our modern American Work Ethic.
But there is little reason to believe that the kind of activity required to clear a wilderness is appropriate or even useful now in a country that is fully industrialized, and becoming increasingly concerned about its vanishing wilderness, the destruction of national treasures such as the Appalachian mountains and its diminishing supply of clean drinking water and breathable air.
In fact, there is evidence all around at this point that much of our industrial activity now is destroying not only the natural beauty of the environment we love so much, but breaking down the ecosystem and the natural infrastructure upon which our very survival depends.
Today we have automated and cybernated production to the extent that we have greatly reduced the amount of labor needed to sustain human life. The industrial capacity to feed, house and clothe everyone with a minimum of labor was reached a century ago. And we have greatly expanded our industrial efficiency since that time. Why then are Americans still working themselves dizzy and treating vacation time as though it is somehow a sinful indulgence?
Unbelievable as it seems, Bertrand Russell wrote as far back as 1932 that industrial capacity was already developed enough to take care of the world population with a minimum of labor per person.
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone,” wrote Russell in his essay In Praise of Idleness. “This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world.”
What Russell referred to is even more true today, both in regard to our industrial capacity and in regard to the amount of our productive capacity that is eaten up by warfare.
When it comes to the travel industry, the lines between the work ethic and play ethic become blurred. People in the travel industry work as hard and frenetically as anyone else, but the product they sell is based on play. So while they may have a vested interest in the Work Ethic, it is tangled up with their concern with The Play Ethic.
If people don’t believe in play, if they don’t take vacations, there will be no travel industry. So paradoxically, the success of the travel business depends on a healthy balance between work and play.
I think we greatly overestimate the value of work versus the value of play, even when we are talking strictly about productivity. It is well established historically that many, if not most of the great discoveries of history came to their discoverers not while they were working, but during their leisure moments.
For Darwin the big moment of insight that led to his formulation of the theory of natural selection came from reading books such as Thomas Malthus’ ”Essay on the Principle of Population,” which Darwin said he read “for amusement.” It was while reading Malthus that the idea for the key driver of evolution that he was looking for came to him in a flash.
We all know the story of Isaac Newton sitting under a tree, seeing an apple fall and suddenly experiencing the moment of insight that led to his formulation of the theory of gravity.
Einstein said that the idea for his world-shattering Theory of Relativity came to him as an intuitive flash, which he later confirmed by working through the necessary equations. He said, “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why.”
The history of discovery is made up almost entirely of such eureka moments, times when a flash of insight just came to the discoverer at a moment of the free play of thoughts. These moments of insight typically relate to a problem for which the discoverer has already invested a great deal of conscious thought and effort in preparation. But the actual flashes of discovery usually happen at a moment of leisure, a time when the thinker was “thinking aside,” not directing his or her thoughts toward the problem, but engaged in free thinking, free play.
So even though free play can never totally supplant industriousness in the progression of human civilization, its role in the process is essential. One could argue that it is every bit as essential as work. Without those eureka moments, all the consciously directed work would have been for nothing.
I often find that the answers to problems I’m dealing with come to me during moments of enforced idleness, such as when I’m in the shower.
So while play is vital to maintaining a healthy travel industry, it is also highly important to human discovery and human progress. Maintaining a healthy balance of work and play is essential to good health. And perhaps most importantly, it is fun. It feels good. What good is life if it is only work and no play?
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